Why everybody hates you: The Attention Economy
Reputation is formed from three main components: your own behaviour, the manner in which your behaviour is communicated, and the context in which that behaviour takes place. It is possible to change your behaviour, and you can certainly influence the manner of communication but in order to either of those things you need to understand the third – context. Many of the issues that affect your reputation are exceedingly complex. Money, race, gender, inequality, climate change – how can you possibly be expert enough in each of these areas and more in order to stay ahead of your critics and be (seen as) a ‘good company’?
This essay is the second in a series that explains the context in which your corporate reputation is being formed, so that you can guide your own company safely through. Today we’re looking at the attention economy. Time and money are inextricably linked. As our attention spans reach capacity, entrepreneurs monetise this scarce resource yet show little respect for the impact this has on quality of life. It is a recipe for resentment.
Time is money
I ran an incredibly fulfilling project last year in which my team asked women across the country what they wanted from their lives: what are the basics? What makes for a ‘good life’? What are the stretch goals or ambitions? And what do they want for their children? The most heart-warming part of each session was watching the participants realise that they could probably achieve most of their stretch goals in 5 to 10 years if they set their minds to it. The most instructional facet, though, was the clear link they described between time and money. It is an old saw – ‘time is money’ – but this fact underpinned many of our conversations about moving beyond a basic standard of living.
Think of your own life ambitions. They might include travel, study (for your career or for pleasure), family, a new house, hobbies, pets, fashion. Now consider what it would take for you to achieve those things. Most of our participants initially answered that more money would be nice but when we challenged them to look deeper they realised that time was more of an obstacle. In fact, most of the ways they would use money were to free up time: get a cleaner, move closer to the office, work fewer hours.
Similar dynamics appeared when we talked about health and happiness. Staying healthy required not just time to exercise, shop for food and cook proper meals – but time to think about how to do these things, time that many respondents didn’t feel they had.
Enter the “Attention Economy”. Economics is the study of how society uses limited resources; time is a truly finite resource. As manual labour has decreased and devices have reduced work in the home we have regained hours of our lives – only for them to be filled by other responsibilities or diversions. There have always been entrepreneurs who profited by relieving us of our leisure time. Bars, gambling dens, sports clubs, social clubs, theatres and the like have plied their trade for millennia but Herbert A. Simon is widely credited as the first person to discuss attention economics. In 1969 he wrote:
The rapid shifting of this balance is why Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings regularly reminds his team that they aren’t competing with HBO or Amazon: “You get a show or a movie you’re really dying to watch, and you end up staying up late at night, so we actually compete with sleep, and we’re winning!”. Unsurprisingly, media commentators such as Midia conclude that “the attention economy has peaked. Consumers simply do not have any more free time to allocate to new attention seeking digital entertainment propositions, which means they have to start prioritising between them.” We have reached the endpoint hypothesised by Simon and as we reach the limits of our finite time and attention, the economics are changing substantially.
Access to your attention is now sold in far smaller increments. YouTube, for example, might insist that you watch a whole five seconds of an advert before you can skip to the video you wanted to watch, while LinkedIn counts a post as being viewed when it is “at least 50% on screen for at least 300 ms, or when it is clicked, whichever comes first”. Competition for those milliseconds is hotting up.
This constant deluge of information is amazing! Products and services you never even knew existed are beamed into your devices before you realise you need them – tailored for your demographics and screaming for your attention now, now, now. Nor is it only adverts that want your time. Sean Parker, founding President of Facebook, has described the goal of the platform being to take up as much of the users’ time as possible. When you motivate smart people with money and status, they swiftly get good at achieving the outcome for which they will be rewarded, so companies have become increasingly adept at holding our attention using ruses such as infinite scrolling and like buttons and tailored, seamless content. Each of these harnesses our own neurobiology to keep us engaged, by stimulating the release of neurotransmitter dopamine. Many, many other authors have written about the addictive nature of this relationship and the impact of that on society. I’m not going to retread that argument but instead point out that all of these developments make it harder to take control of your own, finite time and extract yourself from the attention economy.
Therefore we stay, and we soak up more and more input. The effects upon individuals of this constant bombardment with information have not been fully quantified. Historians point out that previously waves of technological change have raised (usually misplaced) fears of everything from revolution to brains exploding to the excessive stimulation of female sexual desires. One common eye-catching statistic – that the average attention span has fallen from 12 seconds to 8 seconds in the last 15 years – has been firmly debunked with experts pointing out that attention spans are highly task-specific. We know, for example, that is much harder to pay attention to gossip about someone we don’t know, than tidbits about someone that we do.
What we can quantify more easily is society’s shortening attention span. As a striking example, in the three years between 2013 and 2016, the time it takes for a Twitter global trend to subside shortened from an average of 17.5 hours to only 11.9 hours. Scientists studying this trend of shortening attention spans found consistent changes across on- and off-line datasets (with the exception of Wikipedia and scientific journals) and concluded that increasing production and consumption of content results in a more rapid exhaustion of limited attention resources.
