What’s your strategy for competing in the attention economy?

Ben Hornbrook, 30 June 2016
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“The new ‘attention economy’ demands generosity and thoughtfulness. It requires real investment in taking the time and energy to create content that matters.”
Brian Honigman, Adjunct Professor, New York University.

I recently listened to a podcast from the ABC program Future Tense that explored some of the pressures ever-present digital technology is placing on our attention. It highlights how distractions like email and Facebook are creating a workplace in which our attention is constantly shifting, with  research showing that even a glancing distraction can leave an ‘attention residue’ on our brain that slows our performance for up to 30 minutes. Meanwhile, other studies suggest that the average attention span is now just eight seconds!

Apart from the obvious productivity impacts, what this reinforces is that attention is a scarce resource that’s being vied for from many angles. Now more than ever we are living in an ‘attention economy’ – where attention must be earned.

The communication challenge facing organisations is therefore not just competition, but hyper-competition. With so many forces competing for people’s attention (combined with our personal battle to focus on one task at a time), being strategic and purposeful in how you communicate is more important than ever.

If you’re going to distract someone and potentially slow down their performance, you had better make sure it’s worth their while.

So how can you cut through and ensure you are communicating in a way that is compelling and meaningful to people? What is your organisation’s strategy for competing in this ‘attention economy’?

I think it’s important to remember that your communication strategy doesn’t need to be complex – it just needs to be focused on your audience and vigorously implemented. What really matters is putting the time and effort into:

  • understanding your audience (their needs, motivations, communication preferences and influencers);
  • being substantial and relevant (genuinely adding value for your audience)
  • having a plan for reaching them (i.e. a distribution strategy), and
  • making it easy for them to take action.

For example, John Moore, Chief Marketing Officer of  private health insurer Bupa recently talked about how he has worked hard to shift Bupa’s focus to “falling in love with the problem, not the solution”, and drawing on the insights of their customers more.

One thing that I think is often forgotten is that a lot of this work relies on cultivating interpersonal communication skills, particularly listening and empathy. You can often learn more from asking your customers and stakeholders the right questions, than you can from trawling through mountains of data.

Simply taking the time to focus on what you are trying to achieve, what your audience needs and wants, and how you can reach them most effectively goes a long way. Because ultimately, good communication isn’t an art or a science; it’s the result of combining the right insights with hard work and common sense.

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