The Attention Economy: Conquering Minds

This is the first of a series of three posts that further examine subjects covered in the research report Discoverability: Toward a Common Frame of Reference. This article focuses on attention, a resource that is so coveted in the digital universe that it is at the heart of its economic system. 

[...] What was scarce in bygone days, content, is now abundant, while a new resource, consumer attention, has itself become scarce. The advent of mass media turned attention into a “new currency,” a phenomenon that could be monetized.

In 2004, Patrick LeLay, CEO of the French private sector television channel TF1, caused a stir by claiming that his company’s business model was simply selling human brain time to advertisers. What’s changed since then is the speed at which the proposal became increasingly complex.

Source: Discoverability: Toward a Common Frame of Reference

Things were still relatively simple when Patrick Le Lay stated that his company’s business model was based on selling available brain time to advertisers. Facebook had just been launched, Netflix was nothing more than a DVD rental service by mail, and YouTube’s first online video was still a year away.

However, the seeds of a major change to come had been sowed. Here and there, people were talking about the Internet boom, and revenues from Internet advertising had increased by 54% in Canada that year.

The sale of brain time was poised to become an extremely fragmented and complex business as well as an increasingly sophisticated research topic.

The market value of our brain’s work

It’s American economist and 1978 Nobel Prize in Economics recipient Herbert Simon who came up with the term “attention economy” to designate the phenomenon by which the rapid growth of information causes scarcity of attention.

Today more than ever, attention has value: attention is measured, it is capitalized, it is exchanged in a market with many ramifications, where competition is fierce and where [translation] “the function of mass media is to sow information to eventually harvest attention, which is in turn sold to advertisers,” to quote Yves Citton, who directed the collective work titled L’économie de l’attention : nouvel horizon du capitalisme.

This book deals with the form of “mental energy” that we know as attention from different angles (sociology, neuroscience, philosophy, ethics) and focuses particularly on the effects that digital technology has had on this phenomenon, which began somewhere in the 1920s following the invention of the world’s first instrument of mass persuasion, i.e., the radio. Among other things, we learn that neuroscientists have identified an attentional system in the human brain that filters what is important from what is not. We also learn that our choices are based less on freely determined actions than they are on quasi automatic detection processes that depend on our close to one hundred billion neurones. Advertisers very quickly learned to master these automatisms in an attempt to attract our attention.

However, these days, people are not only extremely solicited by all sorts of content and distractions, but also increasingly disinterested by advertising messages, particularly on traditional television.

Source: The Rising Cost of Consumer Attention: Why You Should Care, and What You Can Do about It

Most of us have come to master the art of changing stations during commercial breaks, skipping commercials with personal video recorders (PVRs) or focusing our attention elsewhere thanks to our mobile devices that we bring with us everywhere we go. Online, ad blockers are increasingly popular. Between September 2014 and March 2016, close to 5 million ad-blocking applicationswere downloaded in Europe and North America.

As a result, the cost of attention has increased considerably for advertisers. In parallel, the quality of this attention—an indicator that can be measured for example by the number of end-to-end views of an online video—is decreasing.

Solutions brought forward by advertisers, experts in conquering attention

Thales S. Teixeira, professor of marketing at Harvard Business School and attention economy specialist, proposes solutions to reduce these costs and revive audiences’ interest levels. For example, he recommends producing content that increases attention levels. It’s a recommendation that could be applied to any content in search of attention.

Resorting to an experiment that consists of measuring how entertained viewers are by advertisements, he arrives at the conclusion that the more a viewer is entertained by an ad, the more inclined he will be to view it until the end and purchase the product. (However, this is true up to a certain point; beyond a given level of entertainment, intent to purchase decreases.) In other words, entertainment sells.

He pushed this experiment further and correlated the results of personality tests with those of an analysis of emotions felt and the willingness of subjects to share the viewed content. Teixeira arrived at several conclusions: the emotions one experiences explain in part why one decides to share content. This particularly applies to joy and surprise. However, for content to be shared widely, the sharer’s personality plays a particularly important role.

Major sharers tend to be rather extroverted and centred on themselves, whereas the contents that are shared most often also have something in common: they personally benefit the sharers and enable them to acquire social capital by showcasing their personal values or to be seen as people with privileged access to interesting content.

So the goal of one’s advertising campaign is not the question of interest. What matters is the answer to the following question: What objectives would my consumers reach if they shared the advertisement?

Somewhat manipulative? Of course it is seeing as advertising has everything to do with finding the best tools to get our attention and convince us. Teixeira calls this approach “advertising symbiosis.” He explains that in ecology, symbiosis refers to the co-existence of two species that benefit from each other’s presence. This proposal based on the existence of mutual benefits should be taken into consideration by all content creators who are seeking to have their content go viral.

Is content king? That all depends on the attention it is given

The growth of organizations that are active in the attention economy depends on their capacity to harvest a free resource: our attention. That is how conventional television prospered in the 20th century: by attracting viewers’ attention in exchange of the opportunity to present advertising proposals to them.

In the digital world, harvesters no longer content themselves with tabulating the number of viewers and drawing up demographic profiles: social media such as Facebook have built a closed data capture space that enables them to fully exploit the value of their subscribers’ attention.

Twenty years ago, Bill Gates wrote: “Content is king. Content is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the Internet, just as it was in broadcasting.” Since then, the expression has been paraphrased and Gates’ argument has been repeated and challenged in all sorts of ways and contexts. However, the equation basically remains true: the real money comes from the same source, i.e., the attention we give to content.

Danielle Desjardins
Danielle Desjardins offers analysis, research and writing services for media and cultural enterprises through her company, La Fabrique de sens. Before that, she was director of planning for Radio-Canada, where she was responsible for strategic, corporate and regulatory matters for more than 20 years.
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