Is all of this really such bad news? Surely the urge to keep scrolling on Instagram or Amazon proves that we are having a marvellous time? Unfortunately not. Those small hits of dopamine are, in fact, keeping us from two things we really crave: flow and fulfilment. The founding father of flow is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian scientist whose experiences as a child prisoner in the Second World War led him to the idea that there are certain states of engagement in which we are not only more productive but that we also find intrinsically pleasurable.
Somewhat ironically, it was the development of pager technology that allowed Csikszentmihalyi to measure the phenomenon. In his seminal experiment, a group of teenagers were given beepers that went off during random times throughout the day. Each time the pager beeped, they were asked to record their thoughts and feelings, as well as the activity in which they had been engaged. Many of the entries were unhappy, but Csikszentmihalyi found that when the teens were focused on a challenging and absorbing task, they tended to be more upbeat. Further research has confirmed these findings, that losing oneself in an activity that is hard but not impossible makes us happier.
In a world of information bombardment, it is harder than ever to find flow. This trade-off does not only hold us back from achieving personal goals and happiness. In Deep Work, Cal Newport describes the increasing importance of focused thinking to solve big, urgent problems while charting the scarcity of those skills. Deep thinking offers a route to commercial or academic that our environment actively fights against.
If the struggle to find flow weren’t enough, for fulfilment the argument is almost too cliched to rehearse: each of the minutes spent on social media or playing that game on your phone could be spent working towards one of the long term goals we talked about earlier. You could learn Spanish so that you are ready for your next trip, plan a healthy meal for the family, study for pleasure or to boost your career. In six months’ time you can look back and mark your progress towards that goal – or you can have clicked “Like” a few thousand times.
Making a change to your behaviour is hard, though. If you are one of the average humans who unlocks their phone 80 times per day to check email or social media or surf the web, then changing course each time takes work. We now know that exerting willpower is hard and, like time, finite. Each time you pull your attention back from a distraction, you tire a little and the next occasion will be harder still. Even if the information itself weren’t exhausting enough, resisting the impacts of this information flow is hard work as well!
Attention courtesy: Customer service
At the same time as ruthlessly monetising the attention of customers, corporates display a cavalier disrespect for time when it comes to delivering customer service. Imagine if customers charged by the millisecond for the time they spent on customer service telephone calls, or waiting for parcels and engineers to visit their homes? When looked at this way the comparison is stark and goes some way to explain why consumers get so disproportionately incensed as they are passed from call centre to call centre, describing their problem to multiple employees who cannot hear or understand them.
Or take the example of a telecommunications company that I used to work with. We tested dozens of communications from them and the first question from consumers was always the same: why isn’t their phone number on here? Our clients told us they deliberately made it difficult to find their number so that customers would try harder to solve their own problems first, rather than calling them. “It costs too much money to talk to customers all the time.”
As well as dealing with shoddy call response times, the public are also navigating their way through large-scale telephone and email marketing. The average office worker receives well over 100 emails per day. So many of those are irrelevant or spam that we only open around a third of the messages we receive and we act upon a tiny fraction of that. For this at least we are now seeing a partial solution in GDPR. If your company collects or holds any type of personal data in the EU then you should have heard of the General Data Protection Regulation and we’ll cover it in more detail when we discuss data in future weeks.
A frustrating feature of these behaviours is that they are, for the most part, deeply counterproductive for companies. The MoneySavingExpert.com poll on customer service, asks members to rate the service provided by provided by their bank twice each year. First Direct has been top of the poll all but once since the start of the research in 2010. Last March it was briefly dethroned by app-based bank Monzo but regained the top in August. In fact, the only competitors anywhere near to First Direct are not standard banks: Monzo and Starling are both app-based and not yet reliably polling a large enough customer base to make it into the rankings every time. The closest other rival is Nationwide (a building society) and in August 2019, they were 15 points behind First Direct.
What sets First Direct apart? Why do 85% of their customers rate their service as ‘Great’? The obvious difference between them and the other banks is their call centre. The First Direct call centres are UK-based and open 24/7, 365. And the way they hire is different from most call centres: they strongly encourage referrals by an existing member of staff – people who have an incentive to want the best colleagues – and everyone goes through a rigorous multi-step recruitment process. Part of the reason for this additional rigour is that team members need more knowledge than the usual call centre handler. They are expected to stay on the line while problems are solved: no passing you off to a different desk or country. If the person who answers the phone needs to get a specialist involved they will explain the problem and hand it over and then make sure you are happy before they leave.
There is a reason why the other banks haven’t stampeded to copy First Direct. This operating model is expensive. First Direct offsets the call centre costs by not maintaining a branch network and says it has been profitable since 1995. Nonetheless, rumours have whirled from time to time about whether parent group HSBC is happy that those profit margins are high enough. Equally, the encroachment of app-based ‘neobanks’ such as Monzo and Starling shows that telephone isn’t everything. What each of these case studies show, though, is that the mindset is very important. First Direct was ahead of its time in creating a model that encouraged engagement between customers and the bank on terms that were convenient to the consumer; new apps allow that communication to happen in an even more constant and casual manner.
