The Changing Attention Economy

It has become apparent that we are fast approaching an era of information overload. Things have started to get very fast. The speed of information over the past hundred or so years has moved from the pace of a messenger on horseback carrying a letter from town to town, to that of an email – an electron zooming through fibre optic cabling at near the speed of light. And the receptors and points of distribution for this information – smartphones, digital outdoor, connected TVs – have multiplied and burrowed themselves deep into the urban landscape around us, permeating every facet of our lives. Flow and consumption once lived in a state of equilibrium, harmonising with our inner pace, but it seems we have now reached a state of imbalance. Information moves faster, but our capacity for processing it barely waivers.

The accelerative effect of the Social web on the flow of content and data becomes apparent when you take a step back and watch your Twitter feed re-stack itself with an everlasting roll of idle snippets and egregious musings, occasionally punctuated with something of meaning and relevance. We find ourselves in state where we are curating the story of lives just for the benefit of followers, circles and avatar friends. The attention that at one point was devoted and engaged becomes torn and fragmented across the multitude of platforms and channels.

For a long time we bought people’s attention, we used insightful little tools to work out where and how they consumed things and then went into those spaces and shouted about our benefits and relevance to them. Then Social came along, and all of a sudden shouting wasn’t enough, we had to earn their attention. But with the Social came the ability to amplify ad infinitum – to like, to retweet, to republish in set of conditions where space is boundless and reach and scale can be gained with relative ease – we are now only 2.5 connections apart from anyone in the world, apparently. Like a sponge, the accelerations soaked up that pool of attention that we used to freely dip into when we saw fit.

So, we now move to a state where attention becomes the desired commodity. It becomes a scarcity, and as by basic principles of economics, scarcity creates value, and thus attention becomes the luxury item whose value has grown exponentially over the years of Digital Social expansion, and the item whose importance remains un-waivered and central to the success of our business.

What are the implications for us in the new attention scare economy? Just plastering banners all over websites doesn’t deliver the same impact and cut through as previous. Really we need to place a new value on the time spent with brand. I think the below might a good starting point:

1. The Fair Exchange – The parameters of the deal we had with consumers have shifted, it’s not enough to say the advertising makes the content affordable in a system whereby consumers are now content creators. For example, Facebook provide the platform, but we provide the content, yet they draw unfathomably large profits from selling ad space next to something their pen did not ink. There is a need to embrace models that pay back the consumer directly. In New York they are about to start trialling cash machines give the user the option to waiver the banking charge in return for watching an ad. GamesthatGive uses the same mechanic, but rewards those who watch with a charitable donation.

2. Slow down – The fluvial torrent of status updates and tweets needs to be curtailed and governed by a greater understanding of the emotional state of the consumer – when and where can we be relevant and meaningful, when do I apply the frequency cap. Trickle is a great example of how information can be reduced to a drip feed, it simply takes your Twitter stream and display each Tweet one by one in a large font.(It’s also a great example of how a dormant screen can be used to capture secondary attention)

3. Unplug – We will see an increasing number of people creating their own “Digital Downtime” and simply disconnecting from net activities. The pace information is grossly out of sync with our ability to consume it, switching off will become the tool we use to readdress the balance. There will likely be a forthcoming of slew of simpler media that nurtures this desire, Michael Hazanavicius’ The Artist is good example of how layers can be stripped away to create a more elemental experience.

This shift away from constant connectivity forces us to place a new value on reaching the consumer that demands greater understanding, relevance, creativity and meaning. Much like Web 2.0, when the ability to become a publisher became open to all, the new attention economy has shifted the paradigm yet again, further empowering the consumer. As Marshall McLuhan once said, “When things come at you very fast, naturally you lose touch with yourself” and in this new world, we are becoming very close to losing ourselves.


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