What Does It Take To Survive the Attention Economy?

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When you realize attention is bought, sold, earned, traded, wasted and invested – you decide exactly what kind of creator you want to be.

Will you produce sugary junk food? Or do you dedicate yourself to being a master chef who makes 5 star meals?

Either answer is ok.

It’s easy to look down your nose at hyped up headlines – or think 1,000 word essays is a waste of time – truth is, when they’re getting traffic, you’ve got something to learn.

The Economic Landscape

If attention is a currency – every minute we spend on online is a transaction.

As a creator, it’s just as important to understand why sites like Cracked or Buzzfeed work as it is to understand why people are attracted to the likes of A List Apart or GigaOm.

The problem with creators is that we get stuck in trying to be one thing or the other.

If you’re a “chef”, you’re pressured into creating thick content that’s so deep and meaningful it changes lives.

If you’re a sweets producer, you don’t feel like your audience could handle the big issues and who are you to try to challenge them to think?

Neither approach is wrong, but they’re not right either.

People Are More Complex Than We Give Them Credit For.

I listen to Jack White, yet I regularly jam out to “I’m sexy and I know it.” in my boxers.

I enjoy obscure foreign films but I’m also a sucker for Michael Bay popcorn flicks.

People are complicated. We have a wide variety of interests and we often like to laugh at the exact same things we take seriously.

As a creator, it’s important you recognize this so that you can add variety into your own work.

People enjoy variation, which is why if you rely on one extreme for too long, your audience eventually tunes you out.

Let’s Look At Celebrities…

If I say names like Will Smith, Dustin Hoffman, or Johnny Depp what do you envision?

Talented actors with enduring, respectable careers, right?

Now what about names like Dane Cook or Adam Sandler.

Not so much?

While the latter have both had a variety of roles, there has not been enough for audiences to think they’re capable of more.

But when you look at someone like Jim Carrey who pretty much invented rubber face comedy. He could have very easily stuck with roles like Ace Ventura or Lloyd from Dumb and Dumber, but how long do you think audiences would have tuned in for?

Instead, you throw in roles like Truman Burbank from The Truman Show, Andy Kaufman from biopic Man on The Moon, and my favorite Joel Barish from Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, and you have an actor who has given you a body of work that is suitable for many moods.

The Web & Marketing Right Now

Right now, this kind of depth doesn’t really exist online.

“Pick a niche.” “Define your market.” These are phrases creators hear every day.

When you do this exclusively, your reader is forced to come to you only for that one thing.

With such a huge market for information, putting yourself in this container means your readers grab from a variety of different sources for satisfaction. Eventually even custom feeds need filters to get everything they need.

This works – being known for one thing – but in many ways it acts the same way like Dane Cook’s career.

For a while, it might be good (Dane Cook had the highest charting comedy album in 28 years – now his website isn’t even live) but eventually, you reach a saturation point.

It’s like hearing the same joke over and over.

To stay funny, a joke needs more listeners or the comedian needs new material – otherwise audiences get bored and move on.

The Web & Marketing Moving Forward.

Moving forward, the only real way to survive in the attention economy is to keep a balanced portfolio of the content you produce.

Site’s like SlashFilm understand this. They regularly produce deep, thought provoking reviews on movies you’re probably not going to see and interview with directors you probably have never heard of (like my favorite Rian Johnson)

But they’re also not adverse to showcasing the sensational like “Bad Lip Reading’s Version of ‘Twilight’ and regularly feature Page 2 a collection of silly movie related things from around the web.

This variety of content, I believe is why it was voted Best Blog of 2009 by Time.com, and Best movie blog by Total Film & Attack of the Show.

This is why I also believe The Everywhereist, and Get Rich Slowly have made the Time.com list too.

While the focus is about travel and finances respectfully, both do an excellent job at giving well rounded perspectives of their subject, showcasing humor, practicality, and personality (just look at this one where Geraldine talks about being stuck in traffic with her husband)

Moving forward, “niches” will disappear.

Instead of getting locked into being “too serious” or “so outlandish” all the time, enduring websites will take a balanced approach to content knowing when to be serious and when to be comedic.

What It Takes

To survive the attention economy you must have confidence; enough to share more than a fragment of your personality.

Don’t be a coward and hide within your “niche.” Invite readers in.

Why not share what makes you laugh, what makes you think, or your guilty little pleasures?

How satisfying is it pretending you’re only a fraction of your personality?

For me, this confidence allowed me to close 5 figure deals while being honest about wearing Ninja Turtle Pjs.

Do we not owe it to our readers (and to ourselves) to be allowed to just be: online?

How many long lasting relationships do you have in the real world where you know only a small set of things about the other person?

What makes the internet any different?

I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong.

I’d love your thoughts.



  1. says

    Don’t worry. I just spoke to my friend Ozzy and he said as long as we’re on the Crazy Train when we go off the rails, we’ll be fine. At least I think that’s what he said. I have a hard time understanding him sometimes.

  2. says

    I love this. When I first started my site, it was rigidly keeping with the rules as I saw them. Stick with a niche. Be helpful. Be an authority on one thing. The only problem was that it WAS NOT ME. Don’t get me wrong, I love being helpful and there’s plenty of that on the site.
    But I’m also a clown through and through. So now about half of my posts are funny while the other half touch on something helpful / how-to, and I even threw in a human interest recently about miracles. It’s a hodge-podge, but it’s me.
    So, I love the post because I’ve been sincerely hoping that I was not going off the rails. This was some much needed reinforcement.
    Thanks Tommy.

    • Tommy says

      Hey no problem! I’m glad you enjoyed it :-) Let’s just hope we’re not going off the rails together :-P