Attention Arbitrage – Why You Should Care

Attention Arbitrage

If there’s a precious commodity in the digital era, it’s not Bitcoin, a gold, diamonds, or a national currency. It’s attention.

Every organization in the world with a product or service to sell is competing to capture the attention of their ideal clientele. The problem is those people buy more than just what you sell.  You’re competing with every other noise in the marketplace for their attention.

When it comes to social media, for example, users of platforms such as Instagram, Twitter or Facebook—the attention brokers—are consumers of content whose attention is bought and sold in digital advertising marketplaces. There are many terms, but attention arbitrage is one that gets frequently used to describe this process.

What’s Attention Arbitrage?

It’s the practice of people selling your attention to other people.

The attention sellers (in the online world examples are platforms like Google, Facebook, LinkedIn etc.) sell the opportunity to gain the attention of their community members or subscribers. Besides the fact that this cyclical process now occurs online, this is not a new phenomenon. It’s been going on across media for decades.

In recent years, web-savvy entrepreneurs such as Gary Vaynerchuk have mastered the art of gaining attention and turning it into profit. In Vaynerchuk’s case, that’s largely due to his penchant for being entirely relevant much of the time, providing useful (perhaps even visionary) insights and leveraging his personal brand to gain widespread renown across new and traditional media. He’s developed a global following and taps that attention to sell more books, or whatever else he happens to be promoting.

For owners of small and medium-sized businesses, however, standing out in the online marketplace is becoming increasingly difficult. Not only is it tough to simply capture the imagination of your target clientele by marketing the many benefits of a product or service, but so, too, is engaging them in a meaningful way and keeping their attention at a time when Internet ‘noise’—from tantalizing click bait to outright fake news—has become mind-numbingly bountiful.

Take social media marketing. As much as it’s revolutionized the way SMEs connect with consumers, harnessing its full potential is getting harder than ever. It’s not the fault of the systems, necessarily, but a lack of understanding on the part of SMEs of the way attention arbitrage works on these platforms.

Corporate Carnage

Pardon the temporary tangent, but it’s not unlike the struggles facing traditional media outlets. Many newspapers, radio and TV stations saw their revenue streams decline as the battle for consumer attention shifted online in the late 1990s and early 2000s—and most lacked a strong understanding of the new and rapidly-changing medium. Corporate carnage ensued.

Now, many of the survivors are attempting to restore revenue with pay walls, but the abundance of free content is frustrating that goal.

The exception being outlets such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the National Post, publications to which many readers are willing to subscribe because they anticipate a level of journalism much higher than the latest Facebook news flash, or because they’re being provided useful information they can’t find anywhere else.

Of course, even Facebook is trying to clean up its news feeds and that’s a good think considering 60%+ of Americans get their news there. The social media giant recently tweaked its algorithm and rankings for photos, posts and video clips to prioritize content from members’ friends and families, over that of publishers and brands.

Now, Zuckerberg and his company aren’t shutting the door to advertisers. Far from it.

Pay More… For Less?

Publishers will simply pay more to place Facebook ads to reach their client communities. Call it the premiumization of Facebook advertising. And yep, you guessed it, that means social media-savvy SMEs are going to pay a steeper price to promote their businesses and capture audience attention.

To stand out in a news feed such as Facebook’s, therefore, you need to say and communicate in a way that appeals to your target audience. The days of posting for the sake of posting are gone. If your Facebook post—or Instagram or Snapchat or Twitter post, for that matter—doesn’t get interacted with right away, consider it a waste of time. And paying to boost it will likely do nothing to improve its performance.

As an SME owner, you need to understand where your customers spend their time. Still, we too often see organizations using the wrong platform and the wrong messaging in the wrong way. It’s a major problem.

Stay… Play… Have a Say

Remember that on social networks, people want to stay, play and have a say—in other words, they want to be heard (if they’re praising or complaining about your brand, for example), read moving stories and engage with your organization, or other members of your community.

The way you communicate and capture that attention needs to be adjusted to suit each social media platform. People are in a different frame of mind when they’re searching for a restaurant on Google as compared to when they’re engaging in a ‘Top Restaurants in Toronto’ group on Facebook.

That’s why it’s so important to use emotional story-telling on social media, whenever possible. Sticking with the Facebook example, if you analyze the structure of their advertisements, each element serves a purpose: the image stops you from scrolling, the headline makes you want to expand the ad and the subtext is designed to encourage you to click on the ad.

We’ve seen both large corporations and SMEs garner strong engagement performance by creating long-form text or video story posts custom-made for the platform. And creating that content needn’t break your marketing budget. It just takes creativity and an understanding of the relevant information that might engage your audience.

How To Win

Even in a business like —where our company started, and still does business—you can create engaging stories.

Let’s say you make a product as simple as t-shirts. Don’t focus on what the t-shirt is. Build your story around what the t-shirt does, what it says about the person wearing it, or what your brand represents. One such company that clued into this method of garnering consumer attention is Vancouver’s Tentree.

They sell t-shirts and leisure wear, but built a socially-conscious brand with a winning philanthropic approach and story that focused on environmental stewardship (they plant 10 trees for every garment sold) which tapped into Millennials’ passion for ethical shopping.

Then there’s the potential of giving useful advice. Whether you’re marketing to a B2C or B2B-focused audience, they all have challenges. So, ask what those are. Once you know, help them address those challenges by marketing the products and services in your repertoire that can make their lives better, or address those specific concerns.

Winning attention in the digital age isn’t impossible. It just takes a great deal more strategizing as the content landscape becomes ever more cluttered. It pays to ensure your content stands out and get the attention it deserves.


This Article First Appeared in The National Post