How Much Time Do Digital Signage Displays Really Have With Viewers?

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Let’s face it – digital signage. with some exceptions, is a glance medium. What’s scheduled to screens has seconds to get noticed, absorbed or ignored.

But how many seconds? How long do we typically have for content to connect with consumers?

Well, not long at all. Almost all of us are so wired into the steady torrent of communications and content from smartphones and other communications that we don;t look very long at anything.

The Human Attention Span

Attention span refers to the amount of concentrated time people spend on something, anything.

Our attention span is affected by how we do things. A person that goes back and forth between different devices shortens his or her attention span, according to Ted Selker, an expert with MIT.

Microsoft’s consumer insights group pushed out a report in Spring 2015 that looked at attention spans, in the context of what that meant to marketing and advertising. It noted that research from 2000 suggested people will lock on something for 12 seconds. But by 2013 – in a world of smartphones, Twitter, Instagram and instant gratification, the number had dropped to eight seconds. Meanwhile, it argued, a goldfish is enchanted by something for about nine seconds.

These numbers can be found all over the place when you search online, but the problem is, there’s nothing that says where the numbers came from, if anywhere. They’re probably bullshit numbers that have taken on a life of their own, particularly the bit about goldfish.

So what do we know?

Well, in digital signage circles we know from video analytics (face pattern detection software) that cameras logging people who look and lock on screens do so for about 4 seconds, and 7 on the long side. A round-up of log files for one platform, across its many networks, showed the average attention span for a screen was less than four seconds.

That syncs up with what online analytics tell us.

We know 47% of consumers expect a web page to load in two seconds or less.

And we know that 40% of consumers will bounce off a website if it takes more than three seconds to load.

We’re horribly impatient.

We also glance, by nature. A 2005 outdoor advertising study commissioned by several Canadian media companies tracked viewing patterns for outdoor advertising as been seen if a study respondent looked for at least 200 milliseconds at any sign. In other words, a fraction of a second.

That Microsoft research looked at three forms of attention:

  • Sustained – Focused attention on one thing only
  • Selective – The ability to shift attention as needed when there are distractions
  • Alternating – This refers to multitasking

The study showed that the use of mobile devices is affecting the human brain’s ability to manage sustained attention. Most people use alternating attention when doing anything these days because they are always:

  • Checking in with social media
  • Reading emails
  • Going online

Marketing researchers in the UK tracked 200 people to see how much attention they paid to the things around them and how distracted they were by various mobile devices. They found that people tend to switch back and forth between different devices 21 times in one hour.

So that means 21 different attention disruptors that marketers must compete against with their message on a digital sign or elsewhere.

How Much Time Do You Have?

You don’t have eight seconds. At least not in a typical digital signage scenario.

A viewer needs time to read and interpret the message on the sign. You get from 1.5 to 3 seconds to grab the viewer’s attention and hold it. That gives a viewer enough time to read what the signs says before the eight seconds expires.

Motion can potentially interfere with the process, as well, because it takes 2 to 10 times longer for the brain to comprehend something that is moving. The critical parts of the message should be static.

A big problem in any digital signage layout is distraction. The more elements on the screen, the less chance the “money” message – the one that really needs to be noticed and remembered – will get missed.

A 2015 study published in Advance in Journalism and Communication looked closer at how the human brain responds to news crawl – the tickers that still find their way into many digital signage layouts. The study found news crawls and graphical cues directly related to the dominant message on the screen actually reinforced the overall message. But it found when the information on the news crawl was incompatible with the story, this extraneous content was a hindrance to remembering what was on the screen.

Factoring in Attention Span to Your Digital Sign

A digital signage display placed in a high traffic area needs to respect that potential viewers are not static, meaning the message needs to get across in just a few seconds, at best.

One rule of thumb in the design process is that the layout designer, who is familiar with the message, should be able to read it on-screen five times within the run-time of that spot. A proofreader should get through it at least three times.

Another good marketing rule of thumb is that you probably have less than three seconds to give a potential customer a reason to care about what you have to say, because people in public environments are constantly scanning (unless their noses are stuck in their smartphones).

The Microsoft study suggests marketers should think like good outdoor billboard designers, or clickbait web headline writers. We’re suckers for novelty, suggests Microsoft, “so we should try to hook consumers right off the bat with clear and concise messaging that’s communicated as early as possible. We don’t always have time to build a story, so craft headlines that can say it all.”

Get Them To Look By Keeping It Simple

Here’s the big message from Microsoft that really strikes a chord for me:

What consumers can see in one glance has everything to do with what they’ll do next. If overwhelmed by input or lack the motivation to process it, their brain will stop taking it in.

Exclude unnecessary information. Part of achieving clarity is eliminating distractors. Stick to the main message. If something doesn’t play a significant role, it’s not needed.

Sixteen:Nine editor Dave Haynes was asked recently on a webinar about good content practises how many zones was too many on a digital signage layout. Anything more than one, he said.

Again, you’ve got mere seconds.  Avoid visual clutter and get to the point. If you don’t, your viewer is gone.

Staff Writer

Staff Writer

Part of the extended team generating content for Sixteen:Nine