Why Attention is the New Currency Online

by Eric Tsai

Like many digital marketers, I consume and create large amount of content daily. Whether it’s doing research or analyzing data, I’ve come to realize the economic value of attention.

It’s relatively easy to create and publish content nowadays because technology has made it cost-effective and efficient.

This isn’t the case when it comes to consuming content because our attention simply doesn’t scale. Just like our personal values have to be sorted and ranked in order for us to make wise and consistent decisions, so do our values for consuming information.

As more and more businesses and individuals continue to produce digital content, one trend is starting to emerge as the explosion of content proliferates – the role of curators.

Moving forward, it’s important to look beyond the value that content creates but also how it gets consumed.

The gatekeepers to quality: Content curators

Unlike traditional media authorities such as The New York Times or Wall Street Journal, new media curators are the barometers of quality content that help harness our inherent need to consume personalized information.

Think of it as a filter for personalized content from trusted sources.

This is different than competing for page ranks in search engines or displaying authority in social media.

This is about access to audience and the ability to be heard.

Content curators rank and decide which information offers the most value and enriches you in the process of indulging your curiosity.

And the idea of curation isn’t focused on individual pieces
of content, but the ability to piece together cohesive patterns that contribute to a larger trend.

The challenge is not just in grabbing attention but also maintaining it until the content consumption process reaches its peak value.

This is why popular blogs continues to be popular because of original content curation that follows a narrative.

You need to deliver high value content regularly instead of just sharing the same content as someone else.

So how do you differentiate yourself in a space full of re-hashed content?

First you need to understand and optimize your content for online browsing and reading.

People read more online than print

People only want to spend time online with content they find valuable but if they don’t read it, how would they know if it’s valuable?

Let’s look at an eyetracking study by The Poytner Institute (excellent study) to see just how different we read newspaper content online vs. in print.

  • Online readers read an average of 77% of story text they chose to read
  • Broadsheet readers read an average of 62% of stories they selected
  • Tabloid readers read an average of 57% only.

When measured whether a story was read from start to finish:

  • Online readers read 63% of stories from start to finish
  • Broadsheet readers finished 40% of stories
  • Tabloid readers, 36%

Here is an interesting data from the perspective of people that read online: When looking at story lengths, online readers still read more text regardless of the length.

These findings shows that people have different habits when reading online and it could be because websites are viewed as real-time with up-to-the-minute content.

Another key to point out is that in print, headlines and photos were the first visual stop while website navigation was the first stop for online readers.

Web layout and design plays and important role in how your content gets viewed.

Web browsing habits matter

Web browsing habits affects how users absorb and internalize online content, especially when your declining digital attention span is sliced between multiple browser tabs.

Parallel browsing is like multitasking splitting your concentration in different browser tabs.

Microsoft research Ryen White and Information scientist Jeff Huang recently studied the behavior of 50 millions web surfers and habits regarding tabbed browsing on 60 billion pages.

They found that instead of users viewing more pages with tabs, it simply leads to multitasking cutting user’s online attention span!

  • Parallel browsing with different tabs occurs 85% of the time
  • Viewers often view 5-10 page per tab
  • 57.4% of the browsing time are used for parallel browsing with tabs
  • Most web surfers do not create tabs (branch out) from search engine result pages, but more from non-navigational queries
  • Users open new windows and tabs because they’re waiting for a page to load

Now ask yourself these questions.

How are tabs being used by your customers?

How does this affect the time spent per page on your site?

How attention span affects content decay

So how do you overcome the challenge of maximizing the value of great content?

You need to first understand what Steve Rubel calls Attentionomics (of social media platforms) – the fact that content is infinite, but your attention is finite.

Let’s look at some examples on how attention spans works in social media.

First up: Twitter.

According to a research by Sysomos:

  • 92.4% of all retweets happen within the first hour of the original tweet being published
  • 1.63% of retweets happen in the second hour
  • 0.94% take place in the third hour

So much for the longtail in attention even with 110 million tweets per day!

Next we’ll look at how video content gets consumed on YouTube.

According to research by TubeMogul:

  • A video on YouTube gets 50% of its views in the first 6 days it is on the site
  • After 20 days, a YouTube video has had 75% of its total view
  • In 2008, it took 14 days for a video to get 50% of its views and 44 days to get 75% of its views.

The proliferation of video content is setting new standards in both reach and speed. However; at the same time most online video viewers watch mere seconds, rather than minutes, of a video.

According to another study by TubeMogul, “most videos steadily lose viewers once ‘play’ is clicked, with an average 10.39% of viewers clicking away after ten seconds and 53.56% leaving after one minute.”

And finally let’s check out Facebook.

The thing to keep in mind is that Facebook has their EdgeRank algorithm which determines what content users will see from the pages they “like.”

