Tuesday, September 7, 2010

War for Attention

Human attention has become one of our scarcest resources, partly because of the torrent of information that is flooding our every moment via cheap broadband Internet access through a multiplicity of ever-cheaper, ever-more powerful, ever-more feature-rich, ever-smaller devices.

Right around the same time that Joseph Pine and James Gilmore were working on their ideas around the “experience economy,” (1997) Michael Goldhaber was writing a piece on the web called, "The Attention Economy and the Net" (1997). In it, Goldhaber argues that, “What counts most now is what is most scarce now, namely attention.” He described a new arrangement in which the “flow of attention” symbolically replaces money as the currency of the Internet.

A few years later, Thomas Davenport and John Beck published, The Attention Economy (2001) arguing that “creating those experiences (that Pine and Gilmore refer to) requires a great deal of attention.” They define “attention” as, “focused mental engagement on a particular message or piece of information” and the attention economy as one where the scarcest resource is no longer just “capital, labor, information and knowledge,” but human attention. “Understanding and managing attention,” they write, “is now the single most important determinant of business success.”

As Ed Shane says in Disconnected America (2001), “There’s no shortage of information, but the time to deal with it is another matter.”

How Much Information Vies For Our Attention?

  • A University of California San Diego study reports that the average American consumes 3.6 zettabytes, or one billion trillion bytes of info a day.
  • In 2008, people consumed three times as much information each day as they did in 1960. And they are constantly shifting their attention. Computer users at work change windows or check email or other programs nearly 37 times an hour.
  • The Sunday New York Times contains more factual information in one edition than in all the written material available to a reader in the fifteenth century. In 1472, the best university library in the world, at Queen's College in Cambridge, housed only 199 books.
  • In contrast, the US Library of Congress, contains nearly 145 million items on approximately 745 miles of bookshelves, including more than 33 million books and other print materials, 3 million recordings, 12.5 million photographs, 5.3 million maps, 6 million pieces of sheet music and 63 million manuscripts. The Library receives some 22,000 items each working day and adds approximately 10,000 items to their collections daily.

Much of what fights for our attention is not necessarily the “insightful” or useful information found in libraries. A lot of it is just colorful noise.

Here’s a taste of the constant din of information, data, and noise that surrounds and pulls at our attention:

