The Attention Economy and Your Content Creation Choices

Marketing (and indeed search, once it gets past its obsession with leaderboard ranking for specific search terms) is all about attention.

Intuition tells us that in order to get someone to agree to the “call-to-action” we want, we need to have:

  1. Their attention.
  2. Their trust.

From this point on things can get as complicated or as simple as your own personal bias wants to make them.

If you believe, for instance, that getting attention is a case of yelling more and yelling loudly, yelling even more and yelling even more loudly, then you reach out for your wallet and inject a hefty amount of cash to buy you the content and volume you feel you need in order to get the attention you want.

Some of all that attention you think you’re getting from such an action might even translate into direct conversions in whatever funnel you’re putting in place.

If, however, you think that getting someone’s attention requires you to somehow succeed in capturing their mind for a small instant in time then you will start to think about marketing, content, content creation and marketing campaigns, differently.

Thinking, differently, about writing starts, paradoxically, with video. So some quick stats first (in video format, obviously):

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Video Takes Time Away from Reading

So, we all consume (and create) more video content than ever before. Since we don’t suddenly have extra hours in the day it stands to reason that time spent watching videos is time not spent doing something else, such as reading text.

Sure enough U.S. newsrooms are experiencing downsizing and lay-offs. The New Yorker’s Caleb Crain, revisiting his ten-year-old thesis regarding America’s reading habits finds little has changed for the better but also points to an underlying complexity that factors in the usage of new technology to communicate, consume and create information.

We may, in other words, read less but only if you count the traditional way of reading chunks of books or newsprint in one sitting. Now we multi-task, consume information in chunks, skim-read instead of truly reading, reshare information and create what McLuhan famously called “a secondary orality”.

Secondary orality is both remarkably like and remarkably unlike primary orality. Like primary orality, secondary orality has generated a strong group sense, for listening to spoken words forms hearers into a group, a true audience, just as reading written or printed texts turns individuals into themselves. But secondary orality generates a sense for groups immeasurably larger than those of primary oral culture – McLuhan’s ‘global village’ (p. 133).

Radio Is to Blame!

Now, some would argue that part of the blame for all this can be placed at the feet of pre-internet broadcast radio. It allowed the rise of shock jocks who vied for audience numbers (a.k.a. modern-day traffic) and purposely sought to shock (kinda like Click Bait today).

But radio is not to blame. The explosion in content creation we experience today is the direct result of the lowering of the entrance threshold to communicating. It is hardly surprising then that over 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute.

Lower reading rates, in general, at least in the traditional sense is the direct result of the digital landscape we are in. In the offline world, at any given moment our brains scan our environment, pick from our experience and memories to form a multi-layered pastiche of what we see that allows us to experience ‘reality’.

In truth, that reality is guided by our attention which has a specific cost in terms of cognitive load and energy expenditure. Because vision is mostly mental inattentional blindness i.e. things we don’t see because we have not been primed to look for them and our attention is engaged elsewhere, can make us miss what, in retrospect, should be unmissable (like a gorilla running around).

Content Creation and Marketing

Attention is what is given when the brain is engaged in the processing of information that helps it form a better picture of reality. The brain decides to allocate valuable mental resources in this fashion when it feels the quality and value of the information it is getting, justifies it. 

Consider how that works in terms of the video below from the talented Studio 188 guys:

Yes, this is entertaining. Chris Branch shared it on LinkedIn to make a point about budgets, quality, marketing and customer service.

The video captures our attention though for different reasons. Just like any form of entertainment, it allows us to assimilate and interpolate visual information that represents real-world objects so we can better understand how our brain sees the world.

By watching it we are fascinated by the dissimilarity of the props used by the Studio 188 team to recreate real-world objects that, however, exist in a fictional, digitized universe. In other words we learn something real from the video which, even if we cannot articulate it, makes our brain feel it has learnt something vital. As a result we feel satisfied.

We only behave like this when:

  1. We direct our attention at something because we feel it is warranted.
  2. The immediate feedback we get as a result of our attention makes us feel the effort was worth it.

Consider how in a 24-hour cycle, where content floods our timelines, skim-reading is the norm. There’s even a discussion on whether books should come with an estimate of the time it would take to read them.

Part of this trend is reflected in the rise of audiobooks . The Sniper Mind (my latest book on decision making, business, focus and self-improvement), for instance, is available free with an Audible subscription.

Keep it Light, Fast and Immediate

So, if you’re content is text-based (like this piece) there are some things you can do to make it as accessible as video and audio, which you should also be producing:

  1. Provide sufficient navigation for a skim-reading audience.
  2. Think of the audience first and communicate based on your understanding of its needs.
  3. Provide substance in the pay-off that works for your audience even if the call-to-action is not activated.
  4. Maintain a consistency of focus on valuable information that determines how much attention you will get.

Do that for every piece of content you produce. That’s it. 


Intentional book by David Amerland The Sniper Mind by David Amerland
Take Control Of Your Actions.    Make Better Decisions.