Why no one ever listens to you.

How to dominate the attention economy

Your sales and marketing teams have spent the last quarter carefully planning campaigns for the second half of the year. They settled on a 50% off promotion – how could something so aggressive not drive sales?

Because despite the damage to your bottom-line, you chose an unremarkable promotion. You have been conditioned to compete in an economy driven by currency, but today’s scarcity is not capital. And you needn’t look far for brands falling into this trap over and over again (most recently with Banana Republic). The firms that are thinking about pricing, deals, and inventory are focused on the wrong economy.

Today’s true scarce resource, and the economy that matters most of all, is attention. 

Whether at home, in the office, or out in public, people’s attention is being clawed at and fractured like never before. Commuters listen to podcasts while reading their social feeds on a subway surrounded by display advertising. Consumers at home browse on their laptops while their cable boxes offer thousands of channels and direct mail piles up on counters. And at work, desks are battlegrounds for email, phone calls, banner advertising, and more social networks. 

There’s more information than you could ever possibly take in, and even more is added each day.

The attention economy is an expression coined by Michael Goldhaber to describe a unique challenge of modern life. Scarcity is no longer defined by access to capital: it is expressed as our inability to sift signal out from the noise around us. Brands who spend their time obsessing over pricing strategies or sales approaches are missing the point: it is likely your customers will never even hear this information amongst all the other messages competing for their attention.

Rule #6 of wedding crashing: draw attention to yourself, but on your own terms.”
- Vince Vaughn

The process of contributing to the cacophony is simple, and contributes to the competition you face. Any person can run a Facebook ad, set up a simple WordPress website, or establish a Twitter feed. The brands that rise above the rest are not defined by activity: they’re marked by an ability to elevate conversations and engage with people in ways others are not.

Like every other traditional economic issue your business has faced, winning the attention economy requires a strategy that is well thought out, vetted, and that you’re willing to bet your business on. There are three elements to your strategy: capturing, holding, and multiplying attention.

In the mid-90’s, Oregon alum and Nike founder, Phil Knight made it his personal crusade to ensure the Ducks had a competitive football program. He went to the athletic department and asked what resources they needed to be successful. They asked for better facilities and better training.

Nothing happened. Because those features and benefits don’t matter in a world where no one is paying attention to your school. Plenty of Division 1 schools have amazing weight rooms, just like every retailer has bargain-basement sales. Oregon needed something to stand out and capture attention. 

So Nike unveiled new uniforms. 512 of them to be exact. Suddenly, everyone wanted to watch the Ducks just to see what kind of space-age suits they would take to the field in. And suddenly, the attention for recruits was there. You need to do the same thing for your brand: give your audience something so tantalizing, so exciting, that they can’t look away. That hook will never be a sale, or a product feature. It will be something bold, something that makes someone say, “I have to see that.” 

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The trap you use to capture attention won’t close the sale alone. Uniforms get recruiters to visit Oregon, but there real benefits that get them to stay (great locker rooms and scholarships). Dynamic brands that capture attention live in the present, just like a recruiting visit. They capitalize on current trends, and provide their audiences with immediate, tangible value – recognizing that the opportunity for interaction is limited. Andy Warhol did this better than anyone, by co-opting the icons of the present into art he ensured that all eyes would stay on him as long as he kept relevant with this subjects.

The last, most difficult element is getting your audience to multiply the attention you capture. The same fractured landscape that birthed the attention economy means it is simply impossible to buy enough eyeballs. The only way to grow is by having your audience spread what they have seen throughout their own networks. The sharing effect is predicated on connecting emotionally through your content: viewers want to share content that triggers a positive emotional reaction and allows them to be seen as intelligent, funny, persuasive, or relevant.

Doing any of these things independently will mark a major improvement over a price-first marketing model. Achieving incredible results requires uniting all three tranches through a single, cohesive narrative that propels your brand forward. Every single thing you do: from customer service calls to website copy to email campaigns must be built around winning attention for your brand, harnessing it, and levering it to attract an ever-wider audience. 

The good news is that all people are hard-wired to respond to one thing: stories. Stories are what win and hold people’s attention. And we know through research that there is one kind of story that people are most likely to adopt as their own and spread. Yet even today, many brands still spend more time on discounting models or sales per square foot than they do on their narrative and the power behind it. 

It’s no coincidence that the firms most resistant to change are being left behind by those who understand that the game has fundamentally changed. Savvy brands understand this. If you’re ready to propel your company forward, recognize there is only one resource that is truly scarce in today’s world, and commit to winning the battle for it each day. 

The first step? A brand story that elevates you above your competitors and allows you to dominate the attention economy