  • 50,000 – Number of hours of TV someone born in 1960 has watched (Clay Shirky)
  • 2.93 – The average number of TVs per American household (there are more TVs per home than people)
  • 158 – Hours of TV every month watched at home by the average American as of Q1 2010; broken down weekly: 35 hours, 34 minutes watching television; approximately 2 hours timeshifting TV; 3 hours, 52 minutes using the Internet; 20 minutes watching online video; and 4 minutes watching mobile video. ("Nielsen Three Screen Report", Q1 2010)
  • 22,588 – number of radio stations broadcasting on FM, AM, via the Internet and HD channels in 2008 (Radio Today 2009 Edition Arbitron)
  • 346,571,912 – magazine sales in the US in 2009; 310,433,396 from subscription, 36,138,517 from single copy sales (The Magazine Handbook 2010/2011)
  • 20,638 – number of different magazine titles in North America 2009, 7,110 of which are consumer titles
  • 288,355 – US output of new book titles and editions in 2009 (Bowker) a half-percentage drop from 2008. In contrast, there was another extraordinary year of growth in the number of “non-traditional” books in 2009. These books, marketed almost exclusively on the web, are largely on-demand titles produced by reprint houses specializing in public domain works and by presses catering to self-publishers and ”micro-niche” publications. It is projected that 764,448 non-traditional titles were produced in 2009. This number is a 181% increase over 2008 -- which doubled 2007’s output – driving total book production over 1,000,000 units for the first time.
  • 11,000,000 – Number of Americans who will own at least one digital reading device by the end of September 2010, and as prices for e-reading devices fall, Amazon says people buy three times more books on their e-readers than they would with printed products. (Forrester) 
  • The rise of e-books even has some predicting “Ads in Books
Social media:  
Online images:
  • 124,000,000,000 – Number of photos are on pace to be shared through social networks by 2013. (IDC)
  • 20,000,000,000, 15,000,000,000, 7,200,000,000, 3,400,000,000 – Number of unique photos hosted by ImageShack, Facebook, PhotoBucket and Flickr respectively as of April 2009 
  • 3,000,000,000 – Photos uploaded each month to Facebook.
Online videos:
  • 178,000,000 – Number of U.S. Internet users who watched online video content during July 2010, for an average of 14.7 hours per viewer. (comScore)
  • 1,200,000,000 – Videos viewed per month on YouTube in the US (November 2009). 
  • 882 – Total number of minutes the average online video viewer consumed in July 2010, (or 14.7 hours of content)
  • 32,400,000,000 – Number of online videos U.S. Internet users watched in January 2009. More than 173 million viewers watched an average of 187 videos per viewer during the month of January.
  • 90,000,000,000,000 – The number of global emails sent on the Internet in 2009.
  • 247,000,000,000 – Average number of email messages per day. That’s one email every 0.00000035 seconds. (Radicati). 
  • 2,400,000,000 – Instant messaging account worldwide (Radicati
  • 87.7% – The percentage of emails that were spam. 
  • 107,000,000,000 – spam messages distributed globally per day on average (“MessageLabs Intelligence: 2009 Annual Security Report”)
  • $29,900,000,000 – Worldwide box office for all films in 2009, up 7.6% over 2008’s total. International box office ($19.3 billion) made up 64% of the worldwide total, while U.S. and Canada ($10.6 billion) made up 36% (MMPA)
  • 5,360 – approximate number of films produced globally in 2009 (Screen Digest); 558 films were released domestically, 20 of those were 3D releases (MMPA) 
  • 1,419,484,044 – Movie tickets sold in the US in 2009 (also see http://www.the-numbers.com/)
Devices, Mobile, Computers:
  • 1,667,000,000 – Number of mobile phones and other connected devices expected to ship globally in 2013 (IDATE)
  • 90% – The world’s population now covered by a mobile cellular network (ITU, 6/10) 
  • 4,648,000,000 – Current number of global mobile subscriptions 
  • 20% – Smartphone penetration in the U.S. has grown from 11% of mobile subscribers in April 2009 to more than 20% in April 2010 -- nearly double in just one year (comScore MobiLens). The total number of smartphone subscribers now totals more than 48 million.
  • 160,000,000 – Number of smartphone users expected by 2013 (Yankee Group
  • 7,000,000,000 – Number of US smartphone app downloads expected 2013; they will garner $4.2 billion in revenue 
  • 11,000,000 – Number of “media tablets” such as the iPad that will ship by the end of 2010 (ABI Research
  • 65.2% – U.S. mobile subscribers who used text messaging on their mobile device in May 2010 (comScore)

Lots of information, data, noise.  Lots of stuff calling for our attention. How much time do we really have to attend to this stuff?

How Much Time Do We Really Have?

The total number of hours a typical American worker spends working has dropped over time (although the estimates are fraught with problems, the trend is clear; see “Hours of Work in U.S. History,” Economic History Association, 02.01.10 (See: “Working less and Living Longer: Long-term Trends in Working Time and Time Budgets,” Jesse H. Ausubel and Arnulf GrĂ¼bler, Technological Forecasting and Social Change 50, 113-131, 1995.)

Source: 1900-1970: Owen, John. "Workweeks and Leisure: An Analysis of Trends, 1948-1975." Monthly Labor Review 99 (1976). 1980-2009: Current Employment Statistics (CES), Bureau of Labor Statistics)

According to the 2009 American Time Use Survey, during an average workweek (120 hours) someone who is employed full-time spends:
  • 46 hours working (including travel).
  • 38 hours sleeping. 
  • 14.5 hours on leisure (includes sports, exercise, recreation, socializing and communicating, watching television, reading, relaxing or thinking, playing computer, board, or card games, using a computer or the Internet for personal interest; playing or listening to music; and other activities, such as attending arts, cultural, and entertainment events).
  • 4.5 hours on housework (including cooking, cleaning, gardening, pet care; vehicle maintenance and repair; home maintenance, repair, decoration, and renovation; and household management and organizational activities). 
  • 17.0 hours on “other activities” such as eating, drinking, attending school, shopping; religious, civic and volunteering activities.
Not A Lot Of Free-Time

Work (46 hours), sleep (38) and housework (4.5) hours are relatively fixed. And there isn’t a whole lot of fat in the “other activities” (17) bucket from which to steal.  But let’s assume we can somehow squeeze 2 hours of free-time during the week from these four areas.  That means that an average full-time worker today has about 16.5 free hours (14.5 + 2.0) during the week that are available for any activity.

Let’s go further and assign 11:00 pm to 6:30 am as sleep time; and 6:30 am to 7:30 pm as breakfast/work/lunch/dinner time.  That leaves 7:30 pm to 11:00 pm as the key available free-time period.  Basically, this is the time period that the TV industry refers to as “prime time,” the daypart with the most viewers and where television networks and local stations reap much of their advertising revenues.

