The Grey Blog

Attention 2.0
March 20, 2008, 3:32 pm
Filed under: Serious

Short version:

Demands on our attention are going up.
That might make us more shrewd with our attention in a variety of ways.
Brands should aim to give more value for attention, as people get more precious.

Long rambling version:

(This turned into a monster – no expertise here – read on for some unauthoritative ramblings.)

I read a few things recently, followed some links and then found out about attention economics.

It’s an old idea. There’s a quote on that Wikipedia page from 1971 when email spammers didn’t even exist. And nor did Viagra.

Anyway, I thought it was quite handy (if a bit obvious) to think in terms of and it seems to be gaining some momentum as demands on our attention increase:

It seems like we’re getting more attuned to the value of our attention. And I wonder if that means we’ll start to behave differently with it.

There are a few economic theories knocking around about attention as a currency to be owned and traded and Attent is one quite interesting (at least I thought) example of something in practice:

“Attent creates a synthetic economy with a currency (Serios) that enables users to attach value to an outgoing email to signal importance. It gives recipients the ability to prioritize messages and a reserve of currency that they can use to signal importance of their messages to others.”

Ok, it sounds like a big old ball-ache having to bid for people’s attention every time you want to send an email and you’d have to be a little bit autistic to do that in your personal life. But I don’t think that’s the point. Without using it, I can lazily imagine that thinking in Serios would make me highly aware of the demands I’m making on people’s attention and probably encourage me to be a bit more considerate with it.

I think the way it works in reality is a bit like an advance. We don’t have Serios, but people give their attention on the expectation of getting some kind of value in return. So if we’re going to start making more of our attention, we need to get better at predicting the returns. There are 4 biggish things I can think of now that might have an influence. What else?

  • Reputation of the source (better reputation = better chance of a return)
  • Having an inkling about what purpose our attention is going to be put to (a hint of something interesting / useful / relevant / beautiful / etc. = better chance of a return)
  • How much attention we’ll need to give (less attention = better chance of a return)
  • Novelty (more novel = better chance of a return)

If working this stuff out is going to get more important, then we’ll probably see services springing up to help us too. A bit like financial services for the attention economy. (I like the thought of an attention services sector full of businesses and funds helping us invest our attention, offering rates of return, competitive APRs…)


What will the semantic web throw up as open standards for reputation? Amazon have their Top 500 Reviewers. Technorati have their Authority measure. Google have PageRank and Yahoo! have social search (although they’re both a bit more hidden). Then there’s Digg. And a gold rush of new things in the offing.

There are probably too many different interpretations of reputation to have just one universal measure. But perhaps this will become a more important feature of browsers – something to indicate how trusted the source you’re viewing is. It’s happening with email toolbars. And email providers are introducing certified email too. But these are both more like filters than active measures of a source’s reputation.

Outside all this space age stuff (and in it too) there’s an obvious role for brands in building reputations. Consistently giving value for attention. Perhaps reputation can be got by association too – groups of companies endorsing each other. Brands borrowing and supporting the power of other brands.

Having an inkling

I can think of two ways to help here: transparent content – being very up front about what attention is going to be used for; and pre-vetted content – someone with a reputation we trust filtering and recommending things for us (like spam filters).

Something I’ve wondered about for a while is if we’ll see a return of the expert. There’s been a big shift towards user-generated content, people power, user as king… But there’s just so much stuff out there now begging for attention or waiting to be discovered that we need help navigating it. I guess the expert is like the financial advisor of the attention economy. They can tell us where it’s worth investing our attention.

Rather than going to YouTube, will we start going to our favourite YouTube channel to get a more edited view of things, for example?

There’s a chance for brands like the Radio Times to reinvent themselves here too I think. Not as listings (which time-shifting is killing the need for) but as content experts. Or attention advisors.

One problem with a lot of the current recommendation engines is that things get popular because they’re popular. Not necessarily because they’re good and people have been sending them to each other. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think experts could help here to surface things of real merit. And maybe bring back a bit more serendipity (I hope we don’t start dismissing out of hand things that don’t reach us through some sort of recommendation engine or expert channel).

On the transparency side, things like Snap Shots are helping us preview content (although it’s a bit annoying, isn’t it?). Penguin have just started making the first chapters of books available for free before you choose whether to read the whole hog. Porn has long served up ‘tasters’ to get people interested.

How much attention

I’ve noticed developing an almost ADD-style threshold on the length of articles that I’ll read (which this post would easily break by the way… sorry). Longer than that and I need to put it aside for later with a cup of tea.

Video formats are getting shorter too. YouTube clips vs 30-minute shows. As time-shifting breaks programming schedules, it’ll be interesting to see what length different types of shows bottom-out at. Maybe things like how long we’re sat at the bus-stop will come into play. But that’s a distraction…

There are quite a lot of examples of summary services (not sure if these fit in here or the inkling section above, but I think they’re entertaining in themselves): ‘Sweding’; 6-word reviews of SXSW MP3s; 4-word film reviews.

Brevity is good, but it doesn’t have to be short. I think it’s more about transparency and giving people a clear end – fewer open-ended demands on people’s attention. Progress bars, for example, on online forms and surveys are a proven effective way to encourage completion.

Advertisers are experts at getting the most out of short formats. But new media brings a temptation to get more long-winded, as well as a focus on engagement. I think it’s something just to be wary of – not focusing on the length of engagement at the expense of the things we do and impart with that time.

Novelty (last one!)

Novelty’s a good way to get attention. I’m not sure as people we can get much better at judging novelty. But I think brands can probably get better at giving it to us. Lots of news. Feeding conversations. New things to talk about. More variety rather than relentlessly trying to hammer home the Big Idea.

It’s not an excuse to just pile out a load of crap – it still has to be worthy of attention. But trying to keep up a constant stream of news and innovations was an effective approach we used to take with Skype.

Surprise could be another way to bring novelty.

And that’s it. Although I’m sure there’s plenty more I haven’t considered yet.

The End.

[Phew… Not sure what the point of all that was, but maybe it’ll help next time I have to think about using people’s attention (and how that’ll change in the future). More important than any of this though is making sure we give people value in exchange for their attention. If we’re producing great, useful, insightful, relevant… content, then we don’t need to worry so much. It should all sort itself out.]


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