The Attention Economy is a Double Sided Marketplace

Are products giving enough in return for the attention they take? Are smaller product copying bigger companies attention strategies and failing?

The word attention originates from the word ‘attend’ which by the 14th century, came to mean “Direct one’s mind or energies” (1).

Thomas Davenport, a professor and former researcher at McKinsey and Accenture, wrote a book called Attention Economy in 2001. In it, he wrote “As the theory of economics of attention, user’s attention is a scarce resource that multiple information competes for. With the development of the Internet, especially the explosion of online social media, netizens (online citizens) receive redundant messages from various online channels such as Facebook, Twitter and online forums, which results in extremely severe information overload problem” (2).

The Attention Economy is nothing new but it has grown more mature over the years.

Attention Is Currency

Many consumer technology companies make money on the transaction of attention.  A double-sided marketplace is a space where people exchange goods and services which requires both buyers and sellers (hence double-sided). Attention in technology is the currency in the double-sided marketplace of consumer products. The seller gives access to technologies (apps, social media, digital products) in exchange the buyer (users/people) spends their time and attention to access products.

When someone uses a credit card to make a purchase, the credit card company and credit card processor take a percentage of the purchase. This can be invisible to purchasers because the credit card fee is typically charged to the seller. Most payment technologies make money by taking a small percentage on every transaction. In the Attention Economy, a company takes a cut of people’s attention and sells it to advertises in much the same way.

The big difference in the Attention Economy is the person buying access to a consumer product by paying with their own attention. Unlike credit card transactions, the cut of attention transaction is very visible to the buyer and is taken directly from them. As a user attempts to access products their attention is taken by advertisers.

This is the current state of consumer products technology – attention buys access.

Attention is Not Unlimited

“Attention is a resource—a person has only so much of it” (3). Matthew Crawford the author of The World Beyond Your Head, On becoming an individual in an age of distraction.

Crawfords thoughts mirror the theory of willpower depletion, which shows that our willpower is diminished after we resist temptations to do things that are instantly gratifying.

People have a limited amount of attention to spend and as attempts are made to control the spending of attention a persons willpower diminishes.

Diminished willpower means our ability to control our attention weakens as products and advertisers request more and more of our attention for things we want – overtime it becomes harder to say “No”.

Attention is limited. When willpower is depleted, we lose control.

Products are Designing for Unlimited Attention

For companies that capitalize on the attention of people using their products, their products are designed to get as much attention as possible. One result is the product ecosystem. The idea is that many products work together so people never have to leave the ecosystem because it has everything you need.

When we design for unlimited attention, we get never ending scrolling.
Scrolling. Scrolling. Scrolling.

Attention Ecosystems, Building Economies

  • Google has the Google Chromebook so your whole computing experience can exist solely on their hardware and software (5).
  • Facebook is developing its own internet around the world so that when people log on they are not on the general internet as we enjoy in the US but a special internet fully contained in Facebook(6).
  • Apple suite of products entails all devices, the cloud and is building an ecosystem for your body and health as it looks to capture biological data and use ResearchKit to improve medical insights via iPhone and Apple Watch(7).
  • Amazon is now in our home with Alexa. Alexa is part of the Amazon Attention Ecosystems, listening all time ready to give us what we need in exchange for attention.(8).

The ecosystems I mentioned act like private markets allowing companies to bring people into their ecosystems where all the transactions happen in their private worlds.

THE Attention EconomY’s Product Design Gap

The real challenge is that while large companies create whole ecosystems to capture peoples attention in exchange for valuable digital products, smaller products and companies try to copy that methodology and fail. Smaller products fail when coping because they either copy a strategy designed for selling to mass consumers (and that’s not what they are doing) or because they try to maximize the attention they get from users (and burn people out.)

If attention is limited and product leaders design for unlimited attention, then we have a tension between the user and the product.

Design for the amount of attention needed to use a product, not to maximize the amount of attention you can get.  (Yes, there are companies whose whole purpose is simply to sell ads by stealing attention, I’m not speaking to that group of products, I’m assuming you make something worth peoples attention 🙂 )

This can all sound a bit woeful, but the product which are fueled by attention in many cases are positively revolutionary. The idea that I can now ask Google a question and get an answer back in less than a second is amazing! Research shows that manually hunting for a question in a library takes on average 15+ minutes. (9) The trade-off for my attention is worth it in this case.

Yet, at some point we as product leaders, company makers, and humans have to ask, “how much attention given to these screens is too much?”

When has a product taken enough attention?

Can we turn the question around and ask, “Are products giving enough in return for the attention they take?”

Resources and References

(4) Is Willpower a Limited Resource, American Psychological Association
(5) Chrome book ecosystem maturing.
(6), Facebook Free Basics Internet:
(6.1)  NetNeutrality Issues
(7) The Verge, Apples Ecosystem Walls Keep Getting Higher
(7.1) Asst. Harvard Prof, Dr. Stanley Shaw, How Apple Is Building an Ecosystem for Your Body
(7.2) Apple Research Kit
(8) Amazon… Expand[ing] Alexa ecosystem…
(9) Kevin Kelly, The Inevitable
(9.1) Kevin Kelly Talks at SXSW,

Photo top by NeONBRAND
Photo bottom by Ian Espinosa


Also published on Medium.