The Attention Economy Has Peaked. Now What?

Regular followers of MIDiA will know that we’ve been writing about the attention economy for a number of years now. Throughout 2019 we have been building the concept that we have arrived at peak in the attention economy – that all of the addressable free time has been addressed. In 2017, Netflix’s Reed Hastings said sleep was his biggest enemy. By 2019 he claimed Netflix was competing more with Fortnite than HBO (it wasn’t really, but the concept of competing in adjacent markets is valid). In the old world, media was nicely siloed by dedicated formats and hardware (print newspapers, books, DVDs, CDs, radio sets). Now, though, we access through devices where everything is separated by nothing more than a finger swipe. Attention saturation was always going to be an inevitability, not a possibility. The important question is not why this happening, but what will come next and what the right strategies are for surviving and thriving in this post-peak world.

A mine full of canaries?

What got MIDiA first thinking about peak attention was seeing the mobile gaming audience declining every quarter in our quarterly tracker surveys. Mobile games were the canary in the mine for peak attention. When we first got mobile phones, we didn’t have a huge amount to do with them. We couldn’t watch our favourite shows, and we couldn’t easily (legally) listen to new music. So many consumers filled their ‘dead time’ by playing games, as they were de rigueurin the early days of the app stores. Before long casual gamers were the core audience of titles like Angry Birds and Clash of Clans, while your middle-aged aunt was spamming you with Facebook invitations to play Candy Crush Saga. Once Netflix, Spotify and others had got traction, however, those casual gamers started reverting to consuming the content they actually liked the most. The result was a long steady decline in the mobile gaming audience. Now, music looks like it may be following suit.

another canary

Across the US, UK, Australia and Canada, the share of people that listen to the radio declined steadily between Q1 2018 and Q2 2019. Meanwhile, those streaming audio for free remained relatively flat. The net result is that the combined audio audience declined. So many lapsing radio listeners exited the audio market as a whole (though a share shifted to podcasts, which is not considered in the above chart). The ‘share of ear’ battle is looking a lot like a minor theatre of conflict in a much larger conflagration. Amazon will continue to do a good job of shifting older, high-net-worth consumers to streaming, but that is not enough to stem the tide – especially as Amazon’s global footprint is unevenly distributed.

This is what happens in the era of attention saturation.

Social video is eating the world

Four years ago, MIDiA argued that video was eating the world. Now social video is eating the world. Video is becoming the omnipotent format through which we communicate, consume and share. Social video is eating everything. Captioning looked like it was heralding a new era of silent cinema, but it was in fact a trojan horse – a means of enabling us to fit extra video consumption into our wider consumption patterns. Over time, though, sound has become more important and with the increased tolerance of video we are now far more willing to unmute. Nowhere is this better seen than Instagram and TikTok. Audio is the victim in that equation. Not only are there are many other scenarios where audio is slipping, there are even more scenarios where other media formats are losing out. For example, Epic Games’ decision to allow Fortnite players to watch live video of the Fortnite World Cup while gaming hints at how games companies understand that there is a delicate balance between video extending brand reach and competing directly for gaming time.

Looking back gives us a feel for what comes next

Understanding what comes next in a saturated attention world requires looking back at previous markets that have peaked. The mobile phone and PC markets give us some pointers, butthe industrial revolution’s impact on the labour market is an even more useful analogue. Attention is like labour. It is a product of human behaviour and it is scarce. Digital content is analogous to the labour market, and content supply is now beginning to exceed attention output. This is already translating into increased customer acquisition and retention costs.

This is exactly the wrong time for bringing more content to market, but that is exactly what is happening. Nowhere is this better seen that the video subscriptions space with a blizzard-like flurry of new services from Disney, Warner, Apple, Discovery and NBC.

The net result of an over-supply of content is that attention saturation will become an attention deficit for many players, Netflix included. The marketplace needs a new currency for measuring success and monetising audiences.

The MIDiA Attention Economy Event

This is where I am going to cut to credits, leaving you on a cliff edge. For those of you in London next Wednesday (November 20th), come along to our free-to-attend attention economy event, where you can hear my colleague Karol Severin present our attention saturationresearch and our take on what will be the next audience currency that content providers will need to compete for. For those of you not in London there will also be a live stream, which you will be able to find here at 7pm GMT. Also, check back in next week when I will post the next chapter in this story.

