The Attention Arena

[So, I’m writing a book for PHD to bring together a lot of the great thoughts & ideas we’ve got for 2009.  Things learned about writing books #12 – you can write stuff you like, that you enjoy, that you think works… but if it doesn’t work in the context of the book, it ain’t going in.  The following is one of those things…]

Once upon a time, the competition for people’s attention was between large media entities.  Newspapers, TV and radio stations and so on fought to herd people into their captive space in order to sell their ‘attention’ to advertisers. 

Companies who wished to advertise simply chose to do so with the media owners who had won the fight to attract the audience that the company wished to advertise to.  Like the Emperor at the Colosseum, deciding which gladiator was their favourite.

Now, people have been given the option to bypass the mass media by the new digital world.  They skip ads, blank out banners etc.  They are paying much less attention to advertising.  In order to find ways to engage and talk to people, companies have been thrust into the gladiatorial arena of attention seeking.

This a fight that many companies may never have expected to find themselves in, and what’s worse is that they are competing against not only the media companies that they once relied upon to deliver an audience, but also the very people they are trying to reach.


First of all, the goliaths of the attention grabbing world are the media companies, the people who’ve been creating entertaining content for decades, drawing people’s attention.

It’s a tough fight to engage people as much as these people do; they’re pros, they’ve been doing it for years.

Then on the other side, there’s the user-generated content that people are increasingly becoming fascinated with, and spending more and more of their time and attention consuming

For instance, as of September 2008, one in five page impressions delivered on the internet in the UK was for a social networking site (Comscore).

It’s tough engaging people as much as these guys do either, very simply because there’s millions of them.  Some are getting really good, almost as good as the pros.  Some have lots of friends, and so get lots of people watching what they do.

On either side, there’s tough opponents ready to fight with you to get the attention of the world; the pros want it so they can either still try to sell advertising space, or even work out new ways to monetise the great content they produce.  The people want it because it helps define them as people in the 21st century; they demand attention because it helps them achieve their goals, whatever they may be.

Which means for companies, the safest way to win in the attention arena nowadays is to team up with other people to create something attention worthy, be it with the pros, the people, or even both. 

The most important question is what have companies got that can be attention worthy in this day and age beyond the products they produce?