The term ‘Attention Economy’ made a lot of sense back then. It still does. But this was a advertising-perpetrated concept.
The Attention Economy, as Read Write Web’s Richard MacManus sums it up, “is a marketplace where consumers agree to receive services in exchange for their attention. Examples include personalized news, personalized search, alerts and recommendations to buy. Note that the Attention Economy is different from the traditional meaning of an economy, because it isn’t about buying and selling – although ultimately those things may occur”.
Some of the critical aspects of this assumption/theory are ‘choice’ and ‘relevance’.
It is the information overload that leads to this concept and that is a factor of excessive choice. Relevance comes into the picture since that is the ONLY way to gain attention. It could be done using emotional relevance, gimmicky, eye-catchy relevance… anything…as long as it is able to attract the attention for some purpose.
But, attention economy, in my opinion, is just one small part of it. The beginning alone, if I may add. It helps us understand that human attention is indeed a scarce commodity and leads us to treat that carefully, efficiently.
Going beyond Attention Economy
A bigger, more interesting economy of sorts is shaping up…or has already shaped up, but has not been given as much attention.
We humans now have the biggest, most mature, most democratic set up to harness opinions, with the advent of social media platforms. We consume products and services. We talk about them. We complain about them. We recommend them…heck, we even ‘like’ them, as Facebook asks us to.
The best examples are the reviews and feedback on Amazon – the equivalent of it in real life would be for all those reviewers to stand near each and every book and speak out their views on it, when someone picks it up from a shelf! That is both impossible and silly.
But, social media platforms have enabled just that.
And, people seem to be opining on things far more than ever. Not all of them are fair. Not all of them are well articulated. Not all of them are even reasonable.
But they are what they are…opinions. And they are mostly out there!
We dig them up via Google. Or join specific online groups to get them to our mail boxes. We trust absolute strangers when deciding on a big-ticket purchase and those strangers have opined on that product online…in droves!
Increasingly, movies’ fates are being decided on Twitter. Why? Because, the early movers are opining about what they watched almost impulsively…not necessarily after the film is over, but even mid way. That is being read by millions of people and collectively, it is moving a needle in people’s mind.
It could be seen as an opinion overload. Or, it could be summarized as the ‘Opinion Economy’.
The Opinion Economy
The trouble with opinions is that people have them!
Opinion Economy is one where consumers volunteer to opine on what they consume – services or products, without necessarily expecting anything in return. The expectation is more in terms of personal branding and personal influence than anything to do with gaining the attention of the brand. Unlike the Attention Economy, selling is not involved directly in Opinion Economy. It is an important consideration, but what is more important for brands is the sentiment behind the opinion. That decides the future course for the product or service.
Sentiment, of course, has to be backed by reach and influence.
Reach is necessary for the opinion to gain wings and spread. Influence is essential in that opinion to be regarded with seriousness.
A person could have 1,000 friends on Facebook or 10,000 followers on Twitter. That is mere reach. That doesn’t however mean that all those connections will take his opinion on a new movie seriously. Influence has to be cultivated using consistency of opining and in a way, quality of opining.
Influence is also a factor of the medium. There are opinions floating on Yahoo Answers – they are remote and from strangers. They would influence a bit lesser, when you compare it with your network on Facebook, with whom you have a closer connection.
People have been opining long before the internet happened. It is not as if they’ve just now found their voices. They used to opine just to a few people earlier – friends, family, colleagues. The more influential ones wrote books or made documentaries. But there was a real limitation on how much such opinions could spread. Till social media platforms came into the picture.
How does Opinion Economy benefit brands?
The Opinion Economy benefits brands in multiple ways.
For high involvement/high engagement brands, the opinion economy is nothing short of a boon. It literally tells them what people think about its products or service in a way that market research agencies do not. But, it is all raw data and is spread all across the web. It is no easy task to accumulate and assimilate. That is one of the reasons why brands are working in droves to create owned media properties so that they can collect and harness opinions in platforms where they have some control.
The scepter of negative opinion always hangs, though. But is that a factor of the medium – the social media? Of course not. It is simply a factor of how good or bad the product or service was, in the eyes of the customer. Can brands change that opinion? Possibly – by making better products or offering better experience around the consumption of the product. But, human mind is highly opinionated and is dictated by each person’s unique upbringing and personal influences. That is what makes the Opinion Economy such a fascinating and complex concept.
For high involvement/high engagement brands, there are multiple touch points across the product purchase life-cycle that could lead to opinions. For instance, for an automobile, the opinions could start right from the hype around a new vehicle launch, go on to the experience at the dealer, the first drive, the drive after 1,000 miles, service related experiences and even resale! Harnessing this opinion cycle is limited only by the brand custodian’s imagination!
What about low involvement/low engagement brands? What happens when people do not talk of or opine on a product or service? Toothpaste…chewing gum…denim jeans…shoes…mosquito repellents…toilet cleaners…the categories are many!
Do we talk about how awesome that chewing gum was? Not necessarily. Low involvement is not necessarily a factor of the product/service’s price alone. Ben and Jerry’s does not cost much, but it has enough flavors to have people start talking online. Pizzas do not cost much, but people talk about the experience of going out and consuming the pizza.
That holds the key for brands that fall under the low involvement/low engagement categories – the trick is simply to work out ways where you increase the involvement or engagement. If the product or service, by itself, does not offer possibilities of increasing either engagement or involvement, it is time to look around the product to create newer points of engagement or involvement. So then, people opine about things around the product or service with or without a mention about the actual product or service itself. That is a huge win too, for something that started as something that could not generate opinions!
Each country’s evolution in terms of internet penetration is a massive deciding factor on how seriously they should take the Opinion Economy.
The US, which has the most mature social media ecosystem could perhaps take the lead here – brands are harnessing opinions in multiple ways and that is a huge win. For a country like India, the ability to take an online opinion seriously is still some years away, though brands have started the process already.
Working our way through the Opinion Economy – CRM Vs. PR
Harnessing opinions in the Opinion Economy can be done in many ways.
Brands have tried to buy opinions and the US has tried creating new laws to streamline this process and make it more transparent. But, usually, the opinions are generated by a trigger – emotional, annoyance, ecstasy, happiness, connection and so on.
The other part, on what brands could do with opinions is more interesting. For a popular consumer brand, there would be millions of opinions online. Can all them even be read/assimilated?
If yes, that is a factor of a customer relationship management function – CRM. The idea there would be to know and if need be, address every single opinion out there to create a positive impression, wherever appropriate.
The other way is the PR function. It is unfair to consumers, but exists, after all. It simply transposes how media relations is handled – a few influential people with a louder voice (through a print publication or television media) are targeted first so that the brand gains visibility with the largest number of people, in the shortest possible time.
The same thing online would be a targeted outreach with people who opine online, but the outreach is done only on those who seem to have a slightly more influential online presence. In a perfect world, however, brands should address online opinions based on the content and it’s criticality. But this is, as I said earlier, a factor of CRM. PR’s effort is to perform the same thing in a targeted manner so that it helps brands reach the largest number of people, with the least effort.
But honestly, the effort even here is not ideally ‘least’. It still requires a judicious check on opinion creators’ backgrounds and social connections and make informed estimates on who is worth an outreach. It is still as ‘estimate’ or the use of the PR team’s discretion.
It is interesting that brands worldwide are doing all of this, but ‘opinion economy’ as a phrase has still not been coined! Opinion overload is as much a real problem as information overload that created the attention economy. Opinions, in fact, falls within the same information spectrum that is already in an overloaded state.
For brands, this is the other view – while attention economy looked at how to gain attention, opinion economy looks at how to use attention already gained.