I wrote about this topic a bit on Entrepreneur.com, but have expanded the topic much further here.

Ad formats are getting shorter and shorter (:06’s and :15’s) and countless studies are showing consumers don’t want to engage with ads.

However, it isn’t the result of people having short attention spans – its shitty ads.

There’s an overwhelming amount of hype and headlines communicating that the next generation of consumers has the attention span of a goldfish.

Millennials only have a 5-second attention span for ads (CNBC)

Decreasing Attention Spans and Your Social Media Strategy (AdWeek)

Engaging Consumers In The Era Of The Eight-Second Attention Span (MediaPost)

Young Consumers Switch Media 27 Times An Hour (AdAge)

Personally, I find these headlines, and the associated gripes from marketers to ring hollow. That marketers and advertisers are using this faux technological ADD as a scapegoat for why their advertising is consistently underperforming.

Just because advertisers gripe about consumers being difficult to reach or to spend more than a few seconds with ads doesn’t make it so. I think it’s a cop out.

I’d argue people are more willing than ever to engage with content for extended periods and time and that we’re even seeing a resurgence in long form content across mediums. There’s plenty of information to reinforce this perspective.

Ooyala recently reported that long form video content consumption is up 30 percent from last year and we’re seeing social platforms adapt to incorporate long form content. For example, Instagram just launched IGTV which allows for 60 minute video uploads. Contrast this with Vine, the 6 second only platform, which died after failing to adapt when all the other social platforms expanded to incorporate longer form content.

Also, the most popular influencers post long form content. For example the most subscribed YouTuber, PewDiePie, regularly posts videos 20-minute-long videos to a community of millions of fans.

The most downloaded podcasts are all long – each of the top 3 podcasts are usually over 45 minutes long. Joe Rogan, frequently the most downloaded podcast blends comedy, politics, and philosophy for two to three hours at a stretch. The #1 Twitch Streamer, Ninja, regularly streams for 6 hours at a time, generating as many as had 600,000+ concurrent viewers.

Despite consumers regularly opting into content for extended periods of time, brands are struggling – consumers are avoiding ads as much as possible.

Ad blockers have become mainstream and according to some studies 75% of North Americans use at least one form of regular ad blocking and about 10 percent block ads across four or more types media channels. Furthermore, 90 percent of people skip pre-roll ads appearing ahead of online video content and 82% of people report that they have closed a web page because of an autoplaying video ad. Meanwhile the vast majority of young people are scrolling past their Facebook feed fast they’re seeing less than two seconds of most ads. This trend has advertisers seriously worried and for good reason.

The marketing model has changed, but a lot of brands haven’t changed with it. Alison Lewis, chief marketing officer of J&J’s consumer business, said that for decades, the company would create two 30-second TV spots, two billboard ads and five print ads every year. That is “not how the world works today.”

Look no further than the shaving category to see how advertisers have been caught off guard – just ten years ago, Gillette dominated the razor blade market. Their ads were comfortable, predictable 30-second units that reminded everyone of something they already knew: you need razor blades on the regular, so you might as well buy Gillette.

The market had to reorganize itself with the appearance of Dollar Shave Club (along with Harry’s Razors). Dollar Shave Club’s distinctly off-the-wall messaging, heavy use of social media, and direct to consumer sales won major viral attention. The notorious startup used quirky 90-second ads to spread its word online, presenting itself as un-ignorable by comparison to the competition. Even though we live in a time when people can skip ads, block ads, and avoid ads.

While Dollar Shave Club hasn’t killed Gillette’s Goliath it sure made Goliath sweat.That’s the power of a brand that knows how to market to consumers.

According to one study 83% of people agree with the statement that “Not all ads are bad, but I want to filter out the really obnoxious ones.”177% agree with the statement “I wish there were a way to ad-filter instead of ad-block completely.”

I’ve seen in our own campaigns (at Epic Signal) that consumers are willing to engage if the content is relevant to them. We’ve seen 10-15 minute long pieces of branded content generate 75% completion rates.

In our most recent campaign with Boost Mobile, we integrated digital influencers into the above the line campaign and paid social and as a result were able to reduce their previous cost per acquisition by 50%.

With some of the work we did with Starbucks Doubleshot we saw thousands of consumers engage with positive sentiment saying things like ‘thanks’ for the content, that it was ‘inspiring’. We’ve generated hundreds of millions of earned media views, and generated engagement rates more than 10X that of most branded/advertising content.

So, while people don’t watch (most ads), its clear that it is not the case for everyone and it certainly is not because we’ve all got some goldfish sized attention spans or have ADD.

Shitty ads are keeping consumers away.

Most Fortune 500 brands haven’t had the same success as us, at Epic Signal, or Dollar Shave Club and haven’t adapted to the times. Marc Pritchard, CMO of P & G was quoted as saying:

“We stopped wasting money on 30-second ads, and we’re designing ads to work in 2 seconds,” and that, “this raises a deeper question. Looking at it through the lens of the consumer, how valuable are these ads? For example, people use social media to share things about their lives with each other. And let’s face it, ads are annoying in that context. Bottom line, it is time for marketers and tech companies to solve the problem of annoying ads and make the ad experience better for consumers.”

So what, does it take to be successful and get people to engage with your content for more than two seconds and solve the problem of annoying ads?

I see the solve as a three phased approach for each brand:

  • Listening
  • Relevancy
  • Optimization

The consumers are already out there. They’re discussing what they love about the brand, they’re interests, who they follow – they’re likes, dislikes, etc. Marketers need to social listening tools and get granular with their consumers and understand them deeply. If you can’t develop a clear picture of who they are, you’re going to lose – because as the old marketing saying goes if you market to everyone you market to no one.

After listening to your audience, you can create custom content for them.

Produce something that speaks to specific audience verticals, interests, and passions –you want to be specific and targeted in your approach – the beauty of social media is how granular and targeted you can be. Creative does not need to be one size fits all anymore. For example If you’re Levi’s you can push your campaign to a rock and roll crowd, hipsters, fashionistas, men, women, parents… the list goes on. So why not create custom creative for each of these subverticals? When overlaying specific creative with targeted ads you’re message becomes exponentially more impactful.

Oftentimes, a great hack to know you’re creating relevant creative is to collaborate with digital influencers with built-in followings that overlap with your target.

Lastly – the great thing about digital advertising is you get feedback instantly. Take advantage of this.

You can launch a campaign then iterate to make it better over time. Simple tweaks of copy, or imagery, or alternative edits can make the difference between a mediocre campaign with wasted media spend and a truly great campaign.

None of this stuff is rocket science. However, most large brands have massive agencies working on their business that aren’t willing to adapt to the times and most brands aren’t able to work outside those relationships, and/or don’t know what to ask for to get the results they need.

Until brands and agencies can learn to be more efficient and adapt to the new landscape – and really embrace integration of media and creative, optimizing for performance, and influencer marketing they simply will not improve.