Understanding the “Attention Economy”

Desperate for your attention, marketing and ad pros have little choice but to perpetuate social decay. Where do we go now?

Inherent to the emerging “attention economy” is the underlying assumption that human attention is a scarce resource. It’s so scarce that we have to bold text just to keep your interest. The conclusion for business is that success means participating with platforms where this attention resource is most plentiful.

Some marketers see this shift as full of potential. Others see it as the prologue to a dystopian novel. Most are just trying to get by.

Trapped in our Tiny Windows

During COVID-19, Americans are spending an astounding 12+ hours in front of screens each day, often four hours of TV, five+ on a work computer, and three+ on their phones. We are spending most of our waking life condensed into just a handful of digital spaces, all of which are financially incentivized to keep us there.

The technologists behind these digital architectures have created experiences as addictive as alcohol or drugs, but their payoff is so micro-dosed and the social destruction so gradual that Americans only now seem to be figuring out we have a problem. (See The Social Dilemma).

Are tech companies evil? Not really, but now that we see we’ve created a monster, we need to do something about it.

the social feedback loop
Social Medial: an addictive, self-destructive feedback loop.

So what’s the attention economy have to do with marketing?

In a chicken-and-egg paradox, marketing and advertising professionals are uniquely contributing to the feedback loop. Revenue and the demands of shareholders directly incentivize Facebook to keep users hooked on its platform. Likewise, marketers have become hooked on Facebook because it’s the only place where their buyers will see their message.

Make no mistake—Facebook made the technology, but the zeal of sales growth has played a direct role in funding the social destruction we’re seeing today. But, what kind of business owner would I be to doubt the ability of responsible businesses to participate in digging us out? Surely, agencies have agency in disrupting this loop.

Where do we go now?

Well, we are certainly not going to quit Facebook overnight (though you might consider it for your personal account).Like the pursuit to break our energy dependence on fossil fuels, the transition away may need to be gradual and involve a diverse portfolio of solutions. From what we have surveyed so far, there seem to be a handful of strong paths to pursue:

Like the pursuit to break our energy dependence on fossil fuels, the transition away may need to be gradual and involve a diverse portfolio of solutions.

1. Raise awareness.

By simply naming this attention economy feedback loop and drawing attention to unhealthy consequences, we can begin to curb and reduce the direct funding of societal unhealth. Awareness and advocacy creates pressure on the technology platforms to reform their systems.

2. Eliminate waste.

By its very nature, even “targeted” advertising casts a wide net with often inefficient results. To cut waste, advertisers need to set the bar higher on metrics like click-through rates. If you’re not seeing any real success, you should quit forking over money to Facebook, even if your client doesn’t care.

3. Kick the habit and give users life.

For the boldest marketers, consider eliminating any social media activities that incentivize more time on the platform. Instead, use messaging and click flows that pull users back to real life. For example, a landing page confirmation prompt that encourages users to take a walk, hug their kids or invite a friend to coffee instead of saying “Back to homepage.”

4. Offset.

Consider reducing your impact by making a financial pledge and/or giving time to an organization that reduces the divisive impacts of social media like Braver Angels, which hosts Red-Blue and race workshops in an environment free of political bias.

5. Cold turkey.

If your business doesn’t need social media to be successful (many B2B businesses don’t really), close down your page there and stop posting to reduce incentives for your partners or employees to be there.

6. Promote digital wellbeing.

Leverage your communications channels to promote healthy digital lifestyles for your employees, customers and community. The Center for Humane Technology has awesome starting points for individuals and families.

What’s Boileau doing?

At some level, we will be trying all of the above, and we are committed to sharing results and best practices as we learn more! We are passionate about promoting the health and prosperity of the communities in which we work, and this may be among the most pressing issues of our time. Feel free to reach out if you’d like to learn more.

Otherwise, we encourage you to put down your phone, take a walk and get some fresh air.

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