Listen to Me! Communication in the ‘Attention Economy’

When new PM Liz Truss called Nicola Sturgeon an ‘attention seeker’ last month, she talked to a spectrum of long-held, self-proclaimed British attitudes: a stiff-upper-lipped stoicism, and a determination to be the most forgettable person in the room. In the digital world, however, it’s one of the few insults that hasn’t found a home.

Online, the attention-economy rules, and corporates must learn to play by the rules of the game.

Through the keyhole

So, what is the attention economy? A term first coined by Nobel Prize winning economist Herbert Simon, it depicts attention as a commodity in short supply. Simon described it as the ‘bottleneck of human thought’, where those keen to claim a chunk of attention must compete knowing there simply isn’t enough to go around.

But this isn’t new. It has always been a fact that individuals are incapable of thinking about everything at once – the difference is that, previously, one couldn’t be expected to. Today, in a modern, digital world, where the quantity of available information is tending ever closer towards the infinite, the constraining element is no longer knowledge itself but the appetite to consume it. It’s not a purely digital phenomenon, but it is certainly borne of a world in which the availability of information makes skim-reading a necessity.

In recent years it’s a concept that has been eagerly picked up by marketeers, eager to find value within an increasingly fractured digital ecosystem and attuned to the idea that not every click or page-view is born equal. Now, keen to be the first to mint the new attention-based marketing currency, a number of companies are making use of eye-tracking software and paying users to install it on their devices, allowing them to measure just how significant a glance users give to the ads they encounter.

Attention-based communications

In the world of corporate communications, there is also much to be learned about how to be heard in the modern, attention-starved world.

As a commodity, attention is in high demand and low supply, with value weighted such that a single, conscientious read might be equivalent to any number of rapid skims. As a corporate, it can be taken as a given that your CEO Letter or opinion leadership will be read, but whether or not it is read with an attentive mindset can hardly be taken for granted.

When applied to readership figures, article clicks and other performance metrics, the issue of attention becomes stark. The numbers might not be overtly lying to you (though they definitely are), but they fail to account for the intensity of concentration applied to a given output; if poor website tracking isn’t misrepresenting your data, the absence of attention-based weighting is certainly inflating the figures.

Attention is earned, and communications must be framed with this in mind. Where no effort is made to arrest the reader’s attention, in a world in which any number of different narratives and exclamations are being put forward at any given time, the chances of being picked up by an attentive reader are slim.

Heard when it matters

Attention-based communications is digital communications: it means an understanding of the contemporary ecosystem – with its low entry barriers and high content turnover – as well as an appreciation of quality readers.

This all sounds obvious enough, yet its significance cannot be understated. Messages that don’t get through to key stakeholders often fail to bring value and are a net loss. In a crisis situation, such a state of affairs could be hugely damaging.

To accurately measure the impact of your communications and Corporate Body Language, it’s important to be acutely aware of the wider context. When actively looking to enter the marketplace of eyeballs, action-worthy-of-attention must take the place of action alone: statements themselves are no longer enough.

Today, when communicating in the attention economy, there are three key points to keep in mind:

1. Readership figures and click data tell (at best) just half the story – whilst useful as a quantitative starting-point, be sure to add qualitative considerations.

2. Targeting matters – not everyone needs to hear it, and those who do will need clear indicators that that is the case.

3. Focus on meaningful engagement – the readers who matter are those with focus: not every quick click is a win.

Those who make up your target audience do not owe you their interest – failure to recognise this when crafting key messages risks your carefully fashioned narrative falling on no ears at all.