Getting Back to Basics in the Attention Economy

I’ve worked in strategic communications for the past 20 years. Never before have I been as excited and terrified about the future of our field and its evolving role in shaping brands, businesses and socio-political movements. 

I’m excited about the possibilities for communications to make an outsized impact in the next decade due to the abundance of new tools, datasets and influencer channels at our disposal. I’m anxious about two converging forces that are turning the modern communications model of the last decade on its head. These forces — the rise of the so-called attention economy and the fall of traditional news media — are accelerating and creating chaos.

Yes, there are now limitless ways for companies to reach their audiences, but rallying them around a story has never been harder. It’s no wonder why.

According to Tristan Harris and his team at the Center for Humane Technology, “Today’s tech platforms are caught in a race to the bottom of the brain stem to extract human attention.”

The persuasive design techniques used by these platforms to addict us to their digital products, combined with the explosion of new information channels born to increase our productivity, our attention is evaporating. According to a Microsoft study, the average attention span of an adult has decreased by 50% in the last two decades, from 12 seconds to eight. This trend coincides with the explosion of hyper-targeted marketing campaigns vying for our attention. The average American is now exposed to 10,000 or more marketing messages per day.  

One of the best ways for brands to capture audience attention is through editorial influence and earned media. However, earning media in places that matter has also become much harder. According to Pew Research, newsroom jobs have dropped by 25% since 2008. The shrinkage of the media is not surprising given the redistribution of advertising dollars toward mega-platforms. 

While technologies and content channels introduce new ways to reach and engage audiences, the winners in the attention economy won’t be the ones reinventing the rules. For sure, programmatic PR will never prevail. However, winning in this environment does require a modern twist on the same operating principles underpinning strategic communications for decades. 

#1. Your story is your No. 1 strategy. 

The same brand principles — simplicity, believability and empathy — shared by the most iconic businesses still apply today, but they’re morphing along with our cultural conscience. The most enduring brand stories do more than articulate a clear vision, personality and value proposition. Increasingly, they convey leadership’s core beliefs, values and social contracts with their customers and communities. 

Salesforce isn’t just the largest cloud CRM. It’s the story of the software industry’s most irreverent voice with a penchant for picking fights against the status quo. Atlassian isn’t just collaboration software. It’s the story of how two young Aussies broke the rules and bootstrapped their vision into a $30 billion business that’s changing how teams work. Patagonia isn’t just a maker of high-end outdoor gear. It’s the story of a renegade entrepreneur on a mission to reinvent the ethics shaping the apparel industry. 

It’s hard enough for companies to stand out with an emotionally potent narrative. Without one, you’re dead in the water. 

#2. Your story is moot if it doesn’t speak to your audience.

A story can change everything when you rally the right audience around it. But that’s no easy feat. In an era of Slack, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok, etc., it’s more critical than ever to know your audience, how they get information and the best ways to inspire them. 

The insights captured through conversations and surveys with your audience stakeholders should serve as the single source of truth for all of your communications. What issues are keeping them up at night? What do they watch, listen to and read for help and inspiration around those issues? Who do they trust for advice? Where do they network? With this context, you’ll be able to design far more impactful content and campaigns. Without these insights, you’re just throwing darts. 

#3. Show even more empathy for the media.

The media have never been under more intense pressure. Their teams are shrinking, yet their beats are sprawling. Meanwhile, Americans are increasingly skeptical of what they see in the media, with only 41% of people trusting mass media according to a recent Gallup Poll. This growing distrust, coupled with the meteoric rise and fall of media-hyped companies like Theranos and WeWork, mean journalists are also a lot more skeptical of the pitches they receive. 

Earning their trust and attention requires tremendous empathy for their situation and a discerning eye for stories that align with their evolving editorial mandates. Get to know the journalists shaping your industry the way you know your other audiences. Analyze their stories for common threads. Observe how they interact with people on social media. Understand their likes and loathes. Then give them what they want. If you don’t have what they want, then take the time to build it. 

#4. Multidimensional campaigns need multidisciplinary teams with one dream. 

Most communications teams and agencies with multiple disciplines struggle to integrate them well. The reason is primarily cultural. Teams and agencies still operate in silos with disparate specialty areas driving different pieces of a campaign without a holistic picture of why and how they must work together, including PR, digital, social, advertising, and so on. 

Communications teams not only need to be multidisciplinary, but they also need to be tightly integrated around a central narrative and content engine that connects with their audiences in multiple formats across all channels: earned, owned and paid. Breaking down these functional silos is more mindset than skillset. Modern teams organize themselves and work with this philosophy guiding their campaigns. 

#5. Measurement needs to zoom in on your audience.

Measurement needs to evolve with the changing dynamics of media and audience attention. The best measurement programs prioritize high-quality audience insights over superficial metrics like web traffic, impressions and ad value equivalency. That’s not to say these metrics can’t be helpful, but they must be combined with more granular insights about how and if the right people are actually engaging. Okay, so your campaign drove a lot of traffic to your website, but what was the bounce rate? And maybe it drove a high volume of social media impressions, but did your most relevant influencers share or comment? 

Fortunately, there are a lot of new tools that help communications teams zoom in on audience engagement and impact, yet no single platform to rule them all. At Mission North, we use Brandwatch Consumer Research, Brandwatch Audiences, BuzzSumo, Cision, Google Analytics, and native social apps like Twitter and LinkedIn. When combined, all of these tools can help companies understand how their campaigns performed at a high level as well as at a more granular level.

Given the current state of media, geopolitics and technology, the field of communications has never been more critical and influential than it is today. At the same time, we’ve reached a tipping point when it comes to influencing audiences, and organizations can’t afford to chase attention without a principled approach to communications.

The good news is that even amid all of this change, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. The same operating principles required to thrive a decade ago are just as relevant today. Companies that apply them with a modern mindset will break through the noise.