Oh, Look! A (Meaty) Chicken!

Media executives and advertising types, who thrive on reusable phrases, seem to have latched onto "attention economy" this year, with the usual mixed results. The shallow way of using "attention economy" is really as a proxy for the problem of ad and media overload, with programmers of all sorts just having to find new ways to grab (sorry, "engage") consumers in an environment where human attentions is scarce. The richer way of understanding the term puts emphasis on "economy," and recognizes that attention has become a scarce resource, owned and controlled by consumers. Understood this way, "attention economy" suggests that advertisers and even media programmers are bartering for attention, forced to offer consumers a fair exchange of value for some share of their finite consciousness.

Both takes on "attention economy" are true. Not only is attention a consumer-controlled commodity that media makers must "buy," but that attention itself is fairly fragmented and overwhelmed. Culturally, we are all in the land of attention deficit disorder now. In the time it takes to write this column, I probably will have checked my email four times, my RSS feeds at least twice, and checked the progress of my Bittorrent downloads a time or two.

The opportunities for distraction are staggering on a computer desktop. I know, because I am a writer who exercises all of them every minute of every day. Even after being assaulted by all of those abhorrent pharma ads promoting adult attention disorders (yes, as far as I am concerned, they are actually promoting a disorder), I am confident I don't suffer attention issues. Still, in the mediaverse of shiny objects I often do feel like the T-shirt adage, "They say I have A.D.D. but they just don't understand. Oh, look! A chicken!" I don't need medication. I am just a writer. ADD is a defense mechanism to a writer, not an ailment. Oh, look, some spam email!

The task of media now is to grab our ferret-like attention with shiny objects that matter to us, that will offer enough substantial material to keep us still for a second or two. This principle is going to become more important across all media, I am sure, but it is especially heartening to see some companies take the concept of the "attention economy" seriously by coming to the trade negotiations with real assets.

I like the concept of branded media "channels." The free mobile TV service from Versaly running on Sprint, Fast Lane, has already done this a couple of times with auto manufacturers. Within the slate of about seven channels of streaming video content, one of the channels would be dedicated to the sponsor's video, usually branded infotainment. When it's good, the advertising becomes just another valuable media asset in the content mix.

Zannel (, an interesting media sharing service for most handsets, attracted my attention (Oh, look! An ad!) with a dedicated channel for the new film "Knocked Up." The channel is embedded among all the other choices at Zannel's blend of UGC and commercial content, but a big honkin' banner drives all users to it at the front door. What is smart about the promotion is that it leads with the interactivity rather than the content. A contest in which users can send in an image or video of their own "best" dance moves opens the landing page, including an immediate invitation to send the contest offer to a friend. The Zannel channel then has the usual assortment of clips, trailers and stills from the movie, all of which are downloadable. The channel does a good job of vying for your attention from a number of possible directions at once: interest in comedy, in the movie, in contests, in silly UGC. It also pays off in multiple ways, from a contest entry to reusable media aps.

Only about 1,400 people have viewed the channel, according to the Zannel stats, but in these early days on a fledgling mobile portal, this is a good experiment in turning a promotion into assets. The meaningfulness, and thus the value, of the mobile content gets undercut a bit by the fact that everything is so obviously repurposed from larger viewing formats. At some point, it would be nice to see both trailers and on-set stills made with miniature screens in mind. I don't think it will take too long for the novelty of mobile video clips and free media wallpapers to wear thin. I suspect that media companies will need to get more creative in leveraging the UCG elements that the phone makes easier than the Web.

It was interesting to see how the tiny comments section in the "Knocked Up" channel actually reflected the diverse entry points the promotion itself allowed. One visitor celebrated the movie as funny, another bragged about his content entry and another asked for more clips. The shiny object (or the chicken, if you will) seems to have been multi-faceted enough to attract attention from several directions at once. To be sure, this is not a deeply imaginative film promotion. This is a comedy about the mistaken pregnancy we all dread. Where is the interactive joke pregnancy test? The contest for best pregnancy euphemism? Still, even in its under-powered state, an asset-rich promotion demonstrates the power of making an even exchange for user attention. Do banner ads and interstitials do that?

Ultimately, the "attention economy" is a helpful cliché because it demands that advertisers think in terms of earning, not just attracting, attention.

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