Save the Customer Attention Ecosystem

Seventy percent of marketing executives have difficulty capturing customers’ attention, according to a 2001 Accenture research report. The same study found 80 percent of a target audience could be reached with one 30-second off-peak TV spot in the early ’80s. Twenty years later, at the beginning of the 21st century, reaching that same audience required 200 to 300 primetime spots.

It’s getting worse every day. TiVo and other personal video recorders (PVRs) ensure reaching people via TV will become virtually impossible, regardless of the number of ads. Recent legislation says you can’t call ’em. Soon you won’t be able to send unsolicited email, either. There’s even talk you may not even be able to send a letter in the mail one of day soon, unless you have prior consent.

How can companies find new customers if their best venues for reaching people are closing? H. Robert Wientzen, president and CEO of the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) recently expressed a common perception and concern of the direct marketing industry. He was asked, while on a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) anti-spam panel in Washington, D.C., if the DMA supported unsolicited commercial email. His response, “There would be no way to have solicited email if there wasn’t some way to approach these people.”

The logic is infallible, but business-as-usual won’t address the core problem facing the marketing and advertising industry.

Advertisers are being told in no uncertain terms their unsolicited interruptions are unwanted — in all media. The industry is going through an upheaval, ramifications are enormous, and the real pain hasn’t yet been felt. As many as 2 million people, one third of the telemarketing workforce, may loose their jobs. Traditional TV ad spending will be reduced by billions of dollars. Huge fines and penalties could be levied on marketers who send unsolicited email (spam) or interrupt those who said they don’t want calls “during dinner.”

People are fed up. They’re overloaded with information. Their time and attention is being wasted, with little benefit befalling them. Think of it this way: Customer attention is a finite resource. Every time someone attempts to attract a prospective customer’s attention by subjecting an unsolicited marketing message, the attention resource pool is depleted. The total pool of all customer attention is like an ecosystem. Place too heavy a load on the system, and it begins to break down.

Fortunately, customer attention is a renewable resource. The problem is the customer-attention resource is in a state of constant depletion as a result of excessive exploitation. Nobody knows how many marketing and advertising messages this ecosystem can sustain. One thing’s certain: Every customer’s attention in this ecosystem is saturated to such a degree people no longer respond the way they used to.

How do we ensure a sustainable customer-attention ecosystem? Realize we’re operating in a world where the attention resource is not abundant. Continued unchecked exploitation won’t serve anyone well. It won’t serve individuals, and it won’t serve commerce. What if we viewed gaining customer attention in the same light as policy makers look at air pollution?

The Clean Air Act of 1990 gives certain polluters the right to trade pollution credits. When a company reduces the level of noxious gas vapors it spews into the atmosphere, it gets a credit it can sell to another company that emits pollution. The system works. Free-market economics have proven a useful way to reduce pollution.

I’m not advocating a system in which the government allocates “advertising credits.” Rather, the interesting point of comparison is economists realize when a resource is free (such as the air we breathe), the wrong mix of goods and services is produced.

Unsolicited ads are like pollution. Our attention is a scarce resource they use for free. Yet ads only pollute if we don’t like them. A relevant ad is not pollution. It’s helpful and useful. Helpful and useful, as I wrote in a recent column, is something we all need more of.

What if there were a way to calculate a relevance score for every advertiser? The more relevant ads are to those who receive them, the less the advertiser depletes the attention ecosystem. Relevance scores could be used by technologies (spam filters or TiVo) to determine which messages get through. The cost of maintaining a high relevance score would be significant, but returns would be even better. Ads would get viewers’ attention — a scarce resource — and generate higher response. Viewers would be giving them a share of less-depleted attention.

Viewing unwanted, unsolicited ads as pollution and creating a relevance score as a means to reduce the depletion of customer attention might not be realistic to implement on a global scale. Yet it would be a powerful way for marketers and advertisers to start thinking about how to avoid being branded as polluters. If you’re a marketer, develop your own relevance scores. Contribute to keeping the customer attention ecosystem in balance.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.