What Marketers Must Do to Win Consumers' Dwindling Attention

J. Walker Smith
Marketing News
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Key Takeaways

What? Consumer attention spans are like currency.

So what? The value of that currency is rising as its volume decreases.

Now what? Marketers must be more effective with less advertising to budget for shrinking consumer attention.

Nov. 10, 2016

​Marketers must take a less-is-more approach if they wish to win consumers’ precious and ever-dwindling time and attention


Marketers ask a lot. They expect consumers to pay attention to their messages and then come to them to transact business, which means that consumers spend more than money to shop and buy. Consumers also spend time and attention, also known as the “currency of engagement.” This is a real expense for consumers.

The central challenge facing brands is that consumers cannot spend as much currency engaging with marketing as they once did. It looks like marketing resistance, but it’s not. Rather, it’s an engagement cost of time and attention that consumers simply can’t afford anymore.

Worries about consumer engagement have been heightened by the growth of ad-blocking apps. Ad-blocking apps may be recent, but the phenomenon of skipping ads is not. Harvard Business School professor Thales Teixeira compiled data from studies going back to the late 1980s and found that the percentage of TV ads people watch attentively has dropped steadily from almost 100% decades ago to less than 20% today. Whatever the medium, consumers are doing everything they can to spend as little of their currency of time and attention as possible on marketing.

Resistance to marketing is often said to be a problem of trust. Consumers are more suspicious of marketers than ever, but what’s at work is more than skepticism—it’s a problem of capacity. What consumers are doing is what people do whenever they lack the wherewithal, which is to do less. It’s time- and attention-starved consumers trying to cut costs. The consequence is ever more blocking, skipping, avoiding, ignoring and clicking away.

In time, Tapscott believes individual riders of taxis or renters of rooms could trade peer-to-peer using secure blockchain technology. Customers could avoid paying the aggregator, agent or intermediary their percentage because the technology will promote trust between individuals. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could hail an Uber electronically and the fare was lower and all the fees went to the driver? Tapscott believes this is coming.

By and large, the response of marketers has been to push harder, especially with digital technologies and real-time data streams. Unfortunately, this means more of what consumers want less, so consumers are using their own digital technologies to move in the other direction.

Kantar Media data show a 120% increase in the number of ads appearing in all media since 2008. Yet over that same period, eMarketer data show only a 24.2% increase in the total amount of time people are spending with media. In other words, ads alone—not to mention promotions or events—are outracing consumers by nearly a factor of five.

The costs of time and attention are rising because there is more marketing than ever. Whether measured by bulk or by merit, the costs of engagement are rising. At the same time, people have less time and attention to spend. Life is busier. People are pressured. There are many more things competing for the currency of engagement.

Every marketer can point to an ad that has worked extremely well. There is no question that consumers engage, but that engagement is fewer and farther between. The key question, then, is how best to negotiate the balance consumers are trying to strike between entertainment and relevance.

Marketers rarely think about the costs of engagement. Instead, marketers say to themselves, “If I can just make this ad more entertaining, absorbing, emotional, participatory, relevant, immersive or appropriate, then consumers will spend time and attention rather than blocking, skipping, avoiding, ignoring or clicking away.”

For marketers, benefits are first and foremost. For consumers, though, costs come first. Marketers and consumers put top priority on different parts of the value equation. Marketers are trying to boost benefits to increase net value. Consumers are trying to take out costs.

Some marketing solutions have never gained much traction, like paying people to watch ads or securing private data in exchange for better-targeted ads. The benefits of cash or security for greater engagement don’t offer enough benefits to offset the higher costs of engagement.

Similarly, the much-hyped industry-wide priority in the early 2000s around the concept of engagement was all about making marketing more entertaining and absorbing. It didn’t pan out as hoped because spending more “currency of engagement” isn’t how consumers want to spend their time.

The objective should not be increasing engagement, but increasing disengagement—facilitating less time and attention, not more. The strategic imperative must be one of taking costs out. That means reducing the currency required without imperiling the relationship between brands and consumers.

It’s a new challenge, and not an easy one. But going forward, it is the key to ensuring a rewarding connection with consumers.

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Author Bio:

J. Walker Smith
J. Walker Smith is executive chairman of The Futures Co., part of the Kantar Group of WPP, and co-author of four books, including Rocking the Ages. Follow him on Twitter @jwalkersmith.
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