Listen up: how to thrive in the attention economy

For brands to cut through the marketing noise they need to offer a fair trade of value for attention, says Zone senior UX designer Nis Bjorn...

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It's never been easier to reach consumers – anyone with a credit card and a Facebook account can target customers with laser-like precision. But it's one thing making a noise, and quite another getting discerning and busy consumers to take off their headphones and actually listen to it.

According to one survey, our attention span has fallen from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight seconds now – shorter than a goldfish. Filtering out noise, or escaping it entirely, is just natural human behaviour. Of course, I was able to watch the latest season of Game of Thrones without my attention wandering once, but did I watch a single second of advertising? Not a bit of it.

I design daily for short attention spans and low tolerance for complexity, and one of my favourite topics at last year’s Web Summit was the attention economy – the trade of the attention and time of consumers for entertainment, conversation, content or utility. 

Attention for value

A valuable attention exchange wins hearts and minds, and consumers will go out of their way to spend money on brands they genuinely love. By contrast, they will also lash out at and avoid brands that abuse their attention because it feels like a violation. Consumers have very little attention, and they want to spend it on things they love. 

The attention economy is saturated, because of an explosion of information. We receive, on average, about 5,000 messages a day. So how can brands thrive in this environment? Ultimately, what we can perceive as aversion to brands is the result of brands demanding attention without giving value.

So here are three things for brands to consider if they want to cut through the noise:

Build brand love before selling product 

Stop trying to sell your products and focus on creating love for your brand. For Nike, that means providing probably the best companion app for running. For free. I have no doubt it will soon also be the world's best personal training voice assistant. Love the same things your customers love and they will spend their money on you. 

Back up your end of the trade with value 

Most products and experiences are designed to take as much attention as possible, rather than a fair exchange of attention and value. Dating apps are a good example: they exist to help people find romance, but their measure of success is to keep you swiping. What dating apps want and what their users want is not the same thing. Products and services that ask for less and offer more will flourish.

Be worthy of attention. Find your purpose

Your worth comes not just from the value of your products, but from the purpose of your organisation. Design systems to unleash and empower individuals in your organisation. Forget about B2B or B2C – build a people-to-people organisation. A strong purpose will permeate throughout your company and give an air of authenticity to your customers.  

If you take away one thing, let it be this: back up every exchange of attention with value. If you can’t, don’t ask for attention. You need to earn the right to speak.