Attention, control and inequalities
Given the strong link between time and money, it is perhaps unsurprising that even time seems to be distributed unequally. Of course we all have the same number of hours in the day but not everyone can use them in the way. For example, the wealthy can afford a bevvy of professionals to curate information on their behalf and delegate less pleasant tasks to an employee. Let’s use travel as case study: the rich couple might describe their dream holiday and have someone else design and book the perfect experience. As they breeze through an accelerated check-in a less well-off couple – who spent months of evenings searching for good deals on the internet – are waiting for 30 minutes in a security line. Have a disability? You may spend extra hours seeking insurance that will cover you for the trip and then face additional obstacles to even reach the plane. Non-white? Non-straight? Trans? There will be a bunch of destinations that just aren’t very welcoming for you so you better spend yet more time researching and preparing for that.
These time inequalities have long-term impacts. Virginia Woolf describes eloquently in her classic A Room of One’s Own the lack of time or space for thought experienced by women throughout history and the consequent dearth of female authors, historians, scientists and so forth. While wealthy men had studies in which to work, women were consigned to the communal drawing room; men required time to think and write; women were expected to manage the household and sew and socialise.
The cumulative effect of these inequalities was extraordinary and is perhaps best encapsulated by this dataset from Caroline Criado-Perez: “Only 25 (2.7 per cent) of Britain’s statues are of a (non-royal) woman who actually existed. Meanwhile, there are 498 statues of non-royal historical men. There are more statues of men called John (43) than there are of non-royal historical women. It’s the same story in the US, where 92 per cent of statues depicting historical figures are of men.” Part of the reason for this, as Criado-Perez points out, is that women in history seem to be instantly forgotten (and their achievements often attributed to men) but it is also because they weren’t given the same time to think and articulate and contribute and make their mark in the first place. The same disadvantage was also experienced by many minority groups.
What to do about it? Three key points to consider
Time is finite and valuable. Humans today are experiencing ‘peak attention economy’. Individuals are constantly choosing between competing demands and offers. This process is exciting but exhausting and creates a series of potential reputation pitfalls for companies, not least of which is the failure to demonstrate respect for the time of their consumers during marketing and customer service.
In future articles I’ll talk far more about how organisations can navigate these tricky issues (subscribe here if you want to be sent my articles as they appear each Wednesday) but for the time being, these are my four key takeaways on this issue:
Targeting your communications well is not a dark art restricted to the political classes. Invest in understanding your key audiences and give them what they want at the time when it is most useful to them. Spamming them undermines your message, contributes to attention overload and costs you both money and credibility. It may not appear so at first but GDPR is your friend – more on this is future weeks.
Tell better stories. For every article telling us our attention spans have constricted, there another telling us we watch too much Netflix. Attention spans are task-specific and that means making your bid for consumer attention worthy of their time.
Map out the journey that your customers take and be mindful of how much respect you show for their time along the way. As you carry out this exercise, look for ways in which your process effects different groups. If you book a time to see one of your professional stakeholders, you turn up early and prepared. Often the public do not get the same treatment and they swiftly sense the difference in esteem. This is a dangerous message for a consumer-focussed business to telegraph.
This essay is a starting point that will equip you to understand the debate about the attention economy and the role it plays in your corporate reputation. There is much, much more to this conversation. What have you read that cast a light on this? How have you tackled this problem in your organisation? I’d love to hear more from you and will add reading suggestions to this resources list so it can improve over time.
Herbert A. Simon, was a fascinating man whose work spans economics, psychology and political science. He won a Nobel prize in economics and also a Turing prize.
Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings is also fascinating but perhaps sees the world a little differently
Sean Parker, founding President of Facebook, describes the goal of Facebook being to take up as much of the users’ time as possible.
The BBC explains why that stat you’ve seen about our attention spans being shorter than a goldfish isn’t true
But there is more reliable science to show that society’s attention span is getting shorter
The Center for Human Technology is staging a fightback
It is well worth reading more by and about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the Hungarian scientist who invented ‘flow’
Deep Work, Cal Newport describes the increasing importance of focused thinking to solve big, urgent problems while charting the scarcity of those skills. Deep thinking offers a route to commercial or academic that our environment actively fights against
Attention courtesy: Customer service
If your organisation collects or holds any type of personal data in the EU then you should have heard of the General Data Protection Regulation - GDPR
The MoneySavingExpert.com poll on customer service in banks
Attention, control and inequalities
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
Caroline Criado-Perez: Invisible Women
I would love to find more resources about the attention economy and race, disability or sexual orientation. Have you seen anything I should read? Do you know somebody I should be speaking to?