Attention As Currency

The idea of attention as currency isn’t new. I’d love to be able to take credit for it, trademark the phrase and watch tens of dollars come dribbling into my bank account every millennium or so. However, the idea of attention as currency is built right into the word itself.

Surely I’m not among the first ten thousand people you’ve encountered using the phrase, “Pay attention.

Here’s an audio version of this piece for your dining and dancing pleasure.

Think about it. We can make a pretty compelling argument. I’d posit that attention is a far more valuable currency than the Bitcoin fanboys can possibly imagine. The reason more people don’t chase after attention as an investment? Easy. The riches that await will remain beyond your grasp without a certain level of mastery of both science and art.

Attention – as currency – can’t be hacked. You have to earn it. But learn how to earn it, and how to hold on to it, and your potential power is virtually limitless.

Consider, as our first example, a politician. Often, we value their prowess at the podium over the potency of their policies. Why? Because, as we’ve seen from multiple examples even just over the last ten years or so, attention means traction. Some politicians get our attention the same way you can’t avert your eyes passing a car wreck on the highway. But once they’ve got your attention, there’s a certain hypnotic quality to even the most vile of buffoons. The rise of populism in politics has a lot to do with attention as currency.

Maybe I have a poorly-developed platform. Or it could be ill-conceived policies. Maybe even every penny of my political capital came from the complete suspension of disbelief. The wisdom of P.T. Barnum’s “there’s a sucker born every minute” comes into full playhere. Look at the stunning number of people who can be swayed to become not just supporters, but evangelists, defenders, even recruiters to gather even more of the easily duped masses.

Paying attention is an investment of intellectual energy. And when you direct little of your intellectual energy toward critical thinking, attention as currency becomes an even more powerful proposition.

Let’s think about artists in the same light; musicians, perhaps.

If you put out an album full of songs that I absolutely can’t get enough of, for those moments that I’m listening to your songs, you’ve got my attention. It’s why people tend to drive according to the song that’s playing on the radio. Seriously. I catch myself gripping the steering wheel differently when Phil Collins’ “Take Me Home” comes on, than for “Radar Love” by Golden Earring.

You can use that attention to direct me toward a number of things. You can get me to imagine all the people living life in peace, for example. The attention paid to John Lennon’s message in “Imagine” wasn’t solely from that one song. John Lennon’s built his entire career to lead up to that moment, and I believe he cultivated it with an almost molecular level of precision.

By the time “Imagine” came along, most of us had come to know that John Lennon had a lot of powerful things to say. Don’t underestimate the power of a lyric like, “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah.” Because when that song came along, people paid attention. They paid a lot of attention. And they kept paying attention to everything Lennon did. That investment paid huge dividends for Lennon, obviously, in the form of record sales, songwriting royalties and, for all too short of a time, concert ticket revenue. Lennon, though, was smart enough to leverage that investment of attention as currency. He got us to pay even more attention to the things he valued: Peace. Love. Harmony.

Another example? Look at advertisers, marketers and media figures.

If you can get me to pay attention to your message, chances are good that there’s money in it for you somewhere along the way. Get me to pay attention to your commercial, I might buy your product. If I pay enough attention to your YouTube videos or your podcast, you’ll get advertising revenue. If I pay enough attention to your television show, your network’s ad revenue will grab you a bigger contract. Again, attention as currency. The connection is obvious.

And make no mistake about this last example: It’s not always about the quality of what you’re putting out in the world. I’d be horrified to find that the people behind The National Enquirer actually believe they’re informing the public by writing and publishing a story about Joe Biden’s three-headed Martian love child. They don’t get paid to be the ultimate arbiters of truth. They get paid to attract – and hold – your attention; hopefully long enough that you buy a copy of the paper.

For crying out loud, Fox News testified in court that Tucker Carlson shouldn’t be taken at his word. They swore under oath that he’s not a journalist, he’s an entertainer. And a skilled one, at that. A disturbing amount of the content on his show strains credulity. But it’s presented with such flair and skill that people are willing to overlook the tenuous relationship with the truth and invest instead in the ability to get attention. You could argue that this particular use of attention as currency has become dangerous.

The thing that worked so well in John Lennon’s favor is the thing that must give the Tucker Carlsons of the word fits. Lennon had to just keep cranking out great music, and his fans would continue to pay attention. But consider the attention potential of ten albums versus ten television episodes, ten copies of The National Enquirer, or ten radio commercials.

For John Lennon, maintaining the same level of attention meant doing more of the thing that attracted that attention in the first place. Write great songs. Lennon wasn’t even that great a singer. He wasn’t Bob Dylan bad, Leonard Cohen bad or Neil Young bad, but all those artists had a relationship with the written word that kept their fans investing attention. For each of them, it means writing more songs. Give the fans more of what they came for. And often, efforts to expand that attention base beyond the soft boundaries you’ve already set can backfire. Ask Garth Brooks about The Life of Chris Gaines sometime.

For Tucker Carlson, you can’t just trot out your greatest hits. Giving the fans more of what they came for means – like it did for John Lennon – coming up with more episodes that have some common thread with those greatest hits. For The National Enquirer, it means finding more stories like the Martian three-headed baby. For the radio advertiser, it means keeping me from turning off the radio when your commercial comes on and, in fact, turning the volume up.

By way of a very quick plug, it’s “giving them more of what they came for” that is at the heart of our Enhancement Marketing copywriting course. We’re not distracting them from what they were enjoying when they came across our ad, we’re giving them more of it. If they came to our publication to read great articles, we’re going to give them great longform advertising. If they’re watching our ad in the middle of their favorite sitcom, we’re going to keep them laughing. They’re consuming whatever it is they’re consuming because it entertains them. If our copywriting doesn’t entertain them, we’re not giving them more of what they came for. We’re not enhancing their entertainment. We’re interrupting it. And I don’t know about you, but my parents taught me that interrupting was rude.

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