The Attention Economy

Respect is the next big thing in marketing…

Ever walked through Times Square? From every visible square inch, marketing messages scream, doing anything possible to grab your attention for even a precious few seconds. And they continue to evolve.

Legions of advertising folk spend every waking hour looking for the next new thing to grab and hold your attention in some new way. Digital billboards, augmented reality store window displays, geofenced coupon offers sent directly to your mobile phone based on past behavior; just a few examples of developments from the past few years. Billions, soon trillions, of dollars spent with one simple aim: grab and hold your attention long enough to imprint their message onto your consciousness.

But what is attention, really, and how does it relate to consciousness and the advertising marketplace? More importantly, I contend we each need to take responsibility for, and greater care with, our personal attention. The hottest commodity of the 21st century is in fact our attention.

The nature of consciousness remains one of the few totally unknown frontiers in modern science. Great advances are being made in neuropsychology, thanks to fMRI and the ability to actually visualize which parts of the brain react to which types of stimuli. But the fact remains, we have no idea what consciousness actually is, nor how (or why) it manifests within the human existence.

Somehow the combination of blood, body and brain call forth a unique individual experience known as consciousness, and it’s what makes each of us unique. It manifests who we are, experiencing and perceiving the world around us. The culmination and combination of our sensory intake and cognitive processing. Pretty much everything we take in through touch, and the holes in our face, is the fuel for the engine of our consciousness. And just like any engine, the fuel you use will affect its performance.

So if our consciousness is what makes us singular and unique human beings — literally our selves — and sensory input is what drives that core element of how we experience the world, I contend we must be more judicious with what we allow into our senses, and therefore our minds.

A more cohesive term for sensory input could be “attention” — defined literally as “notice taken.” Attention equates to the focused direction of any one (or more) of our senses toward a particular input, or set of inputs, and it works within limited bounds. Like a spotlight, it can only be focused on a small area of space at any one time. It’s finite, and fleeting, but can of course leave lasting impacts.

Most times, we choose to apply this attention spotlight toward specific inputs (e.g. a book, a concert, a lecture, etc.). But in far too many situations our attention is forcefully taken from us. Ads are engineered and constructed to do exactly that, grab your attention at any cost. With the landscape already oversaturated with promotional messaging, one of advertising’s most difficult challenges is how do you grab the attention of someone who is constantly accosted with messaging from every angle?

In a capitalist society, everything runs on capital, money. And the money comes from consumers, us. This of course means that we are the lifeblood of American business. The common thinking is that they succeed or fail based on how well they can convince us that their product is a necessity vs. a simple desire. In fact, over the past 50 years or so, the advertising industry has worked a magical formula that has us all largely unaware of the difference between these two things.

Desire = need in our modern culture. You don’t just want those new Nikes, you need them. This is the invisible foundation that marketing and advertising has carefully constructed to support their industry. Genius, really, dating back to Edward Bernays, the “Father of Public Relations.” The fact that he was the nephew of Sigmund Freud only further illuminates the carefully crafted psychological underpinnings of marketing, PR and advertising in general. This is a science, mostly invisible and unknown to the masses, yet it’s directing and often dictating our views and opinions on everything from food to clothing, cars to politics.

In TV and radio, advertisers are paying the networks to hijack the attention they’ve grabbed via programming (often “free” yet we’re still forced to watch ads in programming we pay for, i.e. cable/satellite TV, movies in the theatre, etc., but that’s a whole other story). Similarly, online they’re paying to hijack the attention (aka eyeballs) grabbed via web content. Either way, the point is that our attention is being bought and sold without any benefit to us, the owners of said attention. Beyond that, attention is finite and precious — If we’re paying (note that term: paying, which we are) our attention to any one thing, that precludes us from using that attention elsewhere.

This focused attention, the food for our consciousness, is arguably our most precious personal resource. Yet somehow we are not in control of, nor benefitting from, these transactions based around our personal resource. But just like everything else in the 21st century world of the internet, this model is ripe for disruption.

So grabbing our attention, and imprinting paid messages, is vital to the advertising industry, but is it really vital to the success of our capitalist society? Is there another way? I contend that the coming wave of smart marketing is much more personal, relevant, respectful, and most importantly honest.

Let’s take Facebook as an example. They just made over $5 billion last year on ad revenue alone. $5 billion generated by selling our attention to whomever would pay the highest rate. Do we get some kind of benefit or kickback on this sale — a commission, maybe? Nope, just access to the website and its service. Now I’m not saying that Facebook should not be profitable. Nor am I saying that the service they provide is without value. All I’m proposing is a more respectful, open and honest marketplace, one in which we are actively agreeing to what types of messages we are willing to spend our attention on, and therefore accept into our consciousness.

Alternatively, if I chose not to accept any marketing messages, then maybe I would “pay” in the traditional way, with a membership or subscription fee. More simply, there are transactions happening, and the currency is our attention, traded in exchange for cash money, and tons of it.

Full disclosure, I’ve been in advertising for almost two decades, as a copywriter and producer, working with some of the biggest brands around. I’ve been in the belly of the beast, so to speak, for my entire career which spans from pre-internet through present day. With this in mind, I can confidently report that the future of marketing is honest and direct. It’s respectful and equitable. We’ll exchange the commodity of our attention for some beneficial result to ourselves personally. We’ll enter into these exchanges willingly and consciously.

If I like BMW’s, they should know it, and they should make it worth my while to remain brand-loyal. Instead of a scattershot shotgun approach to messaging, just spraying it everywhere and hoping to hit a willing target, a sniper rifle is the weapon of the future. A better analogy would be a banner ad vs. IM conversation — one is anonymous, annoying, and minimally effective, the other is personal, direct, and honest.

Find your fan base, stoke it with incentives and superior customer service, and they will spread the word. It is well known and proven that a referral — a recommendation from a trusted resource (e.g. friend, family member, etc.) — delivers a potential new customer that is most likely to convert to a sale, therefore becoming another member of the brand’s fan base. Beyond that, who knows better than your trusted advisors when you’re looking to make a purchase and/or change brand loyalty due to a negative experience?

Imagine the scattershot-approach funds are redirected toward nurturing and growing the existing fan base. Picture cash incentives, discounts, freebies in exchange for referrals. This is already happening in the online space with great success. The cost of distribution for the messaging drops to virtually zero when delivered via social media. All the savings from typical distribution (TV, magazines, billboards, etc.) can provide large budgets for incentivizing and inspiring wider and deeper loyalty for your brand.

I’ll conclude here with a few humble suggestions…

To my brethren, the consumers:

1. Recognize the value that your conscious attention holds, for you personally, and for those who seek to acquire it.

2. They say we’re confronted with over 3,000(!) marketing messages per day. Take notice, and practice actively diverting or redirecting your attention whenever you realize it’s being misspent.

3. Consciously protect and guide your attention toward whom and what is most important to you.

To my clients, the advertisers:

1. Consider the possibility that your current approach within the half-century-old advertising model is broken.

2. Recognize that you’ve been compensating the wrong people, and getting a far lower return than what is now possible with new technology.

3. Evolve! Come with us, join our ranks in creating the future of more direct, honest and — most importantly — effective marketing and messaging.

There is a huge amount of common ground that we as consumers share with the brands that provide us with the products and services that make our lives better. Let’s work together to create the new commercial ecosystem that takes us from the outdated predatory approach to one that is more symbiotic, wherein everyone’s investment (us: attention, them: dollars) garners a generous return.

What do you think? Agree/disagree? Engage with me on Twitter @writerrubin and keep the conversation going with #attentioneconomy.