I want what I don’t know I want: why attention markets are a threat to new ideas

Oct. 07, 2010 | by Simon Mustoe

“You can’t tell how people are going to behave based on how they have behaved”
(Don Draper, Mad Men)

“You can’t make any sense of the facts until you’ve had an idea”
(Stephen King, A Masterclass in Brand Planning)

“Journalists have to balance their role in responding to events with their role as an active seeker of stories”
(Paul Bradshaw, The Guardian)

For ten years, from my mid-teens to mid-twentysomethings I had a monthly appointment that I never ever missed. It was with the nearest newsagent so that I could buy the latest copy of The Face magazine. As a pop-culture obsessive I loved The Face. I loved it because it introduced me to new people, ideas, labels, fashion, movies and music. It kept my world moving forwards by giving me new information that led to new experiences. I loved it so much that I ended up working there – my first proper job out of university. And I still have all my copies stacked together at home as a compendium of times past, the new has become the old. So now I am a curator, a caretaker, of a decade of pop culture, of things I once liked.

The Face is sadly long-gone but the social need it tapped into – the provision of new information and experiences – remains as relevant and necessary today as it has always been. But we are in a dangerous place where the value of taking people somewhere new is in danger of becoming undervalued and, worst case, forgotten completely.

In media and marketing we talk a lot about competing in attention markets – by this we mean the ebb and flow of information that the online ‘crowd’ is interested in at any given time. We believe that the best way to be noticed is to appeal to people based on what they are currently interested in. This is because the internet has created an environment where near-real-time data about people’s likes and dislikes is at our fingertips. Of course, if you are interested in something, it means you already know about it.

The increasing centrality of attention markets in business strategy affects two established professional disciplines – journalism and marketing. For both, the internet is changing how we think about the content we produce. But we have a choice to make. Should we really be writing about and creating things based predominantly on what we know people already like, or should we be giving people new ideas and experiences?

The route we choose has repercussions at a more profound level than the media or marketing industries. It’s an issue for society. New information, ideas and experiences are the very things that have always powered human progress. But how do we move the world on if we are only interested in what people liked yesterday?

Attention markets and journalism
Online, a publisher can ‘play’ the attention markets by monitoring what people are talking about, searching for and reading online at any given time, and publish stories with great speed and at great volume in order to meet this need.

This is a world away from the role journalism has historically played in seeking out and breaking new stories in order to attract readers. The Daily Telegraph, one of the UK’s broadsheet newspapers, has arranged its newsroom so that it can constantly monitor the relative popularity of news stories and feed this into editorial planning. It has the attention market at the heart of its approach. That said, this is also the paper that had its biggest scoop in years with the MPs expenses scandal. There wasn’t much of an attention market around that until the Telegraph created it. I wonder if its editorial approach has shifted back in the direction of breaking news as a result.

When I think of journalistic practice, I think of Sid Hudgens, the journalist in the film L.A. Confidential, played by Danny De Vito. He’s out there in the shadows of the Hollywood night getting the scoops. It was dirty work, but the guy was breaking news, working contacts to get the inside story. Turn on the television for any UK national news programme and still see political journalists referring to a tip-off or an important bit of information given to them by a senior Westminster village source that they’re plugged into.

In one of the quotes at the top of this post, Paul Bradshaw says that journalists need to balance responding to events with seeking new stories. And he’s right. There is a responsibility for journalism and, frankly, for anyone creating content on- and off-line to push us onwards, to educate, entertain and surprise.

Attention markets and marketing
In digital marketing, attention markets are central to how we have come to think about and interpret user behaviour. It has become industry gospel that brands should understand where online audience attention around their product, service or sector currently resides. And it is indeed good practice to do so. But, just like journalism, if we place too much emphasis on this type of knowledge we risk only ever providing experiences that people already know they like. How does this inspire people?

Of course, the tension in marketing between audience research and creativity is nothing new. What is new today is the accessibility of data about user behaviour that the internet gives us, the potential that attention markets have to change the way we research and plan activity, and how easy and tempting it is to use it as the sole basis for creating new ideas and information.

As long ago as 1983, at a Market Research Society Conference, one of the great UK advertising men, Stephen King, warned against marketers planning activity based on a “here-and-now, action-oriented description of what happened yesterday”. The internet encourages this sort of immediate, literal interpretation of user behaviour because it speeds things up. We can now get information and act on it in quick succession. It is reactive, not proactive. By contrast, Stephen King believed that these facts were only useful when placed against an interesting idea, with research effectively used as a way to test it.

What we need to do
The purpose of this post is not to question whether there is a role for attention markets in journalism or marketing. They have an important role to play. But so do new ideas. We need to work harder at tying these two elements together more effectively. We need to use attention markets not as a literal guide to what to do and say but as a way of judging where people might be interested in going next – as information that stimulates ideas not responses. I believe that journalists and marketing professionals should be a bridge between what people know and like now and what they will know and like next. They should keep moving us forward. After all, it’s hard to see where you’re going if you’re always looking back.

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    Comments (3)

    • Fiona

      Superb post mr mustoe, thank you.  From a consumer point of view I think some of the theory around mavens, connectors and salesmen comes into play - in that there will always be people who drive new ideas and always those that follow.  

      From a business / brand point of view however this really does pose an interesting conundrum.  It is far safer to identify and sell in ideas that fulfill existing needs but as Henry Ford said (just to add another quote into the pot) "If I'd asked customers what they wanted, they would have said "a faster horse". Its not that we should blindly develop ideas without insight, we just need to make sure that insight must be interpreted through the brand lens.

      When i worked in TV it was always a bug bear of my then CEO that generating new programme ideas against BARB data (viewing figures) will always end up with lowest common denominator telly.  A me too approach was never going to stand us apart.  Instead, we invested a lot of money in understanding our channel brands and our audiences' lives which resulted in greater brand loyalty and market share relative to our budgets.

      I guess like people, some brands are destined to be the innovators, first movers or culture shapers and some are there to follow and maximise on newly opened doors. Ultimately i think it comes down to an attitude of taking risks and having strong personal (or brand) belief as much as creativity. Digital has been its own worst enemy in driving accountability (and safety) at every step and this is the challenge we now have if we want to creatively drive brands online.Oct 12, 2010 01:09 pm

    • Tim Aldiss

      That's a great post Simon. Thank god you weren't collecting Jackie magazine.

      Your comments reminded me of a recent Russell Davies article in which he starts by talking about how science fiction isn't the same as it used to be. It led him on to other topics and how we are lacking something that makes us reach for the future more.

      Maybe we've reached some kind of mental cataclysm where we've run aground on the outcome of the analysis of all this data being the solution.

      I'm sure the best ideas of the future will be created in the same way as the past - by brilliant minds and through collaboration.Oct 7, 2010 05:24 pm

    • Heather White Laird

      This is a very thoughtful piece and addresses issues we need to be aware of, especially at a search analytics company like iCrossing. Luckily there are content providers such as Current TV and GOOD magazine to counter act the Huffington Post, and marketers such as Uniqlo that are out ahead of the research to show us something new. Thanks
      heatherOct 7, 2010 05:14 pm

    Please note: the opinions expressed in this post represent the views of the individual, not necessarily those of iCrossing.

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