Saturday, February 4, 2012

Attention is not Free: Lessons from YouTube

How important is getting your audience's attention? Very. This post provides evidence using YouTube data.

In 2008, I attended a research workshop on institutional analysis put on by the Ronald Coase Institute. At the workshop, one exercise stuck with me more than most. Essentially, can you grab your reader's attention in the first 15 words? Time is scarce, and if you cannot immediately get your reader to care, they're going to move on to the next abstract.

Before the conference, we were asked to submit an abstract of our research project. To drive the point home, the workshop provided us with a list of our own abstracts truncated at 15 words. In 15 words, most abstracts couldn't communicate what the paper was about. Some did better than others (we voted on winners!), but all could have used dramatic improvement. The lesson: To set your paper and ideas apart, make the first 15 words count.

Why did I think of this today? For mostly recreational purposes, I have been pouring over data from my YouTube channel. As part of their Analytics feature, YouTube gives content providers a graphical summary of the fraction of viewers who are still watching at any given point in the video. Here's the performance of my most watched video (Marginal Rate of Substitution and Marginal Utility):


At first blush, this looks pretty abysmal, but it reflects the natural attention pattern of people on YouTube. How do I know? YouTube provides a relative audience retention view to help creators see how their videos stack up compared with videos of the same length. Here's how my most watched video stacks up to the typical video:


That's average. Until YouTube came out with their absolute measure of video retention (just recently), I thought average retention meant people were paying more attention.

Now, the graph is a little hard to read precise statistics. Fortunately, YouTube made the graphic interactive. If you hover over a particular point, it tells the point in the video as well as what fraction of the initial audience is still watching.

After 16 seconds of the video, 27 percent of viewers had left. What had I said in those 16 seconds? Here's the transcript:
In the last video, I explained how and where and why you would want to ever draw indifference curves. In this video, I want to give a little more detail about indifference curves and how to work with them. Specifica.... [cut!]
As an abstract, that's pretty bad. In retrospect, I would have rather said:
Want to learn more about marginal rate of substitution and how it relates to marginal utility? In this video, I show how the two concepts relate using some simple graphical intuition. Come along. It's time to learn.
That might have been better phrasing to keep viewers watching. That this intro had average viewer retention is a useful reminder that attention isn't free. This lesson applies much more broadly than keeping YouTube viewers interested.

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