We also recognize that a half hour here or there in and around travel, between scheduled activities and meetings and during breaks is free-time. In fact, breaks and other “micro-moments” are a key battlefield for social networks and gaming companies.

(See this NY Times interactive tool)

Still, 16.5 hours and a few short breaks are not a lot of land upon which to fight the War for Attention.

Who’s Fighting For Our Attention?

The key players vying for our attention are companies and the products and services they sell:

1.  Companies:
  • In 2008, there were 29,600,000 businesses in the United States, according to Office of Advocacy estimates. Census data show that there were 6.0 million firms with employees in 2006 and 21.7 million without employees in 2007 (the latest available data). Most are small businesses with fewer than 100 employees (about 90,000 have between 100 and 499 employees and about 18,000 have over 500 employees).
2.  Products and Services Sold:
  • In 2009, “personal consumption expenditures”, the Government’s measure of goods and services consumed by households, was $10,001,300,000,000; $3,230,700,000,000 for goods, $6,770.600,000,000 for services.
  • The average grocery store in the US carried 46,852 items in 2008 (FMI
  • There were 46,036 new consumer packaged good products introduced in the US in 2009, 19,047 food and beverage, 26,989 nonfood. (Datamonitor)
  • The US Patent and Trademark Office granted 191,927 patents in 2009; there were 482,871 patent applications (USPTO) (There have been over 7,000,000 patents granted in the US since 1790.   There were 51,969 patent grants and 134,542 applications filed with European version of the USPTO, the EPO)
One of the most interesting phenomena of the Internet Age is that the “People Formerly Known as the Audience” are now producing and sharing media, creating value for one another and talking back to those 29.6 million companies who used to do all the talking.

Thus, while previously only companies competed for our attention, now anyone with an Internet connection can.  In fact the growth of social networking has brought with it an explosion of first-person singular postings. A constant stream of, “Here I am, I am here, this is me, this is what I think, I will not pass this scene unacknowledged” editorial and status updates mixed with lolcat-type images.
So, when counting all the actors fighting for our attention we must now include “amateurs” as well.
  • 1,966,514,816 – total number of worldwide Internet users on June 31, 2010
  • 239,232,863 – Internet users in the US 
  • 88,800,000 of those US users created content online in 2009 (eMarketer)

So, if we include amateurs and professionals, there are 118,400,000 agents constantly adding stuff to the already ginormous bowl of data, information and noise all vying for our 16.5 hours of free time during the workweek. (Of course, this doesn’t include the number of family members, colleagues, friends and other people we meet and talk to on a daily basis who demand some of our time.)

Strategies To Fit More Into Less

Seems like an impossible task for any person to try and pay attention to even the tiniest stream of stuff.  So what strategies do we employ to attend to the stuff that is being created?

According to Kahneman and Tversky (1974), “People rely on a limited number of heuristic principles which reduce the complex tasks of assessing probabilities and predicting values to simpler judgmental operations.” Three of the key heuristics they talk about:
  • Anchoring and adjusting: individuals anchor on specific information or a specific value and then adjust that value to account for other elements of the circumstance. Usually once the anchor is set, there is a bias toward that value.
  • Representativeness heuristic: people judge likelihood of events based on how it 'represents' a larger group or other similar examples.
  • Availability heuristic: when asked to judge frequency or probability of an event, we base our judgment on how easy it is to think of relevant examples.
As Tversky and Kahneman state, “in general, these heuristics are quite useful, but sometimes they lead to severe and systematic error.” In other words, these mental shortcuts often lead to mistaken judgments.

Another strategy that people use is to multitask.  In the first quarter of 2010, simultaneous use of the Internet while watching TV reached three hours and 41 minutes a month, up 35% from the previous year. Nearly 60% of TV viewers now use the Internet once a month while also watching TV.

