The effects of content ephemerality on information processing

Barnea, Uri; Meyer, Robert J.; Nave, Gideon

Many marketing communications, from verbal conversations to messaging and content sharing via apps such as Snapchat, limit the number of times people can view content. How do such restrictions affect consumers’ information processing? Building on the proposition that people strategically allocate cognitive resources, we hypothesize that consumers of content that cannot be viewed repeatedly consider the risk of failing to process it sufficiently, and consequently allocate more cognitive resources to its processing (e.g., by increasing viewing time). We test this hypothesis in ten pre-registered online studies (total N = 17,620), an exploratory analysis of eye tracking data, and a field study on Facebook’s advertising platform. Across the studies, we find that making content ephemeral elevates consumers’ perceived risk of missing information; consequently, it increases attention allocation, prolongs voluntary viewing time, and magnifies focus on relevant information. These effects have important downstream consequences, including improved content comprehension and recall, enhanced positive attitudes, and increased efficiency of sponsored content placement on social media. Taken together, our findings indicate that marketers can communicate information more effectively by restricting consumers from viewing it again.