The Attention Trend

19 October 2009 Emmanuel Gobillot

In an extract from Leadershift, Emmanuel Gobillot turns his gaze to the business of attracting attention. Something of particular interest when developments in technology are dramatically changing society.

On the morning of 1 August 2005, former US vice-president, Nobel Prize-winner and, for some, 2000 President Elect Al Gore was about to start a revolution. It had nothing to do with climate change.

At midnight on the morning of 1 August 2005, the cable television network founded by Al Gore and businessman Joel Hyatt went on air. This was not just any new channel. Marrying so-called old and new media, it was the first full 24-hour user-generated network. The short three to seven-minute programmes it features (called pods) are all created by users (called VC2 Producers). Anyone can submit a pod, on any subject matter, to the Current website where registered users vote to decide which they would like to see broadcast.

The Current programming department makes a final decision based on these votes. In addition to VC2-submitted content, Current also features Current:News, which follows stories submitted and voted on by the online community.

This 'democratiser' (Al Gore's description) of content was to pick up an Emmy award in September 2007. Along with the US, the channel is also available in the UK and Italy. Its appeal to viewers aged 16 to 34 (the darlings of advertisers) as well as the distributed co-creation of content makes Current the standard-bearer of the demographic and expertise trends. But more than that, Current is also a destination where people go to invest their discretionary effort (the effort they have left after they have spent their energy on essential tasks). And this is what makes Current a key player in the attention trend.

The average email user will receive 65,000 messages this year alone. More than 300,000 books are published every year. The average weekday edition of The New York Times contains more information than someone would have come across in his or her lifetime in 17th-century England. 40 exabytes (one exabyte is 1018 bytes) of unique information is produced in a year – more than was produced in the previous 5,000 years. A typical supermarket stocks around 40,000 items. Pieces of direct mail to hit letterboxes in the US every year number 87.2 billion. You can access more than two billion web pages. Internet traffic doubles every hundred days. It is estimated that the internet is 500 times larger than the 91 million daily Google searches can ever show. So where do you focus? Where do you go for answers? Or is the only answer to just switch off?

"The New York Times contains more information than someone would have come across in his or her lifetime in 17th-century England."

A new reality

The answer to that last question is probably the most worrying for leaders. With 48 million avatars (online representations of individuals) currently roaming the web, 10% of whom do so for more than ten hours a day, MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) and associated virtual worlds might well be in the process of designing a new reality. OK so that's a pretty bold claim – which you may now be looking to reject on analytical grounds alone. So let’s just think about it for a second. Let’s get back to Current.

The interesting thing here is not that a new generation is co-creating content, but rather why it is doing it, when so much content is already available. It all comes down to effort – the effort people decide to spend on things and the effort you spend on attracting them to spend effort on these things. These are the two important variables in this new trend. In these days of 'attention warfare' (being constantly under attack by messages) people whose attention is limited learn to focus on the things they decide are important to them. That is to say that they only allocate the limited effort they have to specific things they deem are worth their while and switch off their attention from other things.

The other important point is that some people are better at creating things that attract people than others. The key reason why so many social networking and virtual technologies have become so appealing is that they mimic our normal everyday social lives much better than any of the organisations we have created.

The attention trend

The attention trend reminds me of a scene in the blockbuster movie The March of the Penguins, charting the breeding seasons of a penguin colony, when the mothers return from their hunting trip and call out for their offspring. In the most amazing display of nature’s wonder, amidst a scene of chaos, where thousands of penguins, adults and their young, shout at the tops of their voices, mothers and children are always, without fail, reunited. Amongst the thousands of voices both recognise the voice of their tribe. In 'penguin world', having a recognisable voice is a clear way to cut through the noise and attract those who belong to a group.

The same is true of our world. We recognise the call of the tribe to which we want to belong. For people this means restricting listening to the voices we trust and can easily recognise. For organisations, being better at creating things that attract people's attention is not a function of cleverness, but rather a function of focus. In a world that is already crowded, if you try to be all things to all people your message becomes so diluted that it loses the capability to stand out above the noise. If you have a specific way of saying or doing things you suddenly stand for something loud enough to attract the people who matter. It may well mean that you attract fewer people, but these people will be devoted people. Just as the baby penguin on the frozen ice cap hears its parents' voices amidst the cacophony of thousands of other penguins' cries, your potential audience (attuned to a specific tone) will hear your voice and find you. Incidentally, what is true of real penguins is also true of virtual ones – my children will always recognise the call of Club Penguin!

The trouble is that the cries of organisations are becoming less and less audible as they become less and less distinguishable. People are growing deaf to your efforts to be heard. Indications that this trend has already started are demonstrated by Current. People no longer rely on traditional sources (in the case of news, that would be journalists) to make sense of their world. They are prepared to belong to and further the cause of communities that bring coherence to their world. In so doing they construct a digital identity that they can control and through which they can apply filters. Traditional organisations no longer fit that model.

Online communities

Already online communities and social networks are growing beyond the size we ever thought possible. MySpace's membership has risen from 20 million people in 2005 to 225 million in 2008. That's an average annual growth rate of 513%. Facebook, the second most-trafficked social media site with more than 150 million active users grew at 550% during the same period. LinkedIn's networking platform grows annually at a rate of 82%. You may still see this as a side issue but it means that, were they countries, MySpace would be the fifth-biggest country in the world after China, India, the US and Indonesia whilst its neighbouring country Facebook would be the eighth biggest, making it the biggest in the European Union.

"Online communities and social networks are growing beyond the size we ever thought possible."

Membership in MMORPGs grew from nothing in 1997 to about 16 million by 2008; at the current growth rate there will be over 30 million players by 2013. In country terms, that means that the 39th biggest country by 2013 will be a virtual gaming world inhabited by avatars. Revenues of MMORPG hit $662m in China alone in 2007 – an increase of about 70% over 2005. Second Life (the virtual world) has over 14 million residents who spend an average of 30 hours a month online. This means that the 65th biggest country of a list of 221 is a land that only exists on the servers of Linden Lab (the company behind Second Life).

So yes, people may be turning up for work but they are no longer investing all their efforts in your cause. Your efforts at attracting them using the tools and levers you have always used (reward, recognition, threats and rules) will no longer engage them to the extent that they recognise you as an integral part of their world.

In these circumstances how do you leverage talent when no one hears your cries for help?

As leaders, our role is not only to get people to do something, it is to get them to do more than they thought possible. We want them to allocate their discretionary effort to our cause. Our reliance on roles and rules and economic incentives to achieve these ends has been to the detriment of the moral and social obligations that make us release that discretionary effort. That would not be a problem if we had nowhere else to turn. But, as technology enables the creation of much more targeted communal experience in a way organisations could never replicate, the efforts put in by leaders to win the fight for attention will be largely wasted.

Faced with this trend some organisations are multiplying their communication efforts. They try (sometimes successfully) to use new channels to reach us. But what the attention trend demonstrates is not so much that we need to be more intelligent and credible about where we find people but much more importantly, it will shape what we say to them once we have found a place where they might listen.

You might safely reason that things are not as bad as they seem. After all, your leadership position still means that you are in charge. Your desire to create value along with your power to do so should see you win the day. But when everything that has made you successful is crumbling, there will be little hope in clinging to your leadership power to see you through as the democratic shift is about to make that irrelevant too. In many ways this is probably the easiest of the challenges to explain, yet it is the one with the most profound consequences at it severs the final cord that made the leader's role relevant.