Why Value Rules the Attention Economy-178

“…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients.”
– (Herbert Simon 1971, p. 40-41)

You’ll never read every good, relevant post in the blogosphere on any given day. You’ll never be able to view all the websites you’d be likely to enjoy.

As web users working in a Web 2.0 environment, we’re offered a proliferation of choices every time we jump online. What to read (or what to scan), where to go, what updates to check, what news to follow, how long to spend in our email accounts, whether to search for new content from new sources or stick with the sources we trust.

As much as this dilemma applies to us, this is also the kind of environment our blog or website’s visitors are trying to manage. Among such a proliferation of choices, how can we ensure that wemake the cut?

In this post, I want to explain how the Attention Economy must change the kind of content you produce and how you should market it.

I’ll also explain why I believe providing ‘concentrated value’ is the best way to get attention in this climate.

The rules of the game

In mid-2006, Technorati published a graph showing that the blogosphere was then 100 times bigger than in 2003.

If you’re competing for attention in this environment, you have a whole lot of competitors.

If you’re viewing the situation through the lens of your average web user, certain coping mechanisms have been developed to make the proliferation of choices manageable:

  • A tendency to scan all but the best and most relevant content.
  • A willingness to make decisions about the worth of content before every word in a headline has been read.
  • A desire for social media to take the burden of choice away from us by allowing a crowd of (somewhat) like-minded people to choose on our behalf, or at least, provide a short-list of choices — ala the Digg front page.

Another central development, something that will be difficult to explain in bullet point form, has been the de-emphasizing of the whole.

Websites and blogs receive attention-share based on the worth and performance of each individual article, rather than the collected product.

There isn’t enough attention available to consider the collective value of a blog or website if that value is spread thinly. We divide our attention one headline and one post at a time.

Why value reigns supreme

Web users will pay attention to something based on its perceived value. There’s no other metric, and no other currency you can use to gain attention. Of course, there are many different types of value: entertainment value, knowledge value, and so on.

If attention is generally divided between specific content items, rather than whole blogs or websites (unless the whole has a very simple premise), the next step in optimizing for attention is to concentrate value within specific content items.

If we accept that, a few important revelations follow:

  • Among the proliferation of choices, the decision to read or discard is primarily made within the headline of a single content item. The primary function of a headline is now to promise value — and more value than everybody else.
  • Social media ranks and rewards articles based around perceptions of value.

One really big revelation is that, in most cases, posting often can be a handicap. In fact, by spreading value thinly rather than concentrating it, you may be shooting yourself in the foot. (News is the exception for which the opposite is the case.)

A grass planet.

Why grassroots growth is no longer enough

1,000 links from small blogs will probably bring you about as much traffic as one moderately successful article on StumbleUpon. The first route could take a year or more. The second route could take just a few hours.

Bottom-up growth is still possible in a Web 2.0 environment — it just can’t compare with top-down events. Social media, popular websites and A-list blogs can control and direct the flow of huge swarms of traffic. If you want to reach the upper echelons of growth, you need to capture some of those swarms.

Not everyone wants that. But if you do, once again, concentrating value is the only way to get it.

How do I concentrate value?

That’s the question implicit throughout the article and one I have every intention of answering.

Take a day or two to mull over the ideas in this post, if they interest you. You’re also encouraged to clear up any uncertainties you have in the comments section (I’ll answer any questions you have there).

In my next post, I’ll be explaining how you can create the kind of content that dominates in the attention economy.