Your Attention, Please.

How many more words can be prefixed to Economy? Thomas Davenport and John Beck have a new one – and a good one – “Attention.” In their recently published book, appropriately entitled The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business (HBS Press, 2001), they declare understanding and managing attention to be “the single most important determinant of business success.” In other words, human attention is in such short supply that one’s ability to command attention has tremendous value. It is, nothing less than the real currency of business.

The concept of attention-getting is very important to knowledge marketing, and this book supports more than a few of our “Principles.” Advertising may grab peoples’ attention, but it doesn’t say much.A quality, substantive message is a real hook with real holding power. However, the strategy of the information age thus far – deluging every individual with enormous amounts of information – is also counterproductive. The Internet relentlessly exposes people to vast amounts of irrelevant information, more distracting information than we could ever absorb. We have to realize time is a finite resource, that attention spans are limited.

Just getting customers to notice our information is hard enough. The more difficult task is getting them to focus on key messages about products and services. We must think creatively to find better ways of capturing and directing their attention. Davenport and Beck refer to a study by two Harvard Business School professors, Morten Hansen and Martine Haas which reveals a couple of sensible tactics:

  1. The lower the volume of knowledge a particular group of knowledge producers produces, the more likely it is that each document will receive attention. Regular releases of just a few documents yield more attention than occasional releases of large batches
  2. If the category of knowledge is crowded with many documents, each document will be less likely to be viewed. Knowledge-producing groups that are very selective in what they release get more attention in crowded topic areas.

Although carefully limiting the information you release is important, it doesn’t address the question of “how” to do it. Davenport and Beck give readers two basic options:

  1. Embrace attention-getting technology: get on the edge and stay there. For example, embed important messages in a live-action game, and adopt attention-protecting devices that will eliminate unwanted information for readers. Why? The move toward personalization in Internet marketing is about narcissism. Mass culture and consumer capitalism have led to an inordinate desire for fast-paced, individual-level attention. An enterprise can take advantage of this narcissistic nature if its information is targeted to an individual. Somewhat ironically, these tools, require the individual to invest attention in first selecting, then communicating, their personal preferences.
  2. Forget technology. I think the authors like this option best. Once an audience realizes that “live action games” are tiresome, the best way to attract their attention may be the old-fashioned way: by telling a good story. Consumers may actually applaud “when a meeting presenter announces that she’s using no technology, just the sound of her own voice.” Or, emulate John Seeley Brown who has given presentations in transparencies marked-up with crayon. Low tech, perhaps, but a personal, charming touch that people notice.

Taking a non-technology route may seem counter-intuitive, but it is an important source of differentiation in corporate communications. People will gradually – inevitably, the authors write – begin to withdraw from the stress of an attention-devouring world. As they do, information providers will have to focus on other ways to deliver quality information. It can’t be boring, people won’t tolerate wind-bags; business information must be interesting. Without being overdone and “Disney-fied”, it must be “glamorized.” According to the authors, “We must think about some business information and messages as if they were a content, entertainment, or media business.”

We can learn much about attention management from the traditional attention industries, such as publishing. Americans are reading less, young people in particular. While publishing risks being left behind in the attention economy, special interest magazines are thriving. These publishers deal with timeless attention-getting topics, and significantly, their stories are getting less detailed and less issue-oriented. What this tells us, according to Davenport and Beck, is that “effectively getting strategic attention involves developing, and then broadcasting, a simple message that both gets attention and encapsulates many important ideas.”

A quality message must be short and simple to be effective. Use these simple, quality messages to express your firm’s thought leadership. Demonstrating that there is substance and a proprietary approach behind your fancy design will be a crucial source of differentiation.

Finally, remember that providing and developing these messages is everyone’s job. Everyone is a potential information provider and content manager. Properly transformed into useable information, their expertise will reap substantial rewards – for themselves and the company – in the attention economy. Find the people who have something to say, or a unique and creative way of saying it: according to the authors, and I agree, they are any organization’s best hope of getting attention from other employees, partners, and customers.

(Originally posted in Knowledge Marketing Watch, July 2001)

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