For Millennials, Byte-Sized Is Best

One of the common observations (complaints) about Millennials is that they lack the ability to sustain attention.

Jonah Lehrer, author of ‘How We Decide’, wrote in Wired magazine of his concern about reading becoming so easy that we lose the ability to concentrate on what is meant.

An recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal (“How to Get Boys to Read“) blamed the dumbing down of children’s literature to suit the shorter attention spans of boys, a phenomenon they called ‘grossology’.

“There certainly is no shortage of publishers ready to meet boys where they are. Scholastic has profitably catered to the gross-out market for years with its “Goosebumps” and “Captain Underpants” series. Its latest bestsellers are the “Butt Books,” a series that began with “The Day My Butt Went Psycho.The more venerable houses are just as willing to aim low. Penguin, which once used the slogan, “the library of every educated person,” has its own “Gross Out” line for boys, including such new classics as “Sir Fartsalot Hunts the Booger.

I think these fears are misplaced. What we see as ‘short attention spans’ may actually be a functional adaptation to information-saturation. Gen Y absorbs more information faster than the rest of us, and that gives them an edge.

(As if to confirm this conclusion, my 16-year old son wrote “IRRELEVANT” on the WSJ article when I placed it strategically for him to see on the kitchen counter. I’m not sure if he read it or just reacted to the headline, but either way it supports the point!)

Millennials Do Read!  A Lot.

Contrary to common perceptions, Millennials do read.  According to the New York Times, 15-24 year olds spend on average 50 minutes a day reading and ‘pursuing other interests’. This is much higher than 25-64 year olds who spend just 32 minutes.  A UK McKinsey study reported last spring that the average person consumed 72 minutes of news a day, up from just 60 minutes in 2006. What’s more, the increase was driven almost entirely by people under the age of 35.

A Generation of Scanners

Millennials read with purpose, efficiently filtering and searching for what’s relevant. It’s fair to say this is the Google generation.  In his book, Grown Up Digital, Don Tapscott maintains their scanning skills are highly developed:

… The Net Gen brain may be able to execute certain perceptual tasks more rapidly, and may maintain more items in working memory.  In order to deal with all that incoming information you have to be a great scanner. Digital immersion has given the Net Generation the visual skills that make them superior scanners. They’ve learned to develop the filters they need to sort out what’s important from what’s not.”

Later in the book, Tapscott describes Joe O’Shea, a 22-year old student leader from Florida State on his way to study at Oxford. O’Shea had this to say about his reading:

“I don’t read books per se, I go to Google and I can absorb relevant information quickly. Some of this comes from books. But sitting down and going through a book from cover to cover doesn’t make sense. It’s not a good use of my time as I can get all the information I need faster through the web. You need to know how to do it — to be a skilled hunter.”

Writing and Art Directing for A Millennial Audience Requires Adjustments

Millennials want catchy headlines, condensed bytes of information and text that is formatted for easy scanning.  They want content short, condensed and artfully presented with colorful graphics, bold type and simple headings.  And they want condensed content.

1. Focus on What’s Important

I just finished reviewing a book by Gen Y author, Sam Davidson, “Fifty Things You don’t Need in Your Life”. The content was great, but what most impressed me was how economical it was. The book leads off with a list of the fifty things and a short introduction. It is immediately followed by fifty 2-3 page ‘chapters’. Voila. Here’s what our Gen Y ‘Super Consumer’ community members have to say on the topic of relevant content.

Anne Mahoney: I will read long blog posts only if they are acutely focused on a topic I’m interested in, or I know the source and expect value through reading the whole thing. Otherwise, skimming titles, first paragraphs, bolded text and links are how I whip through them. I honestly think Twitter has conditioned this behavior. By reading hundreds of short headline-type messages a day, my patience has dropped for staying on one topic too long – unless it really catches my attention and is 1) useful or 2) enrapturing.

McKenzie Lawton: You want everything fully explained and comprehensive, depending on what you’re talking about. In my RSS feedthe first thing I do is read the title, and see how much it interests me. If I don’t care, then I just keep going.

Josh Opinion: I will be the first one to admit I don’t have the patience to follow and be absorbed by someone’s thought process unless I have already have an affinity or connection to them. The one type of blog posts that really intrigue me are minimalist in nature where it is right to the point and induce you to talk and think. (ala Seth Godin)

2. Keep It Short

As they suggest above, Millennials will read a long article, but they prefer a short one (don’t we all?). Here what community members have to say about length.

Rob Lisenko: I can only speak for myself that I lack the patience for long blog posts, with a possible exception to a handful I already have buy-in for the author. I suppose this concept applies to broader concepts of reaching audiences.

Baillie Buchanan: I follow and read a LOT of blogs both for personal interests, as well as for keeping up with business topics. I find that this often ends up with me having an overwhelming number of posts to read. I would say that I skim titles and the first few sentences and from there decide whether I’ll move on or continue reading.

3. Appearance Matters

Whereas people my age are attuned to the words, visuals and layout really matter to younger readers. A quick comparison of my blog to that of Millennials like Sasha Halima or Chanelle Schneider shows they don’t mind what I would call ‘clutter’, as long as it’s well organized on the page, colorful and picture rich.

We first observed this emphasis on visuals in our work with Vogue. We compared the responses of those under 25 to those 30 and older to the same magazine pages. The older readers were more likely to read the editorial and comment on the content. Younger readers were more attuned to details of layout, font, color and overall impact. If a page is not well designed, Millennials have a hard time getting past the way it looks. Here’s what our Gen Y ‘Super Consumer’ Community members say about format:

Mariam Shahab: I don’t read long blog posts that look daunting. When the content is broken up with images, videos, bullet points, bolded font or other visual breaks, I am more likely to read the post.

Joshua Opinion: I get more engaged when it is visually easier to read. Where though patterns are clearly broken and my eyes aren’t to consumed on a lengthy paragraph.

4. Easy Navigation

A recent research study used Eye Motion II technology to observe 46 people for one eye as they read real news sites and multi-media content. The findings were fairly expected but worth reviewing. People read from the upper left to the lower right so the important things should be in the corner. Headline size should not contrast too much with the body, and blurbs are important, although can sometimes replace reading the entire paragraph. The study is too long to summarize here but worth reading.

Note: Our private Gen Y “Super Consumer” market research community continues to grow. If you are a Gen Y marketing professional or student or a brand marketer who wishes to connect with them, please give me a shout.