What happens to the Attention Economy as Digital Products Evolve?

Last night, I picked up my phone to call my mum, only to get hooked by an Instagram fishing rod. Before I knew it, I was deep into a story about a man named Bobby Love, who escaped prison and built a new life in a new city with his wife Cheryl, who never knew of his criminal past. 40 years later, the police came to arrest him and by this time, my mum had gone to bed.

As a consumer of countless digital products, I am just one of millions of people who rely on them daily, to the extent where I no longer remember what it feels like not to consume some kind of digital information every single day. That makes me an active participant in the Attention Economy; which by definition refers to human attention as a currency.

What is attention?

How many eyes, views, clicks, shares or engagements something gets is a measurement of how much we’re paying attention, or at least paying with our attention. All digital products such as apps, sites and programmes are designed to capture and keep the attention of its user in any way possible.

Paying attention to something means that you are zoning out of one thing (calling my mum) to zone into another (Bobby Love) and if the digital product is doing its job right, you become immersed in the thing that caught your attention and you won’t want to leave.

Furthermore, zoning into something less important but more captivating can often win, no matter how irrational it is. Calling my mum was A) more important and B) more time-critical, but for some reason, Bobby Love won your attention. And we all do this; how often do you fall down a Wiki hole or get lost in YouTube as opposed to finishing some time sensitive work?

How do people pay attention?

Much like the initial hook paragraph of this article, attention is caught by something unusual or something that is designed to catch hold of one of our faculties; most commonly our eyes when it comes to digital consumption. With eye-catching animations, addictive haptics or busy designs that make us stop scrolling for a split second, content is capturing us at every corner.

In fact, digital products are designed to create an addictive or habitual experience, engaging the user for as long as possible and playing into the withdrawal symptoms that users can feel when a product or device is taken away.

Despite the fact that paying attention might often be involuntary, you’re still getting people to stop, watch and listen somehow. Think about when you last watched a YouTube video and an ad break interrupts; rather than having the option to “Skip Ad” immediately, a few seconds go by while your thumb hovers over where the skip button is due to appear. In those seconds, you’re consuming the advert whether you like it or not. With some apps, they explicitly give you the choice to either sign up for a subscription, or consume an advert in return for the service for free.

What happens when the attention runs out?

With younger generations being brought up solely with technology and all that goes with it, we now know when we are expected to pay with our attention and in general are happy to do this if we get something in return. Every different app on our phones is trying to compete for our attention through push notifications, sounds and the building up of habit. But as technology becomes evermore ensconced into our world, we’re learning to navigate our digital products without getting distracted at every hurdle (unless of course you get caught up with a story as good as the one of Bobby Love and Cheryl).

Now, we can build up some kind of immunity, known as “banner blindness” and generally complete an important digital task, without things getting in the way. If you’re reading an ITV news story on your phone, you are probably able to ignore banner advertisements of a Loaf sofa you were looking at a few days ago and so forth. We tend to know that ads and distractions are there and we’re willing to accept them, but we also reach saturation when a product requires too much attention than we can actually give.

The human brain has already evolved to block out banner ads which is why they are getting increasingly intrusive.

The key is to play the long game.

So what happens when we build up the immunity too much? What happens when users are just bored of the distractions and we’re unable to give the attention that these digital products are demanding of us? Since there is now a surplus of information that has saturated our daily lives, it means there’s now a scarcity of attention. So what do you do to get that back?

Creating a digital product that will force the user to pay attention; from forced adverts to click bait, is making people bored. The more time goes on, the less surprised consumers become.

There will always be futuristic improvements in product design, better understanding of neuroscience, user research, human development, and psychology. Technology will advance in areas of VR, AR and even biosensor experience as the quest to capture attention goes on and on.

The key is to play the long game. Promoting a lifestyle and using a brand voice is becoming the way to retain a loyal consumer base and long-term success. Rather than forcing them to pay attention, creating something that will be useful, is pleasurable or something the user will want in their life is the key to keeping it.


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