A new currency? The attention economy

The attention economy

It might not feel like it sometimes, but employees have more free time now than at any point since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. At the start of the century, a typical working week was around 75 hours, today it is - officially at least -  around 40 hours

New technology has made much of the work we do less labour intensive, but it’s also filled the gaps left by working fewer hours. From radio, to TV, to online, consumers have spent the last 80 years turning to tech in their spare time.

As far back as 1948, the average television in the USA was in action for 68 hours a month. Our enthusiasm for electronics peaked in 2009, when average TV consumption rocketed to 153 hours a month.

More recently, we’ve seen a continued devotion to electronic entertainment, but the way we’re consuming it has changed, and because of that it’s also had an impact on how businesses connect with potential customers. 

Social media

A proliferation of social media and video platforms have transformed how we consume media.

Among 18-24 year-olds, monthly TV viewership dropped from 76 hours to 64 hours in the 12 months prior to 2017. The reason why is hardly surprising: video viewing on PCs, tablets and smartphones saw yearly growth in the double digits; consumers are getting their craving for content quenched elsewhere, and how they’re watching is changing.

The average TV show lasts around 30 minutes, but given more control over what we watch, an interesting trend emerges. When you consider that that average length of a top 50 YouTube video is two minutes 54 seconds, it’s clear that we’re shifting towards shorter forms of entertainment – our attention can be broken down and segmented into manageable chunks. Social media has helped commodify our attention spans in ways TV could only dream of.

Take Twitter as an example. To count as having made an ‘impression’, the Twitter user must have looked at a Tweet for an average of three seconds. That means ten minutes scrolling through your feed could result in exposure to 200 different bits of information.

This is a huge amount of stimulation and with such a sensory overload, it’s hardly surprising that Mindfulness, a meditation technique that teaches us to slow the mind, has become a billion-dollar industry

Cutting through

There are expected to be 2.62 billion social media users by the end of 2018, and as the number of instagrammers, snapchatters and tweeters has grown, so have the number of accounts aimed at them.

So how do you puncture through the noise and engage? Social media engagement is a new measure of how people interact with a brand rather than sales alone.

We all know KFC’s ‘original recipe’ is made up of eleven herbs and spices. If you head over to their Twitter page, take a look at who they follow: All five of the Spice Girls and six verified accounts belonging to people called Herb. That’s eleven herbs and ‘spices’. Mind. Blown.

Then there was the time Volvo hijacked the Superbowl. Whilst car manufacturers spent millions buying advertising space for one of the biggest events of the year, the Swedish giant ran a competition playfully asked followers to tweet #VolvoContest during ads for other cars. They called it “the greatest interception ever”. It worked. More than 55,000 tweets were sent with that hashtag that night. 

Smaller success

Smaller enterprises might not be able to afford international advertising consultancies to come up with big campaigns. That doesn’t mean they’re limited to a witty ‘thought for the day’ scribbled on a chalkboard and left outside on the high street.

Whilst the likes of Netflix, Amazon and Facebook design their platforms to keep viewers engaged for as long as possible, it doesn’t mean that you can’t find success by doing things differently.

Some have had tremendous success in this field. 

Phone Folly

The Folly Theatre in Kansas city capitalised on our need to scroll, swipe and tap by encouraging visitors to keep their phones on during performances. Using an app, customers were given the chance to direct from their chairs, essentially voting on what happens in the performance, creating a live interactive experience. Their idea was about embracing our changing world and incorporating it into their product. 

Salt bae

Those who probably spend far too much time online will remember ‘Salt Bae’. Turkish chef, Nusret Gökçe co-owns Nusr-et Steakhouse in Turkey. He posted a video online showing off his knife skills as he prepared steak. His style was unconventional, the steak looked succulent, the knife he was using looked razor-sharp. Then at the end of the video, he adopted a flamboyant and dramatic way of sprinkling salt on the food. It quickly went viral and was viewed millions of times. Nusret discovered one point of differentiation and whether intentionally or otherwise, through utter showmanship, became an internet star. 

Ice bucket challenge

Being nominated to pour a bucket of ice water over your head is something few people escaped back in 2014. The ice bucket challenge was created by a relatively small charity in the USA, the ALS Association. Their aim to was to raise money to help combat ALS, also known as motor neurone disease. It’s a fatal degenerative nerve condition which causes people to lose control of their muscles. Hundreds of thousands of people got involved, from politicians to Hollywood A-listers, more than $100 million was raised in just a month. Then in 2016, the research which was partly funded by the campaign uncovered a gene associated with the condition that enabled researchers to look at potential treatments. A very positive result from humble beginnings on social media.

Until the tech giants are able to magic more time in the day, there will always be a finite period that people can be engaged for. As more businesses develop sophisticated social media strategies, the attention economy will continue to become a crowded battleground. The success of smaller players in the field has shown that there’s always space for people with unique ideas. People who do different, do it well, and take others on the journey.