Basically it’s like the organic links in Google. If you want to grab attention you need to first format your content so it’s Facebook-friendly and then send it out at the right time.

For the optimize time to market on Facebook, I’ll turn to Dan Zarrella’s infographic on the “5 Questions and Answers about Facebook Marketing.”

I’ve seen studies that put the percentage of posts that make it through to users’ news feeds at less than 5% while post feedback ranges from 0.01% to 1.5%.

The bottom line is that Facebook is more relationship-focused than push-focused so it’ll take time for marketers to come up with a standardized metrics that measures something meaningful.

The other interesting development is Facebook’s own CPC network (like AdWords) called Facebook ads that has the ability to deliver quality traffic on a comparable volume scale.

The difference is that Facebook ads tries to look less like an ad and more like an editorial that’s of interest to the user. (I’ll be going over this soon)

The value of social

For now I don’t have the answer to the intrinsic value of social media, but I do know that it’s not just about increase advertising impressions or click through rates.

Still, as Facebook continues to roll out new products and revise its algorithm, it’s best to monitor and allocate small amount of time and resources to do your own testing.

And finally, keep in mind that the content decay data provided above are on logged-in users “actively” engaging each social media platform.

What does this mean?

Social media is just one channel and a user may engage in multiple channels (email, search, offline ads) and within each channel he/she may have different accounts for different purposes so treat each platform autonomously.

For example:

  • A per who uses email may have two email – one for personal, the other one for work. Personal email usually don’t get checked as often so time-sensitive content needs a clear segmentation and different engagement tactics. Or a use may only check personal email on their mobile device so optimizing for mobile experience would be a priority.
  • A user may have multiple social network accounts but choose to engage each at different time for different purposes. This requires tailored content for for each social network in order to deliver the optimal experience. You may use similar content from a content strategy perspective, but the ad copy or marketing message must fit the context within the social network.

Here is an overview of how often people use social media from a combination of comScore reports and research by Wedbush Securities.

Clearly Facebook is the dominating platform with a huge distance between itself and the rest of the social networks in terms of unique visitors.

In fact, Hitwise has been reporting for months now that Facebook had passed Google in terms of time spent online!

There is also further data to show that people are using Facebook more frequently than did on a daily and weekly basis compare to sites like Twitter and Linkedin.

When it comes to social media marketing, keep in mind that each social network has their own unique user experience and habits thus size may not always be the most important factor.

There is no one-size fits all strategy.

The take away: As the “gold rush” to producing content continues, the need for curators will increase disproportionately to the number. The value of content on social media will continue to evolve bringing new challenges for your content to stand out in the digital realm.

Simply put, if content is currency, then attention creates leverage by serving up the right content at the right time.

Do not shortcut your best ideas for easier consumption, instead, focus on your desire outcome with measurable ROI.

As Seth Godin has said, “We don’t have an information shortage, we have an attention shortage.”

Here are some of my recommendations:

  • Tailor your content for each social media platform in relevancy. (short-form goes to Twitter, medium-form goes to Facebook, long-form goes to blog etc.)
  • Reiterate content for behavior change with an emphasis on quality not quantity. (repeat is ok but there is a fine line between consistency and spam)
  • Focus on optimizing your content so users can consume them in the least amount of time.
  • Make it simple but not simpler and as straight forward as possible.
  • Run experience test to see how your content performs  at different time frames, 10 seconds, 20 seconds, 30 seconds…etc.
  • Use your Google analytics to help you identify what visitors are doing once landed on your site. (How long do they stay, how many pages do they read, when do they return again…etc)
  • Use engaging call-to-action without been pushy or salesy.
  • Conduct an usability audit on your website user interface. (what got clicked, where do people go, bounce rates…etc…use In-Page Analytics from Google Analytics)
  • Balance your design with function that support each page’s objective.
  • Run simple A/B split testing, multi-variant testing and user experience testing. (mix and match images, graphics, headlines, copies and layout)

If you made it this far, why not let me know what you think?

Or if you’re just scanning, I hope you go back and re-read this post again!

Further Reading

Comments Closed


  1. Lauren   •  

    Great information – especially the best times of day and frequency to publish on Facebook.

  2. Herve Tunga   •  

    This article is just brilliant, digest and very useful for people designing web content. I enjoyed quite a lot the links to the researches supporting the message.

    Thanks a lot for compiling and sharing.

  3. Eric Tsai   •     Author

    @Herve Tunga
    It’s not just designing web content but think about how to implement these best practices to streamline your marketing can greatly improve your ROI. Thanks Herve.

  4. @bohyunkim   •  

    I have been saying this since 2008 – now finally this idea is mainstream! “Why Attention is the New Currency Online” http://t.co/yvnOtfBM

Comments are closed.