Storytelling for Short Attention Spans

girl creating digital ad story

In the digital age of fast-paced media consumption, Facebook reports, the average person scrolls through enough content to span the length of the Statue of Liberty, every day. A decent chunk of that information is quickly forgotten. So, with over 100 feet of content to sort through, how do you stand out?

Adding motion, bright colors, unique text treatments and other eye-catching visuals are all great ways to try to reel consumers in and engage with your campaign. However, there’s one constant in advertising that rises above beautiful design, and that’s storytelling. Storytelling is your bread and butter for advertising in the e-commerce world, and it’s no secret that it’s difficult to do when most consumers are not only looking at everyone else in the market, but also have shorter and shorter attention spans as the years of spending time on social media go by.

Storytelling in the Age of Social Media

Social media is a space where people tend to gather the most information in the shortest amount of time, and storytelling is how a majority of people prefer to consume that information.

Our brains are built for emotional responses, and humans base a significant portion of their decision-making on emotions alone. Tapping into those emotions through storytelling, even when told quickly, is an essential part of creating engaging and memorable campaigns and driving brand recognition.

Remember the beginning of Disney Pixar’s “Up” film? The entire first portion of the film, a sequence called “Married Life”, is a story within a story that gives the audience necessary background information on the main character and his motivations that unfold later in the film. That sequence, which shows the entire life of the character up to the point the main story begins, lasted barely ten minutes and yet nearly everyone in the theatre was reaching into their pockets for tissues by the end. It was only ten minutes long, a comparatively small amount of time for an entire film, and yet it gathered such an intense emotional response from viewers that it was all anyone could talk about for months after the film released (okay, years, because I’m still talking about it) and has become a milestone in the industry.

That sequence from “Up” might be useful to keep in mind when thinking of distilling an entire story down to fit a social media campaign. It was impactful in part because it included only the most necessary scenes, which gave viewers all of the context they needed to fill in the gaps themselves to complete the story without needing to be told. Another reason why it was so engaging was because of the relatable emotions it evoked, which is a wide gap that advertisers can struggle to cross with consumers.

Emotional Advertisements Retain Attention Spans

Some of the most memorable advertisements are emotional ones—“Thank You, Mom” by P&G—and during the holiday season, a time of year historically supercharged with emotions, it’s especially important to consider which emotions your campaigns can tap into. Holidays tend to bring around feelings of love, happiness, excitement, and maybe loss or loneliness. Think of the actions that people take when they’re feeling those emotions: How does your product relate to gift giving? Does your brand have a partnership with a charity organization? Or maybe your product simply helps people feel more connected and closer to each other? Whatever your campaign is centered around, consider crafting an emotional story to help drive better retention and engagement to make your brand the easy choice for consumers.

Understanding the 3-second Limit

Holidays aside, a general rule of thumb to use when designing a campaign for social media is to imagine every person who views your ad to have a timer attached to them, and that it has a 3-second limit on it before that person turns their attention elsewhere. This is the average time it takes a viewer to either get “hooked” and continue watching your ad or scroll past and move on with their day. With such a limited timeframe, it can be difficult to craft an entire campaign’s messaging into that small window.

There are quite a few strategies out there that can help address this. These strategies work well for any type of asset across social media platforms and can be formatted for animated assets so that they fit within the time limit of those specific channels. One tried and true storytelling strategy for social media is defined by Facebook Advertising as Story Arcs, and it includes methods that are segmented as Burst, Pulse, Retrograde, Shuffle and Recipe.

  • Burst: The big moment of your script. A closeup on someone’s face, an explosion, or anything that can be exaggerated to be visually impactful and front-loaded to grab people’s attention.
  • Pulse: This rewards viewers by using patterns that encourage people to wait for what happens on the next beat.
  • Retrograde: A story told backwards, essentially revealing the relevant and memorable information up front and expanding after.
  • Shuffle: Trailer before a trailer, which creates a montage of key moments within the first 3-6 seconds.
  • Recipe: Only the essential elements of the story, no fluff.

Depending on the goals of your campaign, these methods will work in varying degrees. Also think strategically about the types of assets you’re including in your social media campaign. If you’re having trouble getting consumers to stick around to watch your content or scroll through your carousel, test these methods to drive better engagement on social media for your next campaign.

Adjusting Storytelling for Your Brand

There is no one way that works for every brand or for every campaign, especially in the ever-fluctuating-world of digital marketing, however by making a “hook” in the first 3-seconds of viewing and crafting a story that taps into your viewers’ emotions, you can give your campaign the best chance for success. Not only are your consumers more engaged, but they’re more likely to remember your brand and come back for more.


Jesse Rae Chusid: Jesse Rae is an Associate Creative Director at Lamark Media with a focus in digital marketing for social media and a background in traditional fine art and illustration. In her free time, Jesse Rae enjoys painting and sketching, going on hikes and trying out new cooking recipes.