What is the future of the economy?

As the dark cloud of the budget speech looms at the end of the month it is tempting to think of the economy in terms of inflation, GDP and unemployment. But these metrics are for trained economists to decipher. From a marketing point of view, there is another way to see the economy.

In the early 21st century we equate data with oil. Data is the lifeforce of our economy. All of us are trading in it in some form or other. Just as we are completely reliant on oil, so too we cannot do without data.

The referral economy

There is also an economy based on referrals. Due to the prevalence of social media and the ease with which experiences can be shared, personal recommendations have become a powerful force in the economy. The rise of influencer marketing is testament to this.

There is one key principle underlying both data and referrals. Typically, economic power comes to those in control of the resources. In the oil industry, it is the handful of companies that control the flow of oil that have the power.

The same is true for data and referrals. The power lies with those who are able to make sense of the overwhelming amount of data the world produces. Whilst there is an abundance of data, the corporations that are able to aggregate it are very few. So too with referrals. We think the power lies with the individuals making the referrals. However, it is the relatively few companies that run the platforms which facilitate the referral economy that have the real power.

We need to look at the controls to see where the struggles for power are. Take a look at a typical day. What is the one thing we are all struggling with? We all have the same 24 hours. But it is how we use those hours that makes all the difference. And how we use them is determined by where we focus our attention.

The attention economy

From when we get up in the morning until we slump back into bed at night, the 16 to 18 hours that we are awake is all the attention we have in a day. We may choose to focus it on things like hygiene, nutrition, exercise, relationships, work, purpose, sex, money, family, self-improvement, self-destruction, relaxation to mention just a few. Whatever it is, wherever our attention is focused will determine our behaviour, our habits and as some might say, our destiny. Or to put it another way, wherever our attention is, there we are.

Therefore, attention is a valuable and finite resource borne out by the expression: pay attention. We could even consider that much of our attention is focused on seeking the attention of others. Those who receive more attention are elevated in our society, they have more status and more power.

With more and more of our attention being focused online, businesses are engaged in an active struggle for online attention. Whoever controls this and has the most eyeballs has the most power. This is the attention economy and it’s been raging for more than ten years. With the abundance of information, we have been paying for access to it with our attention.

What is the future?

So, what is the future of this economy? Is the sheer volume of online content going to continue to increase indefinitely? Simultaneously increasing the competition for our attention and at the same time diluting it? If so, this means that those who already have the power will hang onto it unless another digital disruption shakes it all up.

One possible answer lies with the rise of the subscription model. For businesses online, it seems we may be returning to an economy where we pay with our wallets and not our eyeballs. Online publications, applications and content are moving more and more towards the freemium model: free to try but premium to buy. Or they are prioritising access over ownership for example movies, music and games.

But what does this mean for entrepreneurs and marketers wanting to build a business in the 2020s? We are actively trading in human attention. However, the demands on our attention and that of our customers and staff are continuously increasing. We have to divide our attention between more and more points of focus making it more difficult to get the attention we require to grow our businesses.

Effective communication

Recognising this issue is important. It informs how we communicate. Whatever platform we use, we need to design messages in a way that makes them easier to consume. They need to be shorter, more concise and simpler.

The objectives of good communication are comprehension and retention. Neither of which is possible with long complex messages. Divide and conquer is a military tactic. So too with communication. Break complex messages down into short concise chunks. We cannot expect our customers and staff to do the work of making sense of our communication. We must do it for them. Their attention is a valuable resource and in short supply.

The popularity of infographics and explainer videos illustrates a trend in how we consume information. More visual, more concise and to the point. There will always be a place for longer-form content, but if our objective is to get ahead in the attention economy and reach more of our staff and customers, then we need to shorten and simplify our messages.

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Date: 16 or 30 September 2020 at 9am