In praise of the attention-seeker
A view from Mel Exon

In praise of the attention-seeker

When consumers are overwhelmed by an abundance of choice, brands need to shout loudly to stand out and make an impact.

When Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web back in the late 1980s, he famously envisaged it would be an egalitarian means to share information. The web was "for everyone". 

Why the historical reminder? Well, as we sit here now, it strikes me there were assumptions made
back then that we still consider received wisdom but are, slowly but surely, turning out to be
anything but.

I’m talking the idea of the Long Tail. Or as Chris Anderson, author of the book of the same name, put it back in 2004: "Why the future of business is selling less of more."

What happened to the idea of democratised distribution? And why should we care?

"In a world where scarcity of attention is such an issue, high awareness is a welcome shortcut in an audience’s decision-making process"

As The Economist put it in a recent piece about the entertainment industry, we are, in fact, "selling a lot more of less", not the other way round.

Why? In 2010, several years after positing the Long Tail theory, Anderson took up a new theme, infamously declaring "the web is dead" in a Wired article and citing the rise of walled-garden apps as the source of its demise. 

This isn’t simply about the dominance of a few tech behemoths standing astride the internet. It’s about human nature too. Fast and efficient beats flexible and open. And big beats small in the attention game. 

As much as we like to see audiences as adventurers riding out to discover new frontiers in Brand Land, the reality is rather more prosaic. As Michael Wolff, co-author of the article "The web is dead. Long live the internet", put it: "Our appetite for discovery slows as our familiarity with the status quo grows."

In 2017, it’s hard to ignore that statement. The concept of "time available x the human brain’s capacity for attention" has created what we know as the Abundance Paradox. Overwhelmed by choice, we choose whatever is popular among "people just like us". Rankings of the most popular downloads or streams only serve to reinforce that behaviour. We want easy choices
and shared experiences.

It’s why blockbusters win against critically acclaimed independent films. It’s why video-on-demand specialist Netflix decided to bet big on House of Cards and The Crown and spends a fortune to secure the rights to Disney films in the US. As The Economist sums up, the root of this is a response to simple human behaviour: "Netflix still views itself as a long-tail company, but although it spends billions of dollars to serve lots of different market niches, especially geographical ones, subscribers generally make a beeline for the top 50 or so."

What does this mean for marketers?

  • We have to stop assuming our super-cool new content or product will naturally find an audience somewhere in the depths of Amazon or Facebook.
  • We know the old, interruptive media models are not as effective as they once were. As a consequence, we must find ways to lure an audience in from the start. Find the right partner allied to our cause, one with legitimate access to a relevant audience. Then barter, trade, share. 
  • Scale matters. In a world where scarcity of attention is such an issue, high awareness is a welcome shortcut in an audience’s decision-making process (one that is far closer to "low-level processing" than any of us are prepared to admit). 
  • If you’re not a big player, think about how your resources can be pooled to make your mouse-sized brand roar like a lion. Or innovate and earn disproportionate attention that way.
  • Consider making whatever you have to sell into a live, real-world experience. Assuming that the experience is good enough, the opportunity here is to create flashbulb memories and associations. And those same experiences are a chance to drive "usage as the biggest driver of attitude" (according to Byron Sharp, author of How Brands Grow). 
  • In the face of overwhelming choice for audiences, think about your brand as a curator or editor in a space where you can act with authority. Your audiences may thank you.

In short, as much as the Long Tail concept promised opportunity and access for all, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that, right now, most of the money is still made in the head.

Mel Exon is the chief executive at Sunshine