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Storytelling, Consumer Attention and Making Money on Media

Advertisers Will Pay to Capture Attention on Digital Media

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Earlier this month, at Stanford University's Future of Media Conference, I was asked to share some thoughts about this moment in media and what's ahead. Since I'm at least as bad as anyone else at divining the future, I focused on something more obvious and fundamental: paying attention.

Media doesn't work if no one is paying attention. Forget about paywalls and online ad rates, meters and bundles. The foundation underneath anything and everything we do in media is consumer attention. It's attention, really, that we're selling. If our stuff is worth enough of the consumer's attention, she might buy a subscription, make a donation, or buy a ticket. Advertisers, of course, are buying access to that same attention.

Jeff Zucker, the former CEO of NBC, is famous for his pithy comments about the erosion of advertising rates as an audience moves online. "We are trading analog dollars for digital dimes," he said (later upgrading dimes to quarters). In other words, CPMs for digital advertising are much lower than CPMs for TV or print.

It's the same premium content and the same upscale audience. Why then, won't advertisers pay the same rate to advertise to them? It's just not fair, is it?

Well, maybe it is. Hal Varian, chief economist at Google, has studied the role of format and context in the news business. Zucker wasn't talking about news specifically, but Varian's stats regarding consumer attention are relevant to the current issues facing the entire media business -- news outlets, magazines and television alike.

On the one hand, digital has been great for news media. More people read news now than ever before, and 40% of internet users look at news every day. But if one measures attention in minutes spent reading, laptops -- it seems -- have been very, very bad for news publishers. Newspaper readers who get the print edition spend 25 minutes per day reading the news; those who consume it online spend only 70 seconds.

Let's face it: If the digital version of a media product gets a fraction of the attention captured by its analog counterpart, the digital ad space is just less valuable.

Yikes. Consumers are moving quickly from analog to digital media. If that means they will soon lose their ability to pay attention to media in general, then it also means ad rates for media in general won't support premium journalism and storytelling. And consumers aren't likely to pick up the slack if they aren't drawn deeply into the digital media experience either. First we pay attention, and only then -- maybe -- will we pay for a ticket, a membership or a subscription.

But hold on a second. We do pay attention to lots of digital media. We bought 457 million eBooks in 2012. We binge-watch TV shows when Netflix posts the entire season all at once. And we're starting to read really, really long articles on our phones.

So there's something wrong with the argument that we can't pay attention to a medium if it's digital. It can't be a platform problem. There's nothing magical about paper, nor is there an ideal screen size that will save the media business. Instead, capturing attention comes down to three things.

One: Tell a story
Each kind of media unveils narrative structure differently and has a unique goal. News reporting puts the "news peg" right up top, in case we don't have time to read the whole article. Likewise, digital media isn't vying for our attention, but rather tweets, likes, and unique visitors to a website.

Great television shows, movies and magazines take a different approach. They make different decisions on how much of the story to reveal and when to reveal it, and how to create delight as those pieces of the story are revealed -- delight in exchange for some attention.

We rely on different types of media for different styles of content and levels of commitment. But if you create compelling stories that reward the reader for offering his or her attention, you have a better chance of winning it, regardless of the platform.

Two: Tap into tribal urgency
I don't mean FOMO -- fear of missing out. It's more like FOMSA -- fear of missing something awesome. That's a fear that grabs our attention. Especially if it's a media event that's important to your inner circle, your posse of most-respected friends, your "tribe." Big global mass media events, like the Super Bowl, may not matter to your inner circle, in which case they are miss-able media events. But if your entire crew watches House of Cards, you'd better start binging.

When you make media more like a live event, audiences are reluctant to miss out, and they will make an appointment to be there.

Three: Reach them in leisure time, not work time
After work, before work, and over the weekend we don't have to divide our attention among meetings, IM, the boss, and the project we're being paid to work on.

Hal Varian makes this point in his study of the news business: It's actually not about format, it's about context. Reading the newspaper on your laptop at work is the context in which we spend just 70 seconds doing something that used to capture 25 minutes of our daily attention. People who read newspaper apps on their tablets spend roughly the same amount of time with the news as the print newspaper readers of old.

His diagnosis? When we read things at work, we aren't able to pay much attention. When we read outside of work, we spend much more time doing it.

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