Source: The Nielsen Company’s 2010 Three Screen Report 

However, research shows that multitasking often leads to problems:

1. We don’t learn as well when we multitask.
  • “Multi-tasking adversely affects how you learn,” says Russell Poldrack, a professor at UCLA.  “Even if you learn while multi-tasking, that learning is less flexible and more specialized, so you cannot retrieve the information as easily.”
  • When people keep their brains busy with stuff, they forfeit downtime that allows them to better learn and remember information, or come up with new ideas.  “Almost certainly, downtime lets the brain go over experiences it’s had, solidify them and turn them into long-term memories,” says Loren Frank, a professor at University of California, San Francisco. When the bran is constantly stimulated, you prevent this learning process.
2.  Rather than being more efficient, multitasking actually slows us down.
  • Research from Rene Marois of Vanderbilt University found that when the brain is forced to handle multiple tasks, a “response selection bottleneck” occurs, which leads to lost time as the brain determines which task to perform.
  • Pashler (2000) found that “substantial slowing occurs” when we multitask – it takes us longer to get the tasks done. This is due to the fact multitasking overtaxes our brains. “Our cognitive machinery,” Pashler (1998) writes, “is subject to more severe limitations than we might have suspected from casual observation. Although perceptual machinery seems capable of identifying more than a single object at a time, it is subject to capacity limits that become evident when the stimulus load is increased beyond a fairly modest level.”
  • According to Walter Kirn, “This is the great irony of multitasking—that its overall goal, getting more done in less time, turns out to be chimerical. In reality, multitasking slows our thinking. It forces us to chop competing tasks into pieces, set them in different piles, then hunt for the pile we’re interested in, pick up its pieces, review the rules for putting the pieces back together, and then attempt to do so, often quite awkwardly."
3.  Trying to focus on lots of things leaves us unfocused, dumber, and unable to shut out irrelevant information.
  • The brain is built to respond to novel opportunities and threats.  When we perceive new things in our environment, our brain systems become activated, sending the neurotransmitter dopamine to locations across the brain. Dopamine establishes a craving that keeps us coming back for more.  In it’s absence, we feel unmotivated and bored.
  • Multitasking, juggling email, phone calls, texting, and the ever new on the Internet keeps us coming back for more.  And yet while many people say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise.  Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information and they experience more stress. (“Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers,” E. Ophira, C. Nassb, and A. Wagner, PNAS, 2009)
  • Even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and locus of focus persist.  Multitaskers tend to constantly search for new information rather than accept using older, more valuable information.  They get hooked on the dopamine craving for more stuff.
  • A study conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry found that, “Workers distracted by email and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.” 
  • “Certain studies find that multitasking boosts the level of stress-related hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and wears down our systems through biochemical friction, prematurely aging us. In the short term, the confusion, fatigue, and chaos merely hamper our ability to focus and analyze, but in the long term, they may cause it to atrophy.” (Kirn)
Maggie Jackson, author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, says:
“Our society right now is filled with lovely distractions — we have so much portable escapism and mediated fantasy — but that’s just one issue. The other is interruption — multitasking, the fragmentation of thought and time. We’re living in highly interrupted ways. This degree of interruption is correlated with stress and frustration and lowered creativity. That makes sense.  When you’re scattered and diffuse, you’re less creative. When your times of reflection are always punctured, it’s hard to go deeply into problem-solving, into relating, into thinking.  These are the problems of attention in our new world. Gadgets and technologies give us extraordinary opportunities, the potential to connect and to learn. At the same time, we’ve created a culture, and are making choices, that undermine our powers of attention.” (“Digital Overload Is Frying Our Brains,” Wired, Feb 2009)
 One of the changes we’re seeing is an “Always On” mentality.

A survey from software maker Xobni found that that roughly 72% of Americans who check their email outside of regular business hours do so while on vacation, when they are taking time off, on a weekend and/or on another non-work day. Workers now feel more compelled to check email outside of work to keep up and advance their careers. More than one quarter (27 percent) who check email outside of business hours do so because they feel they are expected to provide quick responses, even outside regular business hours. Additionally, 37 percent are afraid to go without checking their email because they might miss something important. Many who check work email outside of regular business hours (43 percent) do so in order to ease their workload and 18 percent feel the need to check email outside of work hours in order to have a successful career.  Business professionals have become so overwhelmed with email that they are bringing email to the bedroom. In fact, one in five (19 percent) who check work email outside of regular business hours cited that they do work email either before they get out of bed in the morning or while in bed before they fall asleep at night.

Marketers have taken advantage of our “Always On” cravings by creating products that fill in even the small bits of our free time. “Instead of having long relaxing breaks, like taking two hours for lunch, we have a lot of these micro-moments,” says Sebastien de Halleux, a co-founder of PlayFish a game company owned by the industry giant Electronic Arts. Game makers like Electronic Arts, have reinvented the game experience to fit into micro-moments.” Flurry, a company that tracks the use of apps, has found that mobile games are typically played for 6.3 minutes, but that many are played for much shorter intervals. One popular game that involves stacking blocks gets played for 2.2 minutes on average.

