Remember the political refrain “it’s the economy, stupid!” first uttered in the 90′s and probably more applicable today then it was then? Well, while we are all wringing our hands trying to survive the financial ills that have blanketed our land, there is another economy sapping up just as much of our energy as the monetary one. And I’m not talking about the Information Economy. By definition, economics is the study of how a society uses its scarce resources. And information is no longer scarce. To the contrary…it is not only abundant, but its cup is forever running over. The Internet took care of that!
What is more scarce today however than the world’s diminishing oil reserves… is man’s attention.
So in case nobody formally informed you, welcome to the Attention Economy, where value is based on drawing attention to oneself. To understand this better, let’s contrast the Attention Economy to that of other economy: the wallet economy. In the wallet economy, instead of competing for a share of people’s attention, you’re seeking a percentage of their disposable income. Capital One built a whole advertising campaign around the value of not only carrying hard currency, but the clout that comes from credit cards… hence, the “what’s in your wallet?” ad nauseum TV ads.
The term Attention Economy was invented by the first introduced by Michael Goldhaber, who wrote a remarkably prescient piece in December 1997 in which he described a new arrangement in which the “flow of attention” metaphorically replaced money as the currency of the Internet. A book on this topic has since been written by Thomas H. Davenport and John C. Beck, with some of the basic principles laid down by Goldhaber.
In the Attention Economy, your value is no longer determined by your net worth… but more importantly…by your NET worth. Since the Internet encompassed our lives, think about how inexpensive it is for an individual or a corporation to disseminate their message to the masses. The paradigm has shifted. All of sudden talk is cheap, and it’s listening that garners significant value. Man needs interaction to determine his or her self worth. And no fat wallet is going to make us feel better about ourselves unless it is coupled with a little ‘attention currency.’
If this is a hard concept to swallow, just think about a world where you receive no acknowledgment from your fellow man. As Goldhaber puts it: “Living without feedback, even in the lap of luxury, would be for all (but a few recluses) barely living at all.” And that statement was made over ten years ago when the Internet was barely coming out of its digital womb. So how much cheaper is it to get your word out today and why is it so much harder to be heard. Because of the information explosion online, we no longer read – we skim. The news that lasted days now becomes old news in just a few hours.
Attention Economics is primarily concerned in getting consumers to consume advertising. Traditional media advertisers retained a model that follows consumers through a linear process called AIDA – Attention, Interest, Desire and Action. Attention is therefore the primary first step in the process of converting non-consumers. Since the cost to channel advertising to consumers is now sufficiently low and more ads can be transmitted to a consumer than the consumer can process, our attention becomes the scarce commodity to be allocated.
When information is abundant, the false positives are very costly and basically deal breakers. Web-surfers happily leave web sites, knowing they have plenty of alternatives. Unfortunately, this becomes a lose-lose situation, because if potential customers are not satisfied then sellers lose revenue. The idea behind the Attention Economy is to create a marketplace where sellers make buyers happy by providing them with relevant information.
It is important to realize that the key ingredient in the attention game is relevancy. As long as consumers see relevant content, they are going to keep coming back – creating more opportunities for sellers to sell. Statistics show that the longer a user stays on a web site absorbing content, the greater the odds they will be swayed by one’s brand message or sale of product.
Twitter with its medieval-like armies of “followers and followed” is a fitting example of how the Attention Economy works. The value of one’s fiefdom on Twitter is based on how many followers we have and thus how many people read our words. In essence we grow our power base as digital feudal lords by winning the attention of a huge army of followers. In place of food and shelter provided in the days of feudalism, we exchange information for one’s loyalty.
To put this in perspective, think about how many articles have been written about the “monetization” of Twitter, and the reluctance of the Twitter brass to roll out a business model just yet. I believe one of the reasons for this hesitation is based on the current state of Twitter. Since attention is the valuable commodity Twitter can offer its users, its enrollment growth has exploded exponentially. And the fiefdom of the Twitterverse continues to be a marketplace for the attention-deprived to thrive and connect.
According to Goldhaber, “if money becomes less reliable or less useful to prop up our standard of living, we would could be heading fast for a pure Attention Economy, whereby goods and services would flow directly to those who have attention from those who can provide the goods and services.”
While all of this is very abstract, how does this work in the real world? Well
some companies have been hard at work trying to hit the mark. Goldhaber offers up Apple and Google as two role models that have captured our imagination for years. But lesser known is the Yamaha Corporation of America, Band & Orchestral Division that recently announced the launch of a new Facebook application called “Harmonize.” Here you have a platform that provides instrumentalists with the ability to connect with other artists worldwide in addition to presenting interactive advice from Yamaha artists, technique tips and performance opportunities.
Developed in a collaborative effort with R2Integrated, a leading creative digital marketing firm, CEO Matt Goddard noted that the goal of this application was predicated on “developing a tool that was not a time taker? The ability to share wisdom and tips with other artists quickly using the efficiency of the web was targeted as a time saver.”
So in an attention-deprived milieu, Harmonize was not trying to change behavior but rather provide another set of tools for an already existing behavior. According to Goddard, “our goals were long term. Not to try and create a one-and-done viral campaign, but for Harmonize to be the foundation for many customer related engagement activities, over the long-haul.”
Goddard believes, “the only way to overcome any distraction in our Attention Economy is to find the things that matter to your customers and get that piece right. Tools will come and go, mobile will soon take over and then something else. Getting people’s attention is going to be harder and harder over time.”
In a recent NY Magazine article,”In Defense of Distraction,” Sam Anderson notes that “Focus is a paradox¢â‚¬â€it has distraction built into it. The two are symbiotic; they’re the systole and diastole of consciousness. Attention comes from the Latin to stretch out or reach toward, distraction from to pull apart. We need both. In their extreme forms, focus and attention may even circle back around and bleed into one other.”
David Meyer, one of the world’s reigning experts on multitasking, says there’s a subset of Buddhists who believe that the most advanced monks become essentially world-class multi-taskers ¢â‚¬â€that all those years of meditation might actually speed up their mental processes enough to handle the kind of information overload the rest of us find crippling.
Anderson also underscored this point by noting that, “we recently elected the first-ever BlackBerry president, able to flit between sixteen national crises while focusing at a world-class level.”
According Goldhaber, Obama, in addition to managing the nation’s financial economy is also a master at managing the Attention Economy. “His whole campaign was strategic, where it netted him money, volunteers, and much loyalty. “There’s No One As Irish As Barack O’Bama” is a humorous folk song written in 2008 by the Corrigan Brothers. “The adulatory quality of this video, coming from Ireland, made Obama’s fan base seem that much larger, which also helped expand audience loyalty further, and win new fans for Obama domestically and internationally,” noted Goldhaber.
Similar to the Buddhist monks ability to multi-task, it appears that we are evolving as the Attention Economy matures. The next generation will have an easier time adapting to the ebb and flow of this phenomenon. Our kids will be able to juggle multi-levels of challenges while also conducting mindful web-surfing, dedicated Twittering and perhaps as Anderson sees it, the ability to live in syn ch with a world that offers a “zen-like state of focused distraction.”
Well, if you’ve made it to the end of this article, I give you props for providing me your undivided attention. Now if I can impose on you for comments and feedback, I promise I will give it my utmost attention as well. Also I welcome you to follow me on Twitter, where I run my own little fiefdom of presently 3334 followers!