Dialog: Jonah Bloom on the Attention Economy

In the Dialog series, we’ll have a conversation with an industry leader about a pressing issue. This week we’ve invited former Advertising Age editor Jonah Bloom to discuss the attention economy. Bloom is currently a freelance content strategist at Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal & Partners. Follow him on Twitter @jonahbloom

 

From: Brian Morrissey
To: Jonah Bloom
Re: Attention

I don’t get Silicon Valley. It’s like watching a children’s soccer game where a mass of kids cluster around the ball as it moves around the field. The latest thing is Color, the photo-sharing app that got $41 million in funding before it launched a product, much less had any revenue. The idea behind it is you can see photos of people around you. Color positions it as great for parties and such, but it seems closer to the voyeurism of Chatroulette. (You were a regular there, right?) I dutifully tried the Color app this morning at my bagel store. First thing that popped up on my phone was a photo of a shirtless guy. Great. If TV defined our first mass media attention era, this kind of narcissism is what’s defining Attention 2.0. It’s hard not to get a bit depressed about it. Here’s my new Color pal. I can connect you two if you’d like.
From: Jonah Bloom
To: Brian Morrissey
I think we actually met on Grindr a while back, but it’d be good to reconnect because I need to know where he got his pants. You know how I love a three-quarter-length jean. Silicon Valley made some limited sense to me a couple of years ago, but it’s echo-chambered itself all the way back to the insanity of the late 90s. Color’s not quite a CueCat, in that I’m sure there are people who would take the time to find pictures of people who are not even vague acquaintances, but I am really struggling to understand what they could possibly do with $40 million other than advertise the shit out of it to people who won’t understand it or use it. Mark Suster nailed it for me the other day with his TechCrunch post about nine women not being able to make a baby in a month. The point with these things is to try them, get feedback, improve them and so on. Throwing $40 million at this thing makes no fucking sense.
To: Jonah Bloom
From: Brian Morrissey

