October 21, 2020

Examining audience attention spans for new content

At Diesel Labs, continuously scanning for and rapidly integrating new content into our data science models are key parts of our Content Analytics engine. As they say, ‘content is king,’ and audiences have more choice and flexibility than ever before in what to consume and how to consume it. But with so much fresh content available, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to acquire and maintain audiences’ attention.

This led us to wonder: What’s the attention span for content, and how is it changing over time?

We analyzed audience engagement in the two weeks surrounding new content releases for the 2018 and 2019 TV seasons. Breaking this down by distribution channel and by genre, we noticed that the timeline for post-launch engagement, what we’ve dubbed the “interest horizon,” is getting shorter almost across the board. We’ve already seen that overall engagement volume is down year-over-year, and analyzing the rate at which engagement is cooling off after a premiere indicates that interest isn’t as sustained as it used to be.

Shorter interest horizons are the most apparent with linear content. It took seven days for the majority of post-launch engagement to occur for 2018 broadcast series premieres, but dropped to just three days in the 2019 season. Cable fared even worse, with an interest horizon five days shorter in 2019 than 2018. Netflix appears to be the only distribution channel that maintained similar interest horizons in both seasons. Netflix’s strategy of releasing all episodes at once breaks the traditional weekly format exhibited by linear programming, so we’d expect shorter periods of sustained engagement as a result of bingeable content drops. However, the data show that not only is Netflix continuing to grow overall volumes of engagement, but also that its interest horizons are stable.

When looking at the data by genre, we saw that the most popular genres, drama and comedy, could be contributing to sustained interest declines. While smaller niche genres, such as science fiction and action and adventure, had the same (or longer) interest horizons as the previous year, the more prolific genres had shorter ones, dragging the overall sustained interest down. All of this adds up to a bigger, strategic question facing content producers and distributors: Go for big audiences and a shorter burst of attention, or cater to a smaller niche audience for longer exposure?

Key Takeaways:

  • Earned media in the form of social engagement remains a valuable driver of interest and viewership of content. Some of the most memorable content this year benefited greatly from an earned media boost, such as Tiger King, Black is King, or more recently, Emily in Paris.
  • The interest horizon (the amount of time audiences engage with content after release) is generally getting shorter and the volume of engagement is decreasing. One hypothesis is that the sheer volume of new content is playing a role in diverting audiences’ attention.
  • Exceptions to this trend are Netflix and niche genres. Whereas there is less competing content to divert attention in niche genres, Netflix manages to maintain consistent interest horizons while constantly releasing new content.
  • There’s likely something to be learned from movie marketing that could be applied to TV content in a cluttered landscape. Just like with movies, many streaming services assess performance over the few first weeks, suggesting that marketing through those critical weeks with a solid earned media strategy (versus marketing only up to launch) is something we’re going to see a lot more of in the near future.