NOTE: I shamelessly sat on the shoulders of giants in this post – these ideas were collectively crafted by the entire, amazingly talented MIDiA team.

Making Free Pay

2018 was a big year for subscriptions, across music (Spotify on target to hit 92 million subscribers), video (global subscriptions passed half a billion), games (98 million Xbox Live and PlayStation Plus subscribers) and news (New York Times 2.5 million digital subscribers). The age of digital subscriptions is inarguably upon us, but subscriptions are part of the equation not the whole answer. They have grown strongly to date, will continue to do so for some time and are clearly most appealing to rights holders. However, subscriptions only have a finite amount of opportunity—higher in some industries than others, but finite nonetheless. The majority of consumers consume content for free, especially so in digital environments. Although the free skew of the web is being rebalanced, most consumers still will not pay. This means ad-supported strategies are going to play a growing role in the digital economy. But set against the backdrop of growing consumer privacy concerns, we will see data become a new battle ground.

Industry fault lines are emerging

Three quotes from leading digital executives illustrate well the fault lines which are emerging in the digital content marketplace:

“[Ad supported] It allows us to reach much, much deeper into the market,” Gustav Söderström, Spotify

“To me it’s creepy when I look at something and all of a sudden it’s chasing me all the way across the web. I don’t like that,” Tim Cook, Apple

“It’s up to us to take [subscribers’] money and turn it into great content for their viewing benefit,”Reed Hastings, Netflix

None of those quotes are any more right or wrong than the other. Instead they reflect the different assets each company has, and thus where they need to seek revenue. Spotify has 200 million users but only half of them pay.  Spotify cannot afford to simply write off the half that won’t subscribe as an expensively maintained marketing list. It needs to monetise them through ads too. Apple is a hardware company pivoting further into services because it needs to increase device margins, so it can afford to snub ad supported models and position around being a trusted keeper of its users’ data. Netflix is a business that has focused solely on subscriptions and so can afford to take pot shots at competitors like Hulu which serve ads. However, Netflix can only hike its prices so many timesbefore it has to start looking elsewhere for more revenue; so ads may be on their way, whatever Reed Hastings may say in public.

The three currencies of digital content

Consumers have three basic currencies with which the can pay:

  1. Attention
  2. Data
  3. Money

Money is the cleanest transaction and usually, but not always, comes with a few strings attached. Data is at the other end of the spectrum, a resource that is harvested with our technical permission but rarely granted by us fully willingly, as the choice is often a trade-off between not sharing data and not getting access to content and services. The weaponisation of consumer data by the likes of Cambridge Analytica only intensifies the mistrust. Finally, attention, the currency that we all expend whether behind paywalls or on ad supported destinations. With the Attention Economy now at peak, attention is becoming fought for with ever fiercer intensity. Paywalls and closed ecosystems are among the best tools for locking in users’ attention. As we enter the next phase of the digital content business, data will become ever more important assets for many content companies, while those who can afford to focus on premium revenue alone (e.g. Apple) will differentiate on not exploiting data.

Privacy as a product

So, expect the next few years to be defined as a tale of two markets, with data protectors on one side and data exploiters on the other. Apple has set out its stall as the defender of consumer privacy as a counter weight to Facebook and Google, whose businesses depend upon selling their consumers’ data to advertisers. The Cambridge Analytica scandal was the start rather than the end. Companies that can — i.e. those that do not depend upon ad revenue — will start to position user privacy as a product differentiator. Amazon is the interesting one as it has a burgeoning ad business but not so big that it could opt to start putting user privacy first. The alternative would be to let Apple be the only tech major to differentiate on privacy, an advantage Amazon may not be willing to grant.

The topics covered in MIDiA’s March 27 event ‘Making Free Pay’.The event will be in central London and is free-to-attend (£20 refundable deposit required). We will be presenting our latest data on streaming ad revenue as well as diving deep into the most important challenges of ad supported business models with a panel featuring executives from Vevo, UK TV and Essence Global. Sign up now as places are going fast. For any more information on the event and for sponsorship opportunities, email dara@midiaresearch.com