The new rules for the new economy can be summarized as:
Where ever attention flows, money will follow.
Almost anything else except attention can be manufactured as a commodity. Luxury goods are only luxuries temporarily. They quickly are counterfeited and commodified. Premium brands are only premium because they garner a surplus of attention.
Maintain an incoming flow of attention and money will follow.
That is really all you need to know. Thankfully there are a zillion ways to garner and maintain attention.
You can be consistently amazing. Brilliantly novel. Irrationally helpful. Attractively weird. Remarkably reliable. Outstandingly truthful. Etc.
But converting attention to money — isn’t that what shameless self-promoters do? And celebrities? Yes. But it is also what Google does, and Genentech and crusty manufacturing companies like 3M. They are providing useful products and services. But so are their competitors. So are we all.
The Technium is built to spew out products and services on a global scale at an increasing rate. It has become easier and easier to invent something and make it available at a click. Big box stores, popping up everywhere, overflow with gadgets trying to be useful. The world wide web brims with sites trying to be useful. In this tide of usefulness, products and services have become a background noise. They are like the wind constantly pressing against us. This air pressure of “helpfulness” is just about inescapable. Imagine a manufactured world full of millions of tiny varied robot servants, all eager to help us. We are halfway there.
In this world we simply cannot deal with all good things. There are more good songs than we can ever listen too. There are more good movies than we can ever see in our lifetime, even if it was our full time vocation. There are more useful tools than we have time to master. There are more cool websites than we have attention to spare. Forget about all junk, all the mass produced hits, and all the critically acclaimed creations that mean nothing to you personally. Focus instead on just the things that would rock your boat. There are still too many of them! There are in fact, more great bands, and books, and gizmos aimed right at you, customized to your unique desires, than you can absorb.
New things that don’t work or serve no purpose are quickly weeded out of the system. But the fact that something does work or is helpful is no longer sufficient for success. Good, useful stuff is now the minimum standard. I might even make the argument that great stuff is the minimum. Now anything that lasts has to also maintain our attention.
And when it wins our attention, money will follow. Money is one way we acknowledge our attention. We “want” something — an intense form of attention — and we use money to fulfill this attention. Using the product or service is a continuation of that attention. Recommending it others is a further extension of that attention.
OK, I’ve got some attention, where’s the money?
It comes directly, and more so today, indirectly. Payment from advertisers is a common indirect path by which money follows attention.
Free is always a fine way to win a flow of attention. As Chris Anderson’s clever parsing of the four types of free shows, whenever a free product or service is given, the free is exchanged for attention. Without the flow of attention back to the producer, the free is meaningless. A producer might as well dump the free things in the woods if attention from customers did not count.
The ways in which free attention is converted into money are not new. Beyond the standard purchase for cash, there are subscriptions, clubs, freemiums, per piece, discounts, and the entire world of merchandizing tricks. As I outline in Better Than Free, there are a lot of ways to monetize attention that is freely won.
It is important to realize, though, that this tight coupling between attention and money is dependable, bankable. Google made its billions because in addition to having a service that people wanted (the assumed minimum) it knew that sooner or later (and probably sooner than later) where attention flowed, money would follow. They won constant attention by providing slightly better performance and vastly better design. In the beginning they did not know exactly how the money would flow, only that it would. Facebook, Myspace, Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, and thousands of other startups are working on the same principle. Right now the attention of readers has shifted from newspapers and magazines to blogs. We can say with certainty that money will follow this shift. Fortunes have already begun to flight from print to the screen, and the world of media will continue to tilt towards the flow of attention.
Getting a quick blitz of attention is a no-brainer. The challenge is maintaining a flow of attention in an environment where you are surrounded by millions of similar things that are good and useful. The problem for a band is not being “discovered” but remaining interesting. The challenge for a website is not getting slashdotted but getting someone to return again and again. The deal for an inventor is not getting someone to buy your gizmo (it is just money!) but to use it every day. To be aware of it. To consider it. To love it. To trigger meaning.
The message to pioneers engineering new ideas in marginal markets is: Have faith. Where attention flows, money follows