Implications For Marketing

Thirty years ago, people gave you their attention if you simply asked for it. You'd interrupt their TV program, and they'd listen to what you had to say. You'd put a billboard on the highway, and they'd look at it. That's not true anymore. This year, the average consumer will see or hear 1-2 million marketing messages - that's 3,000 to 5,000 per day. No human being can pay attention to that many messages every day.

This “interruption model” was extremely effective when there wasn’t a flood of interruptions. But there's too much going on in our lives for us to enjoy being interrupted anymore. So our natural response is to ignore the interruptions.

Over ten years ago, Seth Godin suggested an alternative to interruption marketing he called “permission marketing.”  “The challenge for companies,” he wrote, “is to persuade consumers to raise their hands - to volunteer their attention. You tell consumers a little something about your company and its products, they tell you a little something about themselves, you tell them a little more, they tell you a little more - and over time, you create a mutually beneficial learning relationship. Permission marketing is marketing without interruptions. You still have to get people's attention in the first place, of course, and that still costs lots of money. But that's the beginning of the story, not the end. You have to turn attention into permission, permission into learning, and learning into trust. Then you can get consumers to change their behavior.”

I’d add three new parts to the permission marketing equation:
  1. Changing the brand narrative from telling the story about your “brand” to helping the customers tell theirs.  As I’ve written in Crowdsourcing & Transmedia, clients don’t need agencies to write brand stories, they need agencies to start the stories across multiple types of media, then allowing consumers room to build on those stories.
  2. Taking time to understand how time pressures affect consumer’s decision making.  Adrian Ott, author of the 24-Hour Customer calls this a Time-Value Economic (Time-onomic) approach.  Busy customers ask, “Is this product or service worth my time?  Is it easy to buy? Easy to set up? Easy to consume? Ott writes, “Helping customers understand how and when a new product fits into their time-starved lives rather than leaving it for them to figure out on their own is a requirement for market adoption. In today’s connected economy new products and services must slide into existing customer routines, or provide exponential value to incent a change in behavior.” “The Apple iPad: So Many Devices, So Little Time,” Fast Company, 1.29.10   Exponential value includes “Measures that address and mitigate barriers such as reducing the time and hassle to switch to a new offering and methods to stick with a new program through incentives, timely information, and usability make the change more favorable and attractive to the user. Such activities will meet with more success in the end.”
  3. As I quoted Clay Shirky in “Building Loyalty Through Belief,” “today media is more than just “crafting a single message to be consumed by individuals. It is more and more often a way for crafting an environment for convening and supporting groups.”  A brand is likely to be defined by the value created by a community and its members, i.e., by its social currency. Shirky again:  “If the traditional model of brand marketing was centered around the key principles of positioning, targeting, and messaging, the model of building social currency is centered on interaction, collaboration, conversation, and co-creation. If brands used to be built through creating mindshare, the new model of building social currency is about creating share of daily life."
Finally, it is important to remember a basic ingredient in marketing: “relevancy”. As long as consumers see relevant content, they are going to keep coming back – creating more opportunities for sellers to sell.  Statistics show that the longer a user stays on a web site absorbing content, the greater the odds they will be swayed by one’s brand message or sale of product. And keeping them paying attention to meaningful content that can help brand over time while selling overnight is what advertising is all about.


More Resources

Josef Falkinger

Godin, S. (1999). Permission marketing. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Godin speaking at TED

Bernardo Huberman

The Autumn of the Multitaskers,” Walter Kirn, The Atlantic, November 2007

Pashler, H. (2000). Task switching and multitask performance. In Monsell, S., and Driver, J. (editors). Attention and Performance XVIII: Control of mental processes. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Pashler, H., & Johnston, J. C. (1998). Attentional limitations in dual-task performance. In H. Pashler (Ed.), Attention. Psychology Press/Erlbaum Taylor & Francis, Hove, England UK. pp 155-189.

Pashler, H. (1995). Attention and Visual Perception: Analyzing Divided Attention.

"How to Profit From Experience," J. Pine & J. Gilmore, Wall Street Journal, August 4, 1997

Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime,” Matt Richtel, NY Times, 8.24.10  

The Myth of Multitasking,” Christine Rosen, The New Atlantis, 2008

Life Interrupted,” Richard Seven, Seattle Times, November 24, 2004
Simon, H.A. “Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World. Computers, Communication, and the Public Interest, The Johns Hopkins Press. (1971)

Taylor, W. C. (2008). "Permission marketing," Fast Company.