Once again, I didn’t make it to eTech because of client commitments even though the theme for the conference – “The Attention Economy” – is a subject near and dear to my heart.
One of the debates emerging from the conference was spurred by someone not at the podium, but in the audience – Doc Searls – in a piece he wrote for the Linux Journal on “The Intention Economy”. Doc is skeptical about all this focus on attention:
Is “The Attention Economy” just another way for advertisers to skewer eyeballs? And why build an economy around Attention, when Intention is where the money comes from?”
Doc emphasizes intention because, to him, the real value is that buyers
. . . are ready-made. You don’t need advertising to make them. The Intention Economy is about markets, not marketing. You don’t need marketing to make Intention Markets.
Now, this begins to sound like a very narrow view of markets, but Doc is quick to add:
The Intention Economy is built around more than transactions. Conversations matter. So do relationships. So do reputation, authority and respect. Those virtues, however, are earned by sellers (as well as buyers) and not just “branded” by sellers on the minds of buyers like the symbols of ranchers burned on the hides of cattle.”
Doc is also right to focus on the importance of “user-centric” or “independent” identity as a key enabler of The Intention Economy. A number of people that I respect, have picked up on Doc’s theme and embraced it – including Phil Windley in “Following the path from intention to attention”, Jon Udell in “Controlling Our Data” and Stowe Boyd, in “Doc Searls on The Intention Economy”.
Doc makes a lot of good points – in particular, his notion that “The Intention Economy is about buyers finding sellers, not sellers finding (or “capturing”) buyers.” Maybe the reason I like that notion so much is that it maps to my concept of reverse markets introduced in my book Net Worth, written seven years ago:
In contrast to conventional markets, in which vendors seek out and often have the upper hand over customers, customers seeking out and extracting value from vendors characterize reverse markets.
Along with my co-author, Marc Singer, I mapped out in Net Worth the concept of “infomediaries”, representing a new kind of business model to accelerate the transition from conventional markets to reverse markets: These infomediaries would act as personal agents on behalf of customers to help them find resources of value and to extract more value from vendors. For a variety of reasons, the infomediary business model has not yet taken off, but I continue to believe there is a significant economic opportunity waiting to be captured by businesses that cross the table and explicitly take the side of the customer, rather than helping vendors to find or “capture” buyers.
While I like many of the points made by Doc, The Intention Economy is still much too narrow a view of the opportunity. By focusing on intention to buy, we ignore the whole question of how intentions emerge in the first place. In a world of exploding options and scarce attention, how do we find resources (products, ideas, people, etc.) we weren’t even looking for? One option is that we wait for vendors to find us and “capture” us. The other option is to rely on friends or agents who know us and can be trusted to be helpful in introducing us to new resources we weren’t even aware of.
Given this, The Attention Economy is a richer way of describing both the challenges and the opportunities from a customer’s perspective. Yes, it is true, many vendors and start-ups have grabbed on to The Attention Economy to figure out clever ways to find those increasingly elusive eyeballs.
But The Attention Economy focuses on the key bottleneck of scarce attention. Vendors may try to hijack the meme, but it underscores the inescapable fact that this bottleneck is shifting power rapidly away from vendors to customers. It also highlights the key challenge for customers - how to increase their return on attention so that they get as much value as possible out of that scarce resource.
Part of that return certainly comes from enhanced convenience and value in finding the best vendor once the customer has formed an intention to buy. But a lot more of the value comes from discovering things we weren’t even aware of – this is the real opportunity created by the Internet. It eliminates shelf-space constraints and literally makes anything in the world accessible to us.
To use Doc’s example, he knows about the ski slopes in Park City and has an intention to rent a car to get there, but how does he find out about a ski slope in Chile that offers an even better skiing experience given his particular skills and interest?
Some of that opportunity can be captured through individual surfing and serendipity. Part of it can be realized through friends and various forms of social software that expose customers to the interests and preferences of a much broader range of people. But I continue to believe that much of the opportunity will depend on trusted agents acting on behalf of the customer. While software and technology can amplify reach and capabilities, there is still an opportunity for businesses built around human beings to harness the power of these tools in delivering agent-based services to customers.
The real winners in The Attention Economy will be those who can help expand our horizons by sorting through the growing array of options and introducing us to resources that matter based on a deep understanding of our interests and needs, rather than narrowly fulfilling our current intentions. Think of trusted advisors rather than transaction facilitators.
In the end, I was struck by what a vendor centric view Doc takes in his opening paragraph cited above. Yes, Intention is where the near-term money comes from. But Attention is where the long-term value to the customer resides.