Briefly explained, the concept assumes that in our modern world — with its constant information overflow — human attention has become a scarce good. Since scarcity creates economic value, attention becomes valuable. Some even think that attention can be traded like commodities.
The conventional way to monetize attention is to sell advertising against it. Media companies publish content that grabs people’s attention, and they resell a part of that attention to advertisers. (Here’s a great article by Dharmesh Shah that explains the difference to what he calls the “wallet economy” where people pay you directly for a product).
Sounds simple enough. But the problem is that the theory doesn’t really explain the commercial nature of attention.
From the point of view of somebody who receives attention, there are two possible value components to it:
1) The intrinsic reputation value of attention, i.e. social status. Example: A programmer who contributes to an open source package doesn’t do this because he expects to make money, but in order to get a higher reputation with his peers.
2) The value of possible persuasion that needs attention as a starting point. An advertiser is not interested in your pure attention as such, he’s interested in selling you something. That’s only possible if he gets your attention first. But the real value is only created if the subsequent persuasion process is successful.
While the first component (reputation) might become more important in advanced societies where people already own most material goods that they could possibly want, the second component (persuasion) is the only one that can really be monetized.
The problem with the oversimplified view of attention is that attention is not uniform, particularly not if it’s supposed to be used for persuasion. You know this from real life: When you go to the mall on a Saturday, you are easily persuaded to buy more stuff. You are already in a buying mood, your attention is tuned to consumption. Not so if a telemarketing firm calls you in the evening during your favorite TV show. They will get your attention, but they won’t persuade you. You’ll probably hang up on them.
The same difference exists in the online world, and it is the reason why Google makes a ton of money, but social networks don’t.
Google probably makes most of its money from searches where people are actively looking for certain products or solutions to problems. The users are in a buying mood — think of the mall on a Saturday afternoon. A relevant ad delivered at this moment is highly effective, and a click is worth a lot of money, because it’s a great starting point for successful persuasion.
Just check a few AdWord prices, and you’ll see this immediately. A click on “Britney Spears” (high attention, consistently in the top 10 search terms every year) costs $0.30. A click on “life insurance” costs $15.80. The Britney-related ads actually receive twice as many clicks per day as the insurance ads, but they’re worth a fraction.
Why do smart advertisers who want to sell to a teen/tween audience not simply buy Britney Spears-related clicks (=attention) and then use the traffic to sell something else that appeals to this target demographic? Because it doesn’t work. If somebody clicks on a specific keyword, they are not in the mood to be persuaded to buy something completely different. Attention doesn’t equal persuasion potential.
Unfortunately, this is the fundamental challenge for advertising on social networks and many other Web 2.0 sites. You go to Facebook to catch up with friends or share stuff, not to be persuaded to buy something. Metaphorically speaking, you’re not in a mall, you’re at a dinner party. And somebody who’s trying to sell you something at a dinner party will likely not be invited next time.
Obviously, there’s an opportunity here. The trick is to catch users when they are in a buying mood or at least in an online environment that is tuned towards consumption. The ad industry is however very far away from really understanding this, because in traditional media, an eyeball is an eyeball.
But at some point, advertisers will start to understand that smart micro-targeting delivers far more relevant forms of attention than having a generic product page on Facebook or slapping an ad on MySpace’s homepage. The rule is clear: Follow the money. And the money is where people can be persuaded.
(Picture: hansol, CC license)