When I did the research about the value of attention for my rhetoric class, several people asked me to share the result. Here it is. I’d really appreciate it if you have any feedback for me.
If you speak the English language—I sure hope you do, because this article is written in English—you have probably come across the phrase “It’s not worth your attention”. We nonchalantly point at things and decide their value using the worth of our attention as the benchmark. We affix the verb “pay” in front of “attention” as if it is a currency we can use in a transaction. But what exactly is the worth of our attention? Say, if you have to put a price tag on it, what number would it be?
Hold on. Stop the Math. If you are like most people to whom I asked that question in person, you will probably have trouble coming up with a concrete answer. Try these two questions instead. “If a company wanted you to watch or read one of their advertisements every day for a month, each advertisement takes no longer than 5 minutes, how much would you charge them?” You got the answer? Cool. Now try the second one: “If there was a service that effectively blocks all the distracting advertisements that you see on the Internet, how much would you pay for that service a month?” All the annoying ads that you see on YouTube, Spotify, Netflix or any of your favorite online news sites will be gone from your life for good.
Let me guess. Your answer to the first question is at least 5 times higher than your answer to the second one. I asked 80 people, all aged between 18 and 24, the same two questions. The average answer to the first question is $80/month while the second question barely averages $5/month.
If you think about it, both the company in question one and advertisements in question two ask for the same thing from us: attention. They both ask for more or less the same amount. In question one, the company asks us for no more than five minutes of attention per day. In question two, the subject that is asking for our attention is the advertisements on the Internet. According to United Kingdom’s Office of Communications’ “Adults’ media use and attitudes 2015 report”, people aged between 16 and 24 of our generation spend on average four hours online a day, and with that many hours online, the time we are exposed to Internet advertisements can be well more than five minutes a day. Yet, we value that time a lot less than the attention the company asks for us in question one. There is a discrepancy in how much we claim our attention is worth and how much we are actually willing to pay to retain it.
Recognition of attention’s value and attempts to put a concrete number on it date way back to 1971 when attention was the currency of choice for what is now known as the “attention economy”. The person who laid foundation for this strange economic model was none other than Herbert A. Simon, a genius computer scientist who was awarded Nobel Prize for his casual diversion into economics. In the book Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World, he argued that:
… in an information-rich world, the wealth of information meant a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes … the attention of its recipients.
We each have a limited amount of time per day, and with it a limited amount of attention we can produce. The intrinsic scarcity of attention in the abundance of everything else makes it a stable currency in an ever-changing economy.
Simon’s proposal caught on like wildfire. Some praise it. Some build upon it. Some analyze the pros and cons of it. Georg Franck of Vienna University of Technology pointed out attention income is already valued above money income in the affluent society: the prominence of present-day élites is nothing but the status of being a major earner of attention. Michael H. Goldhaber, a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley went as far as to speculate that “attention transactions” would eventually replace financial transactions as the focus of our economic system. The French philosopher Bernard Stiegler not only rejected outright the notion of the attention economy but also announced a battle against it. While he acknowledged the importance of attention, he believed that attention was not “a fluid whose volume and pressure could somehow be measured”. In Stiegler’s point of view, the adoption of attention economy directly leads to the hypersolicitation of attention, the detriment of deep attention and very probably correlates with attention deficit disorder. He attends to the need to invigorate “deep attention” instead of flitting our attention across many media. These scholars might have different reactions to the idea of using attention as a currency, but they all see that attention is a valuable commodity that is being cultivated by different industries for different purposes.
One of the biggest cultivators of attention is advertisement. In our increasingly distracting world, advertising has become synonymous with vying for attention. An advertisement would fail in its purpose if it fails to capture attention. Therefore, advertisers are coming up with an increasingly creative way to make sure that we notice their ads. We go out on the street, billboards pop into view. We turn on TV, commercials for appetizing fast foods sometimes pretend to be our favorite TV shows and our favorite TV shows sometimes look exactly like a commercial. We want to read news online, our views are partially blocked by those annoying sidebar ads.
The traditional metrics for commercial success have been CPM, CPC, and CPA—which stand for cost per thousand impressions, cost per click and cost per action respectively. It means that publishers pay for the number of times their ads appear in our view or the number of times we click on their ads. However, these metrics are becoming more and more irrelevant. Often, an ads appears into our views doesn’t mean that we see it. We are exposed to so much information all the time that it has become second nature for us to unconsciously tune out uninteresting information. Even if we click on an ad, it could be that we do it by mistake or we could close it right away. We retain none of the information the publisher wants us to retain. Yet, publishers would still have to pay for all these actions.
