May I Have Your Attention, Please?

The currency of the media business is attention.
So where are we spending it?


The currency of the media business is attention. Those who have it have been granted your permission to speak to you, entertain you, inspire you, inform you or just plain piss you off. Each time we make a choice to play a game, read some email, scroll through a feed, snack on a video or swipe left or right, we are making or breaking the future of a media company. As a VC, I have to make bets on where the world is going. So, in order to evaluate media-oriented companies, I follow the attention.

Over the past ten years, thanks to the rise of social networks and smartphones, there has been a meaningful shift of attention away from legacy media properties like the nightly TV news, print newspapers and magazines, and onto consumer internet platforms like Facebook and YouTube. This shift has been particularly dramatic among teens and millennials. I believe the media habits of digital natives are predictive of what the future holds for most of us. Growing up with a supercomputer in your pocket connected to most of the world’s population and knowledge has created an irreversible pattern of behavior unlikely to revert to the ways of previous generations. Let’s take a look at some of the numbers.

The chart above shows the growth of mobile devices and the decline of print and radio. Television, even when the numbers include DVR time-shifted and on-demand viewing, has fallen back down to its 2008 levels. Since there are only twenty-four hours in a day, it is helpful to look at this on a share basis.

But this data is for all age groups. Let’s take a closer look at millennial attention.

So, no surprise that millennials use mobile devices more and watch less TV. You can see in the chart below that traditional TV viewing is declining for most age groups, but for people under age 24 it has completely fallen off a cliff. The idea that this behavior will reverse itself as digital natives age sounds like wishful thinking at best.

Attention Apocalypse

With mobile completely eating our attention, what do we do while on these devices? How do we divide our attention?

First, we spend 86% of mobile time in-app. The idea that the mobile web is a credible channel through which to reach consumers is largely disproven at this point. We spend a third of our time on gaming and another third of our time on social networks and messaging apps. This helps explain Facebook’s aggressive M&A strategy around properties like Instagram and WhatsApp and also helps explain Google’s weakened position as a result of our shift to mobile. Without YouTube and Google Maps, one might argue their properties are of decreasing relevance.

Concentrating on social and messaging has allowed Facebook to completely dominate mobile. In fact, nine out of the top 10 apps globally last year were social apps or messaging platforms.

The killer-app of the mobile generation is the platform for self-expression and communication. Given this, it is baffling that none of the traditional media companies have invested in, built or acquired any of the hundreds of global properties which have hoovered our attention away from their legacy properties. In fact, the audience sizes being drawn to these new platforms are massively dwarfing audience sizes of traditional media properties. You wouldn’t know that from reading the “media” sections of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, who still produce thousands of stories discussing the rise and fall of cable TV programs and chronicling the comings and goings of journalists from one print property to another. Yet they comfortably ignore YouTube celebrities, Viners and Twitch broadcasters with much larger audiences. Hola Soy German, for example, has a larger audience than the NBA Finals and the World Series, but has barely been mentioned once in the NYT. Neither have ever mentioned Nightblue3 who has more than 100M views on Twitch.

To help put this into perspective, I put the following chart together, comparing the relative audience sizes of traditional media, online media and social platforms. Note that I cropped the largest eight so you can see the relative size of the tail. The red bars indicate social properties where the content is largely provided by the community, or in my parlance, platforms for self-expression and communication.

Social and mobile have fundamentally altered attention. Platforms for self-expression and communication are the largest and most important media companies of the millennial age, dominating share of attention and engagement for young people. And the behavior of the young is predictive of the future. Facebook, YouTube, Twitch, Tumblr, Snapchat, Reddit, WhatsApp, Instagram, Vine and YouNow were all catalyzed by teen use first, and later spread to older age groups. If you want to know which companies to bet on, just follow the attention.


David Pakman is a VC at Venrock, investing in pioneering early stage internet companies like Dollar Shave Club and YouNow. He is the former CEO of eMusic, co-founder of music locker pioneer MyPlay, and co-creator of Apple’s Music Group. Sources for this data: Alexa, eMarketer, Nielsen, Temkin Group, Statista, SNL Kagan, Experian, BLS.gov, MarketingCharts, Forrester, CrowdTap, Ipsos, Inmobi, Deloitte, Veronis Suhler, comScore, IAB, Flurry Analytics, AppAnnie, NetMarketShare and Simmons National Consumer Studies. Special thanks to Nurzhas Makishev for compiling and triangulating the data.