Winning in the attention economy: why data alone is not enough

Winning attention is no easy task, says Digitas’s Jane Austin / Markus Spiske via Unsplash

When we talk about the attention economy we tend to mean one thing: attention has become a scarce commodity. One way of looking at the customer experience game is as a battle for that precious resource. Jane Austin, chief experience officer at Digitas, argues that one common approach – building a strategy exclusively on data – is insufficient. Insight and relationships are key.

We are in a battle for users’ attention. Ads are proliferating over every platform, sneaking their way into our subconscious via influencers, events, advertorials and goodness knows what new ways of getting customers to buy products.

But it’s all pretty one-sided and fleeting – users look and move on. Users are getting better and better at filtering out what is, to them, noise. They simply don’t pay attention.

And why should they? What value are we adding other than shouting ‘buy me’ on a multitude of mediums?

That’s why smart brands and marketeers are creating products that add value to their customers lives’ and allow them to build loyalty – because a relationship has much more impact than a fleeting glance.

Replacing glances with relationships

It all starts by understanding your audience. Research is your superpower. I’ve seen many organizations critically underinvest in research and base their strategy on what they think their customers want. In reality, all they are doing is talking to themselves. Organizations that invest in research, and listen to and understand their customers, will be the winners in the attention economy.

Why? Because today’s consumers appreciate brands that do something for them. And more importantly, they tell others.

It’s not impossible to spend your way to success. But why bother when you can get your consumers to do it for you? Give them an incredible experience and they’ll share it. Consumers can be your best advocates, and word of mouth is the best way to grow. To paraphrase Nilan Peiris, vice-president of growth at UK startup success story Wise, what we need is sustainable marketing. You need to find a real problem that your customers have, and then solve it 10x better than your competition.

Insight first, always

The first step is high-quality, impactful insight. You’ve probably heard that supposed Henry Ford quote: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” This is sometimes used to justify not doing research, arguing that there’s no point asking consumers anything because they don’t know what they want.

Ford probably never actually said this – he was actually a big fan of research. But there’s something true in the quote anyway: you can’t just ask people what they want, or ask them to predict what they will do in the future, or how much they might pay. People are notoriously bad at knowing what will happen in the future, let alone what they’re doing now.

High-quality research helps us to understand what people are actually doing now, and unpack this information to make innovative decisions.

Data alone is not enough

Data is of course very useful, but it can only tell you what people have done, in the past and in aggregate. It doesn’t give you all the insight you need to plan for the future.

You need a foundation of quantitative data to give you confidence in your decision-making, but you also need qualitative insights. You need to know what your consumers are thinking as well as what they are doing. This richness of insight allows you to give consumers valuable products and experiences in the future, as well as improving what exists today.

I’m not alone in thinking that data alone is not enough to run a business – Jeff Bezos said “the thing I have noticed is when the anecdotes and the data disagree, the anecdotes are usually right.” It’s important to invest in both to give you a 360° view of your consumer.

Armed with this knowledge, you can build products that connect on a deeper level with consumers, helping them in their daily lives in ways that build loyalty and connection, rather than fighting for attention.

You just can’t solve real problems for real people if you work from assumptions, or what you think people want. Insight is key.