The Attention Economy

 It's fashionable these days to talk about personal attention as a commodity or even a currency. But in fact, it's a different kind of phenomenon, one that is becoming more interesting now that the Internet makes it easier for businessesto pay attention to individual customers on a grand scale…even as many companies sometimes confuse attention with intention (to buy).  While companies (and some people) seek attention because they expect to earn money through it, many individuals value attention as something intrinsically desirable in itself.

Attention is an action that has three quantifiable aspects: time, completeness/division of the attention, and the value of the person paying attention. 

But what is the value of the attention?  The challenge with valuing attention is that third aspect: It matters who's giving it, and who's receiving it.  In other words, it's not a fungible commodity. 

One way to measure the value of attention  is to look at actual transactions:  Take Henry Kissinger: Would he show up to speak to you alone?  Probably not. How many people would he require in a room?   Perhaps 1000 people who paid $2995 each.  But he might also show up for free to talk to 10 heads of state, or one U.S.president. That gives you some indication of value, though it is hardly exact.

Indeed, the value of  attention can be monetized, and a contract requiring someone to pay attention (as in giving a speech or appearing at a photo opp) can be bought and sold. 

We buy and sell attention all the time, usually as part of some other transaction. You pay extra to fly first class not just for the legroom and the drinks, but also for the extra attention from check-in personnel and flight attendants. That kind of attention is easily valued by looking at the premium people pay for it.

The Internet is changing attention economics by fostering peer-to-peer attention. People are spending lots of time online paying attention to one another – and increasingly, they are trying to get attention rather than give it. Companies need to understand that one of their primary activities should be to give customers the attention they crave, not to demand their attention and then charge them extra for that attention to their brand. 

Much of this attention is measurable, at least superficially, by watching people's online behavior. Who online gets the most attention vs. who gives it?  Companies are busily developing the metrics: number of Twitter or Google+ followers or Facebook friends; reputation points for being a good seller, buyer or reviewer; Klout scores; game-player status or scores; and so on.  Peoplevalue these attributes, not because they want to buy or sell them, since generally they cannot. They value them intrinsically, in part because they believe they will get better attention to themselves, from more valuable people.  Many companies are now beginning to provide customers with metrics for their own behavior.  Take airline mileage points, for example.  A huge percentage are never cashed in; apparently, people value the status and the attention they earn,more than the “real” value. 

Thus, companies are creating new value systems for earning attention and paying attention toindividual status. These systems are mostly self-centered.  You can move your friends from, say, Facebook to G+, but the value earned in World of Warcraft or on American Airlines doesn't count for much elsewhere.

How can banks make use of the attention economy? They can create automated attention of the fungible kind: tools and services that automatically answer people's questions and perform their transactions as if they were getting personal attention.  Probably the best example of this in the financial world is, which gives usersindividual analyses of their financial behavior  in a compelling way.

Separately, of course, banks can do more with theirown employees.  Like it or not, senior management will be getting attention… and the bankshould ensure that it's positive.  These days, every company needs a personality.  That comesnot onlyfrom a few people at the top, but alsofrom the many people in the middle and at the bottom who interact with customers directly. 

It comes fromdirect interactions, but also from managers’ and employees’presence in social networks, on Q&A sites and everywhere else that the bank gives or receivesattention in an increasingly transparent marketplace.

The challenge is to ensure that senior staff get the right kind of attention – as trustworthy, intelligent, empathetic people.  And that all customer-facing employees display those same characteristics in their interactionswithcustomers.  To the extent that bank usecareful hiring, effective training, and software and systems toguide employees to that kind of behavior, theywill succeed in the new attention economy. 

Esther Dyson, a well-known “Internet guru”, is an angel investor in a variety of online start-ups, mostly in the U.S. and Europe, focused on online services, healthy behavior and space travel. She also writes a monthly column for Project Syndicate, under the label of a "public intellectual." 






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