We spend more than 20 hours a week online, on average. That’s an increase of 100% in just over a decade. We also check our mobiles 221 times a day. Yet the attention span of a human is now apparently shorter than that of a goldfish – when we’re online, in any case. Since the year 2000, and the mobile revolution, researchers using electro-encephalograms have found that our attention span has fallen from 12 seconds to eight seconds (12% lower than the aforementioned goldfish).

We send Snapchat messages that self-destruct in one to 10 seconds, read and write 140-character texts on Twitter, send 6 billion emojis every day, watch videos on Instagram that last between three and 15 seconds, find predictive search results via Google Suggest in less than half a second and tweet Vines that last 6.5 seconds.

What we have here is a “paradox of time online”.

The outcome is that we now expect and demand instant answers. It’s what Google describes as “micro-moments”, when we ask our smartphones what to do, what to buy and where to go. From the advertiser’s perspective, analytics embedded in real-world networks and locations offer the power to meet demand precisely, relevantly and usefully, right in that micro-moment. It’s a win-win situation.

We all appreciate the great experiences and choice that interconnected tech brings. In fact, the expectation is that brands deliver joined-up, high-quality experiences that are personable and shareable. In addition, consumers want brands to be relevant and non-invasive, to have a clear wider purpose as well as something to sell.

It’s a high bar.

This is why media delivery is important. Brand messages need to be timely and simple, and extremely relevant. Having adapted to the 30-second TV spot and only very recently to multi-screen strategies, companies are now facing a three-second audition in an increasingly fragmented, multimedia landscape.

In this competitive new world – where a message’s fate is decided in the swipe of a news feed – brands need to figure out how to present themselves visually. Where we once relied on giant billboards, we now need to be agile enough to create Instagram-type images, Buzzfeed gifs, short-form text ads, embedded video, adaptive content – all delivered in the consumer’s app of choice.

A multi-dimensional world

Alongside our always-on, a-la-carte digital snacking is long-form, quality content. Think of TV series such as House of Cards and Game of Thrones: these are hugely popular and create experiences that translate into social currency. The same is true with advertising content. Provided that consumers gain a valuable experience and know upfront what they’re getting (as with Twitter publishing time lengths on videos), long-form doesn’t put people off. If anything, it adds depth and texture.

Driven by short-form ads, audiences are increasingly willing to engage with immersive experiences. Businesses should think about evolving their online behaviours in order to nurture long-term relationships and create more opportunities to engage, interact and share brand stories.

Established brands have been building expertise in this area for some time now, developing deeper relationships with consumers. This scaled, deep communication gives brands more meaning. And meaning translates into a role within the broader cultural context that gives brands a competitive advantage and ultimately leads to more value and superior returns over time. BrandZ’s global valuation of brands, using Millward Brown methodology, has recently published data that shows their portfolio of strong brands significantly outperforming the S&P 500 since 2006.

So digital micro-moments – tick. And paradoxically, deeper and longer engagements – tick. The opportunity that springs from this “paradox of time online” is greater brand presence and the ability to take users along on adaptive, multidimensional journeys. Through real-time bidding, programmatic media, creative optimization and geo-location, contemporary brands can stay relevant. Effective media will be synchronized for that precise micro-receptivity moment. A TV commercial or iBeacon signal, for example, will trigger a synchronized smartphone search leading to the desired audience outcome of an e-commerce purchase, an online sign-up, app download or simply richer and more extended brand content.

Balancing micro and meaning

So, what impact does this have on marketers’ ability to influence and sell?

Media is a science, yet it’s also an art. As the emergent short-term micro-messaging world dominates industry headlines and we focus on the delivery of automated systems that optimize messaging and context, it’s important that we keep one eye on longer-term work that has the power to create potent brand meaning.

As a media agency, Maxus has had to (re)invent approaches that allow us to effectively balance micro versus meaning to become symbiotic. The new paradox of time online is exciting, offering more syncing offline with online to have truly integrated media campaigns. As a small but crucial example, using video fingerprinting empowers brands to synchronize TV campaigns with online search and social activity. Moreover, sequential messaging within digital campaigns allows brands’ longer storylines to be disseminated in shorter formats and integrated across devices to different audiences. Those who will succeed in this market are adaptable, possess a deep understanding of changing consumer behaviours, and are able to capitalize on short-term and long-term results. It’s why we call our role for clients “leaning into change”.

What does it mean for brands? At its heart, this requires brands to be authentic, consistent and clearer than ever about their core purpose to be able to win attention in an instant, while also building relationships over time. Brands need to have clear and consistent values, as well as creative ideas that are flexible and easily delivered, without straining the overall integrity of the brand.

And finally, marketers will need to 1) be open to a braver, more joined-up approach in terms of developing ideas, 2) ensure their planning is informed by real-time media data as well as traditional market research, and finally 3) build pipelines of data that flow into the creative process, to enable richer, more purposeful and more accountable platforms.

Have you read?
Has social media made us better people?
Why the age of the marketing department is over
Can we use social influence to drive change?

Author: Lindsay Pattison, WW CEO Maxus

Image: Customers look at their iPhones inside the Apple store on 5th Avenue in the Manhattan borough of New York City, July 21, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Segar