We are living in a maturing digital information age and its associated attention economy.
Much of that attention is fleeting, advertising and social media content designed to grab a few precious seconds of our time. At the same time the technology of digital information creation has been democratised, via devices that can capture and publish content with less craft and skill than was required just 15 years ago. As we seek to extend that attention through longer-form audiovisual content, what do we need to know about the nature of attention and what these types of media can and can’t achieve in terms of cognitive and emotional response from our audience?
Inform, educate, or entertain?
These were the founding values of the BBC, as laid down by John Reith in 1922. 100 years later, now that we are all individual broadcasters, how do we organise our content along the same principles? Much of the time it seems we don’t. Largely because our brains have been scrambled by the proliferation of choice. Hence, we get articles telling us about the “23 types of content marketing your business NEEDS TO KNOW ABOUT“. No wonder we’re all over the place!
Rather than wrestle with all the things we could do, let’s take a look at what we should do. Why produce long-form audiovisual content at all? Our brains are hardwired to use cognitive biases to help us overcome four problems:
- Too much information
- Not enough meaning
- The need to act swiftly
- Our inability to store large amounts of information
The proliferation of media in the digital age has amplified all these problems. It was simpler and slower when we just had TV, books and newspapers, not devices we permanently carry which fire 20 notifications at us per hour. Because we feel the competition for our content, it’s very tempting to shortcut careful curation and jam information, education and entertainment into the few minutes of someone’s time that we think we might get. We’re also greatly influenced by celebrity culture and shareability, leading to facile clickbait and context collapse (which I’ve written at length about before).
Which cognitive biases should we be utilising?
Here’s a very basic alignment of some of the behavioural science tools we use to influence the above cognitive problems.
For information overload
Repetition, Humour, Anchoring
Clustering, Attribution, Halo effect
For decision speed
Ambiguity effect, Hyperbolic discounting, Sunk cost fallacy
For easy memorability
Implicit associations, Peak-end effect
NB: I appreciate some of these terms may not be familiar, if you’d like more insight into them, just arrange a 1-1 chat with me and I can explain more detail! For now, let’s look at how they’re applied, it’ll make more sense!
How video works best for cognitive influence
Visual media help us understand complex information faster than the written word. Hence “a picture says a thousand words”. 24 pictures per second, overlaid with additional audio information are an even faster shortcut. So we love video for giving us “just enough information, and some meaning” in a concise fashion, in order to act fast. It’s therefore no surprise that TikTok has been such a phenomenon because it’s serving this purpose really effectively.
We like “rewards” that arrive fast, over ones that arrive slowly. This is known as hyperbolic discounting. It’s why we WANT to believe that we can get the same informational outcome from watching a 5 minute video, packed with information, than reading a book which might take us 3 weeks.
Remember that video requires a lot of attention to work effectively, both eyes and ears, trained on a screen with minimal distraction. This is one reason why cinema advertising is proven to be more effective than TV advertising, because you’re encouraged to put your phone away in the cinema!
FWIW I think where YouTube went wrong was making its algorithm promote content of 15+ mins in order to shoehorn more ad revenue opportunities per video. Content creators were told to pad their videos out to that sort of length and keep the great insights until the end for better monetisation. All that happened is they made content which was dreadfully dull for the first 50% of the runtime and people got bored of watching it! A bias called sunk cost fallacy will keep us watching for a while (we’ve started so we’d better finish) but if you push it too far, you trigger a lot of negative emotion.
So we can see that, with video, less is more! Keeping video content tightly scripted, with minimal waffle and taking advantage of various types of visual and audio information will trigger positive cognitive biases in your viewers.
How podcasting works on a different set of biases
Podcasting fulfils a very different type of need. As it’s predominantly about audio, we expect to have to take longer to process the information, we’re not looking for shortcuts. Having spoken to podcast creators who put their content out on both audio platforms like Spotify or Apple AND video platforms like YouTube, it’s no surprise to learn that the former works better. Because then we can we have better passive utility, we can listen in the gym, in the car, to longer-form content while doing other things that take up our visual processing for the amount of time it takes to consume the episode.
By their nature, podcasts are a form of social proof. You hear two or more people discuss subjects, get into the nuances and come to a consensus. It gives us powerful confidence in the conclusions we draw, which is why people often say that podcasts are the most inspirational form of content consumption.
Podcast hosts may not realise that they are powerful conduits of something called the halo effect. The affability, humour, and general vibe they give off is a powerful suggestion that we should believe they are of sound judgement and should adopt what they tell us.
What this means for podcasters is that paying attention to their style, delivery and rapport with their guests is absolutely crucial to us finding them persuasive. It’s what I look for in a podcast and when I find it, I’m hooked!
The final point about podcasts is truly fascinating. In his work on cognitive dissonance, Leon Festinger found that people are more easily persuaded about difficult things when they are distracted! Logically this seems totally backwards, surely we are convinced about something when we think it through carefully. Not so!
When we think logically, our rational mind fights the dissonance. When we are distracted and suggestions creep in almost unnoticed, we actually take them on board more readily! And THAT is why podcasting is such an effective form of marketing, not the luxury you might think. You just need to use it for its most effective purpose!