Attention Planning

My search for a different way to plan communications continues. Mainly because the current standards of planning are outdated against our hyperactive behaviours, and also, because the metrics we use to measure performance are false indicators of true effect.

I’m specifically talking about the attention deficit problem in marketing. There’s less consumer attention available and more competition trying to grab it. Once upon a time we were able to buy $1 worth of attention and get $1 worth of attention in return. Today, our $1 gets us about $0.50 in return. Each moment of attention gets diluted with digital multi-tasking or compressed into bite-sized tweets. We change the channel, jump to a new page, and refresh our Facebook feeds faster than we can read the headlines of the daily news. What once was a commodity available for bulk purchase is now an elusive asset that we cannot buy at fair value, or sometimes, buy at all.

Rebecca Lieb speaks profoundly about the attention economy issues we’re facing in 2011 in her column, “May I Have Your Attention, Please?” The funny thing is, it was written back in 2004! This was before the massive rise of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and all the other disruptive social media engines we use today. Furthermore, it’s been predicted since the early 90’s that the Internet would fragment consumers’ attention in a way that would blow up traditional communication planning and metrics. Yet why do we continue to plan communications against attention-distracted eyeballs? Why do we continue to buy media that’s worth $0.50 on the dollar? Or perhaps we should ask, why have we been so reluctant to adapt to a problem we’ve known about for 20 years?

The Effectiveness of Free

Seth Godin wrote a similarly titled (but slightly more assertive) column about attention economics called, “MAY I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE!” He raises the point that the attention economy is fascinating because most attention is actually given away for ‘free’, or rather, without a fixed price exchange. Attention is earned through a value exchange not tied to price but instead convenience, recommendation, and value.

Let’s say you’re the owner of Big Slice Pizza Shop in a simulated attention economy. Per customer, it costs you $1 to make each slice of pizza, $1 for rent, $1 for advertising, and you sell each slice at $5 each. Roughly you make a profit margin of $2 per slice. But you’ve noticed that five new competing pizza shops just opened up on your street…

What do you do to get more attention?

A. Spend $1 more in advertising per customer, and cut your profit margin to $1 to get a 10 percent customer increase. Against a baseline of 100 customers per day, this bumps up your net profits by $10.

B. Run a buy one get one free promotion, reducing your effective price to $2.50 per slice. Through word-of-mouth referrals of this great deal, you increase your customer visits by 50 percent and spend $0 additional advertising budget. Your profit margin is $0.50 per slice on the new customers. Against a baseline of 100 customers per day, this bumps up your net profits by $25.

In this scenario, the obvious winner is option B. But in most real life situations, businesses will choose option A. Why?

While every choice isn’t as black and white as the pizza example, in general, we find it easier to spend more to make more. Perhaps we learned as children that saying more naturally gets you more attention. We struggle with the concept of spending less to make more, even if it’s often times the more effective choice.

Free always feels risky because it’s perceived as bearing a cost with an unknown return. We prefer to buy attention to feel the security of guaranteed, albeit inefficient, returns.

A Game of Scarcity

Scientific studies have shown that our brains are chemically driven by two states of reward: seeking and satisfied.

Satisfied is the feeling you have after eating a delicious slice of pizza. You have everything you need in that moment and need nothing more.

Seeking is the feeling you have when constantly checking your phone for a new message. It’s a hyperactive craving for stimulus, and a mode that’s very difficult to turn off, like when a child is locked in a room with a marshmallow he’s not allowed to eat. (See video link.)

When trying to win attention online, we’re trying to reach a generation of unsatisfied seekers browsing the Internet for their next satisfaction pit stop. Marketers are getting good at creating entertaining content that serve as nibbles along the journey. But how can we get consumers to have sustained satisfying moments with our brands?

Less advertising? More free content? Better quality product? Enhanced experiences with friends? All good strategies for what is increasingly becoming a fierce battle ground for lasting attention.

Attention planning is a game of scarcity. And entertaining content is in surplus. The value of attention will inevitably rise when it can no longer be purchased effectively. Advertisers will not be able to ignore the cost benefit comparison between earning attention and buying attention. Market forces will either adjust the media model to sell fair-valued attention units, or advertisers will make a significant shift towards strategies that earn attention organically through social media.

I’m betting on social media. But only time will tell.

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