Advertising in the Attention Economy

As we roll into a new decade, it’s worth taking a few moments to reflect on the past and to review what we’ve learned and how that knowledge will help guide us through our future. For those of us who have been staring at the blackboard of online advertising since its inception, we’ve seen an amazing evolution of technologies and methodologies (both good and not so much) that have driven us forward to where we are today.

One of the most important changes we have witnessed in the past 15 years has been the emergence of this billion channel media outlet we call the Web. Not only has this rapid expansion of online destinations forever changed the ways we get information, shop, and communicate with others, but it has created an advertising infrastructure that allows advertisers to move away from wasteful mass marketing practices toward more realistic target markets based on points of audience commonality.

The Web’s rise has also changed the way in which consumers interact with other media. On the Web, consumers can come and go as they please. There are few roadblocks requiring them to stop and pay attention to anything they don’t find personally relevant or don’t want to pay attention to. And because the Web is a largely interactive environment, these consumers are continuously making decisions about what they want to see and do next.

At the intersection of these two factors is the recognition that if you want to get the attention of today’s consumers, you not only have to be relevant, but interesting.

The attention of consumers has become a valuable commodity because of its scarcity. In essence, it has become the currency of the online world. Sure, you can call it share-of-voice or engagement, but it all boils down to the same thing — if you plan to capture and hold a consumer’s attention, you must ensure that you can compete with everything else vying for that consumer’s attention.

The rise of social media, for instance, has brought with it a huge explosion in the number of potential destinations online consumers can visit. Millions of blogs, fan pages, open source software titles, and consumer-generated videos have been developed in the past few years. Each one of these new destinations is vying for somebody’s attention. As advertisers we’re no longer just competing against other advertisers for the attention of these consumers. We’re competing against other consumers too. This means that more than ever we need to have the tools and understanding necessary to accurately target these audiences so that we end up having conversations with the right people about things that matter to them personally.

As business people, we have the tendency to think about what we do from a dollars-and-cents standpoint. We think in terms of ROI (define) and conversions, but many money-based measurements are secondary to the pure value of getting the attention of others.

For example, the average online blog or YouTube video wasn’t created with the intention of making money. Instead, individuals dedicate their time, energy, and, often, money in the hopes that what they’re creating will be seen and shared by others. Maybe it’s for ego, maybe it’s to be part of a community all working toward a common goal, or maybe it’s just for the fun and experience of it. It really doesn’t matter the motivation. What matters is the payoff. Did somebody read the blog, watch the video, or download the shareware? If they did, what did they think? Did they like it?

This column, for example, isn’t being written for money. I choose to spend my potentially valuable time working on this column every month so that I can share with you my perspective on this and other topics. Part of my “salary” comes from knowing that my message will resonate with some of you and may help you improve how you do your job. I also get “paid” though the feedback and comments this column generates. From an earning a living standpoint, my efforts may also spur somebody to read this and say, “This guy is brilliant! We need to hire him as a high-priced marketing consultant right away!”

To get you to read this column I needed to compete against all of the other things vying for your attention. Thanks, by the way, I’m glad we had this time. Now, I want you to start thinking about how you’re going to use what you just learned to change how you think about the ultimate goals of your campaigns. And what are you expecting to get in return for your efforts? Is it only about money or is it about getting the attention of the right people? I think, in the long run, you’ll find out that they’re pretty much the same thing.

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