The shortcomings of the traditional metrics gave rise to attention minutes—a new metric that uses attention as the direct measurement of a commercial’s success. Advertising agencies have developed technologies that track our eye movements as well as our mouse movements when we use Internet and understand exactly which area of screen we are paying attention to. With this new metric, publishers can track how much customers actually spend on their ads and only pay for the amount of attention. This metric was first proposed by Chartbeat, a New York-based web analytics startup that has raised more than $30 millions for their platform to help publishers monetize their audience’s attention. In September 2014, Media Rating Council (MRC) accredited it. The Economist soon followed suit, abandoned their CPM model for the “pay per attention time” model. With this new model, advertisers buying space on the publication’s apps and website can be sure that readers will spend a certain amount of quality time with their ads. The Financial Times has also been experimenting with a new way of selling ads based on time spent rather than impressions. This shift places attention as the primary measurement of digital success, and therefore an advertising currency. It works towards a future in which both publishers and advertisers buy and sell audience’s attention.
Due to the importance of attention in the advertising world, the ostensibly vague question: “How much is your attention really worth?” turns out to have a very straightforward answer to advertisers. Short answer: really cheap. Long answer: it varies depending on the medium in which you’re spending your attention, but still cheap. The exact number will require a lot of calculation, and fortunately, people have done that for us. Kevin Kelly, the founding editor of Wired, found out the value of attention through a very interesting approach. He used data from the Statistical Abstract of the United States to calculate the total number of hours devoted by Americans each year to the major media platforms and the total annual revenue for each of those industries. He then calculated how much each hour of attention generated in revenues. What he found was that an hour of our attention could generate a value anywhere between 10 cents to 4 dollars and a half. Music generates the least value for an hour of attention with only 10 cents. Television generates about 20 cents per hour. Newspapers occupy a smaller slice of our attention, but generate more revenue per hour spent with them—about 93 cents per hour. And the Internet, remarkably, is increasing its quality of attention each year, garnering more dollars per hour of attention. On average, companies value our attention at about $2.50/hour, which is a quarter of California’s minimum wage. Kelly has an explanation for why our attention is so cheap. “We have to give it away each day. We can’t save it up, or hoard it. We have to surrender it second by second, in real time.”
“But my attention is not that cheap,” I can hear you furiously protesting already. However, not only companies are undervaluing our attention, we are also inconsistent in how much we think our attention is worth. While we all claim that we would charge mountain if companies want our attention, we are willing to sit tight and watch our attention slip away without doing anything about it. 16 out of 80 people I asked the second question would not pay a cent to get rid of the ads. In their defense, there are multiple ad blockers that they can use for free. In fact, more than 60 out of 80 reported to use some sort of a free ad blocking service with Adblock and Adblock Plus being the most popular. However, ad-blocking services don’t block all the ads, far from it. Advertisers such as Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Taboola pay the owner of Adblock Plus to unblock ads on their websites at a fee of “30% of the additional ad revenues” they would have made were ads unblocked.
Those who are willing to pay to have all the ads blocked have their budget fixed in the range of 1 – 15 dollars a month with some exceptions. There are few exceptions: some forlorn $30, $50 and $100 among the answers. One person claims that he’s willing to pay anything it takes to have all the ads removed. Anything.
Even though people who are willing to pay to block ads are still the minority, that number is growing. Advertisers notice the trend and are already on their way to monetize it. Many websites offer ads-free services for a small fee, usually less than $10/month. Hulu, the popular web streaming service, offers Hulu Plus subscribers ads-free service for an extra of $4/month. For $9.99/month, YouTube users can opt for YouTube Red that allows them to never again see the ads on the website. In 2014, Google—the world’s largest digital publisher—introduced Google Contributor that allows users to contribute a small amount of money to have a portion of ads removed from websites that run Google Ads. There are three tiers. The $2 tier blocks 5% to 15% of Google ads. The $5 tier blocks 15% to 25% of Google ads, and the $10 tier blocks 25% to 50% of Google ads. None of these tiers has any effect on ads from other providers.
These models are still very new and haven’t gained popularity among users yet. Most people would rather give their attention away for free than to do anything to retain it. In other words, attention is still pretty cheap for most people. You would probably want to think twice next time when you want to say that something is not worth your attention. No matter how much you claim your attention is worth, every time you are willing to sit through those 30-second commercials on YouTube or listen to that audio advertisements on Spotify, you are telling advertisers that you agree with their evaluation of your attention—which is around $2.50 an hour. To put that into perspective, if you sell your attention full time—8 hours a day, 5 days a week—you would make around 500 dollars a month. That would make you just a little poorer than an average person in China.