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The point of the research, in part, is to help advertisers understand how to craft marketing communications in a changing media environment. It’s important that ads adjust for digital consumers’ front-loaded attention spans.John-francis Bourke

Canadians' digital lifestyles are changing our attention spans. But it is not necessarily bad news for advertisers.

That's according to a new report from Microsoft Canada, which included an online survey of more than 2,000 Canadians, as well as an observation of more than 100 study participants doing tasks while their brainwaves were measured using electroencephalography (EEG). The larger survey group was also asked to perform game-like tasks that measure different types of attention, such as looking for patterns in a series, or spotting differences in a set of images.

The research found that more digitally savvy consumers have high bursts of intense attention at the beginning of a task, but that attention falls over time. By contrast, less frequent digital users tend to have lower bursts of attention out of the gate, but increased attention over a sustained period of time.

However, researchers caution that this does not necessarily mean that digitally connected people don't register information mentally: When observed while connected to EEG, that group showed high instances of brain signals associated with encoding information to memory, even though they have lower attention spans over all.

And shortened attention spans are not just a phenomenon among younger people; people who are highly digitally engaged, no matter the age, showed similar results.

The point of the research, in part, is to help advertisers understand how to craft marketing communications in a changing media environment. It's important that ads adjust for digital Canadians' front-loaded attention spans, which drop off quickly, said Alyson Gausby, consumer insights lead at Microsoft Canada.

"We need to be more clear and concise with messaging as early as possible – almost crafting headlines," Ms. Gausby said, suggesting that marketers take their cues from billboards, which have always had to compete to be noticed in environments with plenty of stimuli.

The research also looked at how people behave in multiscreen environments, such as the common habit of picking up a smartphone during a lag in entertainment. It showed that people are becoming effective at multitasking, and paying attention to more than one thing at a time.

"They were on their phones, and … they were reacting to what was happening on the TV even when they weren't watching it," Ms. Gausby said. "They were still laughing at the jokes, or when there were auditory cues, such as a tense moment, they would all look up. … It's great news for marketers that multiscreening doesn't reduce the potential impact of marketing."

Canadians' digital behaviours

When nothing is occupying my attention, the first thing I do is reach for my phone

65+: 10% agree

18 to 24 y.o.: 77% agree

I check my phone at least every 30 minutes

65+: 6%

18-24: 52%

The last thing I do before I go to bed is check my phone

65+: 18%

18-24: 73%

I often use other devices while watching TV

65+: 42%

18-24: 79%

I watch more TV programs through catch-up/streamed TV than live

65+: 13%

18-24: 74%

I often watch a number of episodes of a show back-to-back

65+: 43%

18-24: 87%

How changing attention spans affect people at work/school

Really have to concentrate hard to stay focused on tasks at work/school

All: 44%

Highest among:

Early tech adopters: 68%

Heavy social-media users: 67%

18- to 24-year-olds: 67%

Heavy multiscreeners: 57%

High-volume media consumers: 55%

Get sidetracked from what they're doing at work/school by unrelated thoughts or daydreams

All: 45%

Highest among:

Early tech adopters: 66%

Heavy social-media users: 65%

18- to 24-year-olds: 61%

Heavy multiscreeners: 60%

High-volume media consumers: 55%

Don't make the best use of their time so sometimes they have to work late/weekends

All: 37%

Highest among:

18- to 24-year-olds: 71%

Early tech adopters: 62%

Heavy social-media users: 62%

Heavy multiscreeners: 51%

High-volume media consumers: 48%

Source: Microsoft attention spans online survey, Spring 2015, 2,000 Canadian respondents

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