The Attention Economy 2020: Social Media, Mobile, Streaming

In Tim Wu’s excellent book, “The Attention Merchants,” Wu paints a grim history of advertising attempting to get attention, especially as technology enters the picture. He is undecided as to whether digital ads are a 99-cent store, a cesspool, or both:

“Over the long term [digital ads] would become something of a 99-cent store, if not an outright cesspool,” Wu explains.

Like it or not, “attention” is the engine of the new economy. Every metric that we value, individually or professional, is linked to attention: likes, follows, subscribers, fans, views, clicks, downloads, conversions, sign-ups are all simple units of attention.

Take the fundamental unit of display advertising: the retargeting ad. Retargeting ads are the ads that follow you around the Internet after you’ve visited a product. These ads are doing one thing: keeping your attention. It works. That’s why advertisers spent around $60 billion in programmatic advertising last year.

The 99-cent store-slash-cesspool perception is usually concerned about quality, rather than advertising itself. As a business, getting attention is great. But getting desperate for attention is not so great. No one is nostalgic for the days of pop-ads.

The attention economy has evolved as advertising has gotten more sophisticated and the channels and mediums of online content have changed.

The attention economy is the foundation of the tech economy. The real question is where, how, and why people pay attention.

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