May I Have Your Attention, Please?

Attention’s a funny thing. It’s finite yet not measured. It has value, yet there’s no formula for assigning a price to it. And as any marketer will tell you, its value is rising precipitously as increased options slice units of attention into smaller, more elusive, yet still unmeasurable quantities.

The concept of attention economics was raised well before the bubble years. Academic papers and conferences on the topic surfaced in the early ’90s. Then came a handful of books. Consultancies such as Accenture and Ernst & Young packaged attention management as a product offering. That the Internet was further fragmenting consumers’ already-divided attention became semiofficial when Esther Dyson wrote an essay on the attention economy for The New York Times.

Now that the Internet’s “back” (not that my Internet ever went missing) and bigger and faster than ever, the attention economy is suddenly getting more, well, attention.

Attention economics has especially captured marketers’ attention because marketers are increasingly desperate to capture consumer attention.

“Attention was viewed as a commodity, like pork bellies,” observed Ted McConnell at AD:TECH Chicago earlier this week. McConnell creates breakthrough in customer and consumer marketing for Procter & Gamble. He was referring to media spaces where the consumer is in control.

“Well, it’s not a commodity any more. You can’t buy it in bulk,” he said. “As consumers get control, there’s a mapping between that lack of commodification.”

As an example of just how fragmented attention has become in a universe of hundreds of thousands of media options, brands, and products, McConnell told me the overlap between one of P&G’s largest brand Web sites, with several million subscribers, and the ACNielsen Homescan consumer panel is “exactly 12 consumers.” He continued, “How will we measure attention or its results when fragmentation across geography, channels, content, and niche interests thwarts the statistical basis to justify ad spend? Clearly we need new measures.”

McConnell, whose company spends a staggering $4 billion annually advertising its products, argues media inventory shouldn’t be measured by minutes, but by attention. Media, he says, should be valued by its ability to deliver “the right kind of attention.”

“The interactive industry’s let itself down,” he said. “What can we deliver that other industries can’t? A granularity of the quality of attention that’s measurable but not for sale. What do you call the attention of people who like blue trucks? Since we can’t place a rational economic value on that, we are shortchanging ourselves.”

P&G went so far as to found marketing unit Tremor to find a way to capture the attention of the 16 million Millennials (born between 1979 and 1994). Of kids 12-17 years old, 90 percent have access to broadband, according to Jupiter Research (a Jupitermedia Corp. division). David Ernst, Initiative’s executive VP and director of futures and technologies, describes this group has having “continuous partial attention.” Lest you think teen attention is singularly priceless, consider other demos, such as working moms.

Attention deficit isn’t just broadsiding broadcast TV advertising. It accounts, at least in part, for an attack on another TV revenue stream. A small but growing group of consumers, backed by Sen. John McCain, have told Congress they don’t want to continue paying for TV they don’t watch. Cable companies’ bundled channel model is the target of their ire. Since 1996, cable bills are up 56 percent, nearly three times higher than the rise of the consumer price index. The average cable subscriber watches only 17 channels, but bundles have four times that number, according to a Consumers Union report.

Ironically, cable’s value may be shifting to its potential to deliver the Web to consumers. A California wife and mother yesterday told NYT her family would foreswear TV before they’d give up broadband. She described the dream house they thought to buy: “Everything about it was perfect. It had a great layout, and five acres. Everything.”

But when they found out no broadband service was available in the neighborhood, they decided not to buy. “It was like saying there was no electricity,” she said.

Bruce Feirstein pointed out recently in The New York Observer, “Since March, John Kerry has spent over $60 million on television advertising — yet a recent poll by The New York Times and CBS found that almost 40 percent of Americans still can’t rate the candidate.”

Micromedia, meanwhile, are the advertising growth leaders. P&G yesterday awarded its $4 billion media account to Starcom MediaVest and Carat. It’ll be interesting to see how that money is carved up between media — and if the level of spending holds. Is $4 billion sustainable if P&G migrates from macro- to micromedia; search keywords, for example?

Wall Street firm Sanford C. Bernstein recently predicted that by 2010, marketers will narrowcast. Media spend, in order of preference, will be cable, the Internet, and then network TV and magazines.

McConnell believes that prediction is based more on things remaining as is than on the changes he sees coming. “We haven’t really seen the sea change in shielding [themselves from advertising] on the Internet. Privacy is a huge issue and getting bigger all the time. People pay cash money to shield themselves from advertisers. The shields will evolve. It could be that you’re going to see some flattening on the Internet.”

Well, yes. Then, there’s TiVo, too.

What to do until you can measure attention? “When you see interest, respond with your absolutely best shot. And add value,” McConnell urges.

Meet Rebecca at ClickZ’s upcoming AdForum and at Search Engine Strategies.

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