The attention economy commodifies human engagement, but it’s difficult to monetise

Instead of cash, many modern consumers are using their attention to show brands appreciation and loyalty. However, it’s an immaterial metric that is difficult to monetise

The concept of the attention economy was coined by Herbert A Simon, who argued that the increasingly information-rich age in which we live has created an overwhelming catalogue of data that humans cannot process

Brands don’t want your dollars anymore – they want your eyeballs. The ominously named concept of ‘eyeball marketing’, where a business’ value is derived from the amount of attention it garners, rather than its revenue, has become the modus operandi for today’s digitally focused brands. These companies are eschewing the notion that paying customers are loyal customers, and are instead looking to less tangible metrics.

Loyalty is the ultimate attention filter as it prevents consumers from even looking for other information, products or services

This move away from real currency has proved problematic, particularly for digital media companies with complex business models and no physical product revenue to rely on. As online advertising dollars are increasingly captured by social media sites, the so-called ‘attention economy’ has left firms with all eyes on their platforms, but no cash in the bank.

New rules
The concept of the attention economy was coined by Herbert A Simon in a 1971 essay titled Designing Organisations for an Information-Rich World. In the essay, Simon argued that the increasingly information-rich age in which we live has created an overwhelming catalogue of data that humans simply cannot process or absorb.

Attention, then, is used as a differentiating factor in the consumption of this information; a tool to prioritise what is deemed interesting, relevant or important.
In a commercial context, the theory is predicated on an understanding that consumers devote their attention to brands that appeal to them the most. According to Paul Armstrong, founder of technology consultancy HERE/FORTH, “eyeballs and clicks” have become a new currency – except, rather than consumers spending money with a brand, they’re spending time. This mark of success is far more immaterial and challenging to measure.

Metrics such as bounce rates, clicks and time spent viewing a page are used as measures of consumer attention, but the true value of these figures is questionable. While brands that sell physical products may be able to identify a clear correlation between attention and sales, for platforms that disseminate their content freely, the attention economy creates a far more challenging environment.

Attention seekers
Digital news sites are particularly vulnerable in the attention economy. Their entire business model is based upon building a greater readership, none of which pays for what it is reading. These platforms have traditionally relied on advertising to support them, but it has become increasingly clear in recent months that this is not enough to sustain many businesses within the sector.

This was proven earlier this year when more than 2,000 employees at publishers including Vice Media, HuffPost and BuzzFeed News were made redundant in the space of several weeks. Around 9.5 percent of HuffPost’s workforce was laid off in late January after its parent company, Verizon Media, slashed the value of two recent acquisitions by $4.6bn, admitting competition for digital advertising was leading to shortfalls in revenue and profit. BuzzFeed, meanwhile, cut 220 jobs in a bid to boost profitability, following pressure from its venture capital backers.

The redundancies are symptomatic of shifts in the attention economy, where once-safe digital advertising has been upended by tech giants like Facebook and Google, and companies are now struggling to find new sources of revenue. “Digital publishers are being beaten at all turns by big players,” Armstrong told The New Economy. “Few seem to be proactively looking for new models and it’s this lack of innovation that’s really hurting their businesses.”

The rise of the internet has also created an economy where products – in this case, the news – cost virtually nothing to reproduce, meaning suppliers face issues in adding value. Newness and findability are not enough to sustain a business model, so publishers must find ways to position themselves as a trusted source or produce personalised content to capture the attention and loyalty of their customers.

“Loyalty has never been harder to achieve thanks to the choice available and the transient nature of brands,” said Armstrong. Yet, it’s vital for brands to achieve this if they are to survive in the attention economy. Loyalty is the ultimate attention filter as it prevents consumers from even looking for other information, products or services. Some have hit the nail on the head: exclusive clothing brand Supreme, for example, creates loyalty through scarce product availability and a strong online presence, generating a “cultural phenomenon and legions of obsessive fans”, said Armstrong. Others, such as short-form video-hosting service Vine, have seen their customers running for the door in favour of more relevant or exciting options.

Innovate to survive
The only way to beat the metrics is to “focus on core strengths – remind people why they come to that brand and what that brand stands for”, Armstrong told The New Economy. But establishing a loyal audience is only the first step – the real challenge is monetising the attention of that audience.

Digital advertising alone is not sufficient, so some brands have opted to put up paywalls, meaning readers must pay a fee before they can access certain products or content, which serves to lock in attention to that brand. It’s proved a successful strategy for some – for example, The New York Times’ 2.5 million digital subscribers accounted for almost two thirds of its $417m revenue in Q3 2018. However, there is a caveat, explained Armstrong: “Paywalls depend on an existing audience and strong traffic. If you have the former, go forth and test whether it will pay for content. But, if you just have traffic, feel free to test a paywall, but be warned that it’s unlikely to become a huge source of revenue if interest is transitory.”

Others have established systems where users enter their personal information to access content, such as inputting an email address to download a report. Brands can use this information in future email marketing, increasing their consumer database and the likelihood of future sales. Similarly, though, “selling data relies on a core understanding of who your audience is and what they are willing to accept [in terms of subsequent marketing],” said Armstrong. “Too often data is abused, or brands apply too-broad strokes”, which has a detrimental effect on loyalty.

The fundamental issue with the attention economy, though, is that attention as a metric is valourised entirely by brands. “Attention is a currency in so much that brands like it and want more of it,” said Armstrong. “The average consumer doesn’t think about giving their attention to a brand’s content.” If consumers aren’t making a conscious decision about where they direct their attention, brands must undertake a significant amount of guesswork to establish how to influence them.

“Attention is a fool’s errand as a [key performance indicator],” said Armstrong. Rather than obsessing over the amount of time consumers spend viewing their content, brands should focus on creating pioneering products and experiences that have inherent value and are relevant to their target audience; those will ultimately draw long-lasting attention. Placing too much importance on where consumers spend their attention locks content creators into a never-ending feedback loop and slows innovation to a drip. As Armstrong concluded: “The best brand strategies are agile and show willingness to try new things, without necessarily being sure of the [return on investment].”