I’ll send along your regards next time I encounter shirtless guy. The best explanation I heard is Color wants to be a pop-up social network of sorts. You go to a conference, fire up Color and can share all sorts of stuff with the people there. The devil is in the details, however. As luck was have it, I was at just such an event this week, our digital publishing summit in Utah. I struggled with two digital media execs to figure out how to work the thing. Maybe it was the altitude, but we couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Not a good sign. What struck me at the conference is how publishers are swamped by all these new ways to get attention that don’t require much in the way of paying people to create content. The War for Attention has led to this arms race, fueled by Silicon Valley VCs, that I don’t see slowing down. That has to scare publishers to no end. I certainly don’t see any VCs putting $41 million into content businesses. Instead, they’re fueling more tech services that seem designed to waste time. That could be the legacy of Web 2.0, like this guy I found at breakfast in Brooklyn Facebooking with a disconcerting intensity.
To: Brian Morrissey
From: Jonah Bloom
So it’s a sharing tool for when you’re in the real world and you want to escape back into the virtual world? That’s dandy. So we’re all sitting around at a conference that we traveled to so that we could actually meet each other, but instead we shift our dialogue online, where we could have had it without traveling. Maybe we should just conclude that for now it looks like Facebook is the new Facebook. Attempts to reinvent that wheel are  going to be exercises in futility unless they offer something a little more, you know, useful. It’s not surprising to me that VCs are overlooking content, because the lure of things of that scale that make money overnight is so much greater than the lure of a content business with its perennially pesky cost of creating stuff and its ongoing insistence on display advertising as its core revenue stream. But I’ve had three conversations in the last couple of weeks with huge brands who are looking for content that will make them useful to consumers, make them an authority, attract and engage audiences and so on. There’s strong demand for good, credible content and content curation, and short supply. I think content is still a good market to be in, as long as you are able to think beyond the idea that your job is aggregating an audience and then selling that audience to a brand via the means of a display ad.
From: Brian Morrissey
To: Jonah Bloom
This is true. I’m not actually down on content. I just think we have an attention problem. Battelle said we’re in an attention bubble. We’re long on information, very short on insight. An exec from The Huffington Post spoke at our conference. He said it produces 600-1,000 pieces of content a day in the hopes that 15 are popular. Yikes. Advertisers are told to go in this direction in their hunt for attention. At what point does it just become spam? It seems like we are in this vicious circle where we create stuff that makes our attention scarce, which then leads publishers and advertisers to create even more content to grab any sliver of attention. I guess it keeps us busy.
From: Jonah Bloom
To: Brian Morrissey
I don’t know how that school of thought has become so popular in some blogging and digital journalism circles, but it’s boneheaded and antithetical to the tools the Internet has given us for analyzing what audiences want and share. If you can’t combine good editors and those analytical tools to increase the frequency with which you have breakout hits, then, yes, we’re doomed to drown in Eric Schmidt’s cesspool of spam. I think you can do better, both in terms of content production and in terms of the it’s-all-about-the-CPM monetization strategy that drives that monkeys-and-typewriters stuff. That said, you’re not wrong about the attention issue, and that kind of brings us back to the VCs pouring money into all these things that are designed to grab more of our attention, or occasionally even provide shortcuts or lifehacks that’ll give us back a few seconds of attention. I wonder whether this is kind of an interesting new avenue for capitalism. We used to think capital simply expanded over time (credit cards, futures and options and so on) and space (developing world), but this is a different avenue. We’ll make money devising things that’ll take up more of people’s time and attention and then we’ll make money devising things that’ll save them time and attention so that we maintain the demand for the attention-sucking stuff.
From: Brian Morrissey
To: Jonah Bloom
That’s great. I wonder what happens when we’ve chopped up our attention thousands upon thousands of times. I know brands are fairly sick of it. Rick Webb has a wonderfully rambling post up about this very issue. It’s a slam on the Silicon Valley bubble from a guy on the ad side. He says this great thing about all the Valley wunderkinds who are devising ever more ways to steal a sliver of attention in the hopes of selling brands: “Brands don’t actually want or need any more media channels. As far as they’re concerned, the Internet can stop now. We have enough channels. We were happy when we had like seven (TV, print, outdoor, radio, in-store, direct and theater), got a little interested in the first few new ones. Urinals? Uh, okay. Banners? Interesting. Google? Yes. Groupon, Farmville, GroupMe? OKAY I AM GETTING TIRED NOW. Silicon Valley seems to think that advertising’s appetite for new media channels is unending. It is not.” That’s pretty much it right there. The hope that targeting is going to make all this fragmented attention cohere is pretty farcical, if you ask me. The sum of the parts is going to be less than the whole. I’m disturbed that billions of dollars have been invested into all manner of ad-tech targeting schemes that are raising click rates from .01 percent to .012 percent. That’s one long walk for a small beer. This has gotten a bit depressing now, hasn’t it? I’ll let you have the last shout.
From: Jonah Bloom
To: Brian Morrissey
If you just see these channels as ‘media’ in the old sense then I agree the proliferation doesn’t look good. But what about the fact that you can now engage and sell to your best customers directly, while simultaneously collecting great data on them and reducing your media budget? That’s pretty cool, no? Coke has 25 million Facebook fans who have not only raised their hands to receive Coke’s news and views but have shown a willingness to co-create with and advocate for the brand. Those brands who master giving their consumers what they want and need in terms of content, software, better experiences and answers to their problems (including attention paucity) can thrive in this digital landscape. They can be the new media powerhouses, because they still earn the attention of millions every day – Coke gets more eyeballs than per day than every TV network in the U.S. and Europe combined, they just have to work out what to do with them. The attention crisis is a problem for brand managers who think their job is advertise cost-efficiently to mass audiences, but those brand managers who seek direct sales-driving engagement with audiences should be pretty excited about it. See how I made this all sound more positive?

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