This article was first published in The Guardian on 6th July 2016
Some time in the last five years, attention became the only currency in town. We might argue it was ever thus- since the dawn of time stunts, snakeoil, and slogans have all had their place. Yet with the advent of social media and online news, eyeballs are everything. We exist in a race for clicks which rewards the extreme at the expense of the erudite, the controversial over the considered.
What’s particularly sobering right now, however, is the extent to which the attention economy is shaping the tenor of our political debate. The primacy of the impression has created a political discourse which draws its inspiration increasingly from the world of clickbait. Inevitably, this environment privileges the most provocative of views. What is lost in the middle is nuance.
Donald Trump, it was recently reported, has generated almost $2bn in earned media over the course of the course of his campaign to date, dwarfing Republican and Democrat competitors alike. Meanwhile, a reported 82% of newspaper coverage of the EU referendum focused on Brexit versus remain.
This more polarised tone of voice has also spilled over into how we engage with one another around the issues. Those who disagree with us are easy to dismiss as trolls while, as Jerry Daykin points out, the self-selecting nature of social media creates filter bubbles which comfortably reinforce our own world view and make other opinions ever more alien.
It’s easy to argue that the press are at fault, that they should take a more measured and nuanced approach. But with a few notable exceptions, the job of the press is ultimately to make money. To urge publications not to court eyeballs is to urge the tide not to come in.
So what can we do to change the debate, to preserve a political discourse that acknowledges complexity and embraces ambiguity? And what does it have to do with the advertising industry?
As consumers, we need to be prepared to invest in news again. This may seem like a heretical idea in the age of free; I’d argue the demise of the centre ground is too high a price to pay for free news. Yet I am as guilty as the next person is of voraciously consuming free content, because, as Clay Shirky so memorably put it “Behaviour is motivation filtered through opportunity”.
So while we may be motivated to invest, publishers need to provide the opportunity. Only when paying for an article or a piece of analysis is as easy and effortless as paying for an app, a new HBO series or an Uber will a model for paid news truly thrive. Moreover, in a world where content is increasingly dispersed across the social web, we must think beyond traffic referred to the home page as our only model for monetising content. As John Battelle puts it:
“I suggest we augment that revenue stream with another, one that ties individual ‘atomic units’ of content to similar ‘atomic units’ of marketing messaging, so that together they can travel the Seussian highways of the social web with a business model intact.”
As publishers and marketers, we need to move beyond impressions to establish new metrics that measure quality of content, quality of user experience and ultimately brand impact. The Financial Times has rolled out an alternative pricing model which monetises time spent with content as an alternative to CPM (cost-per-thousand), while Bloomberg, The Economist and the Wall Street Journal have also experimented in this space. Nielsen is focused on demonstrating the brand impact of online marketing, not solely the direct response.
As agencies, we need to shift our clients away from a focus on cost of impressions towards a focus on cost of impact. While adoption of programmatic planning and buying is increasing, for too many brands it is seen as a way to drive down costs when the real potential is so much higher. The true power of programmatic is to understand real time context – where the user is, what their mood is, what their needs are – and to serve up the most relevant content in that moment. This is a more expensive approach but, the onus on is to demonstrate, it is a disproportionately effective one.
Finally, for all of us involved in creating and publishing content, perhaps there is a lesson about underestimating our audience. We hear a lot about ever diminishing attention spans and the need to instantly engage the swipe right generation whose brains have been reshaped on a diet of Twitter, Tinder and Snapchat.
Yet in parallel, Netflix data shows that half of House of Cards viewers consumed an entire season in just one week, and that a majority of viewers immerse themselves in just one show at a time. Even a casual glance at the TV content that dominates our popular culture shows that complexity – overlapping narratives, expansive casts, elaborate mythologies – is no barrier to engagement. The average YouTube viewing session on mobile is now 40 minutes long.
So perhaps rather than delivering on expectations, we should raise them. Perhaps rather than ruthlessly simplifying, we could believe that our audiences can cope with complexity. If you can follow the plot of Game of Thrones, there’s a decent chance you can follow the pros and cons, ins and outs of richly nuanced political questions.