Time Economies v/s Attention Economies & Their Role in Digital Marketing

If that title got you reading, you agree that there’s a difference between time and attention. You also agree that each has its place in branding, marketing, and advertising. So let’s begin with a thought experiment –

It’s the day! First day — first show! You are uber-excited! The buttery popcorn is slowly warming in the cold movie halls. Not a problem for the soda though. Movie trailers for upcoming releases cannot be moving slower. Random PSA ads act as the hypemen indicating the movie launch. One might think that adding the national anthem to this mix might not be an issue, but wow, were we wrong about that. Did people feel less patriotic before a movie? Was there even a correlation? Fundamentally, no. Emotionally, maybe. But experientially, infinite.

Now let me ask, if Mr. Amitabh Bachchan came on-screen and sang the national anthem each time before the movie, over the same 52 seconds, would the kind of backlash be the same. Or say different artist renditions of the national anthem greet you each time over the same 52 seconds, does that shift the time-attention scale in any direction? I may not be able to quantify that shift in an equation, but I can (backed by science) claim that repetition breeds boredom and, yes, there are like a bazillion other ways to grab someone’s attention.

But this is not what this blog is about.

This literature is all about time economies, attention economies, and their role in marketing, branding, and advertising.

What is Time Economics? What is Attention Economics? Pay Attention For Some Time to Find my Thoughts

So, definitions first and one-at-a-time.

What is time economics? Not to be confused with the economy of time, that means, and I quote, “Economy of time includes economy of work time expended in a given period, as well as the economy in the results of previous expenditures of work time, or work time expended on raw materials, supplies, machinery, equipment, and other means of production.” This definition is too complicated for someone like me, and it isn’t what I imply when I say time economy.

So let’s see if the definition of attention economy helps. Matthew Crawford has a brilliant explanation: “Attention is a resource — a person has only so much of it.” This is true for how time economics works as well. “Time is a resource — a person only has so much of it.” That is the scope within which I will be using these terms.

Before we start intersecting these concepts with branding and marketing, let’s look at rewarding time v/s rewarding attention and use a “call-to-action”. (Why are you talking about rewards before values? Because rewards we pay attention to, values take time to go through)

If we assume an equal digital playing field (the same stream/blog/content piece) and reward time, I will reward you for every minute you spend, doesn’t matter how many million things you do in that minute. On the flip slide, if we reward attention, I will reward you for every minute you spent paying attention, and it matters that you weren’t doing a million other things in that minute. There is enough indication here to argue that time economics doesn’t have to do with how active you are with time. Simply put, time can be passive. Attention cannot!

For instance, over a 4-hour stream, you could either be rewarded for completing two hours of watch time or being given a prompt for one-minute every hour. The first requires a fixed two hours, but for the second, you can pay attention “at the right time” to win.

Mathematically speaking, rewards per hour = time economics; attention spent earning rewards over time = attention economics.

Time-Attention Continuum (Like Time-Space Continuum, minus the science, plus the abstract concept of attention)

Time isn’t attention, but where is this relevant to marketing & branding? In a video advertising campaign, you buy someone’s time, not their attention. Conversely, in marketing newsletter campaigns, you buy someone’s attention, not their time. The point here is different outreach tactics, although part of the same ecosystem, don’t follow the same economics.

Common sense would tell you that it is much harder to buy someone’s attention than their time, but ROI, reach, and other algorithms aren’t built for common sense. They’re built for specific sense. And because time is easier to buy than attention, many marketers and brand builders allow data to lead them astray from the primary goal, i.e., capturing attention over a specific period of time, as opposed to using a specific period of time to capture attention.

Thankfully in the marketing circle I run on Mentza, called Marketing w/o Algorithms, we don’t care much for algorithm-driven decision-making. The idea of my circle is to go beyond the quantifiables of marketing & branding and converse about the larger theory, perception, and realities of marketing & branding.

Algorithm ignored, let’s try to understand human bias better. Although we know time isn’t attention, many people use the words interchangeably. As brand managers/strategists/marketers, we need to be hyper-aware of this bias and be more mindful of the time-attention continuum.

I could make an argument that time is a function of attention, and that would go, time feels to fly if you’re paying more attention to the moment and having fun. I could also argue that attention is a function of time, and that would go, attention split over multiple activities makes it feel like you have less time. In either case, we can fundamentally draw two conclusions: i. Time is Constant; ii. Attention is Variable.

The time-attention continuum is not one where time and attention are exact opposite ends. They are individual elements working in unison. For people like us, the time-attention continuum operates on the plane of branding, marketing, or advertising. On this plane, time can be used to create attention or attention to create time. This is why new and young brands are great at capturing attention with something fresh and quirky, but over time as content quality stabilizes, the previously created attention by legacy brands is equally important in marketing & business.

Towards the time end of the spectrum, you see brand attributes like brand legacy, ad frequency, and recall value, to name a few; towards the attention end, attributes such as the brand story, ad effectiveness, and customer loyalty are more evident.

Do I Create Brands/Communication/Marketing For Time Or For Attention?

In one-word. Neither. You create brands, communication, and marketing stuff for a community. It is your tribe that matters. How you talk to them, the kind of relationship you build, and the tactics you employ are different—some work in the time economy, others in the attention one. My suggestion is not to follow the same data points that try to compare time with attention as perfectly tangible. Whether it’s time or attention you bid for, both have their merits, but following them with the same mindset is a great way to go down a catastrophic rabbit hole.

Listen to the full conversation on Mentza here.

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