Storytelling, Consumer Attention and Making Money on Media

Earlier this month, at Stanford University’s Future of Media Conference, I was asked to share some thoughts about this moment in media and what’s ahead. Since I’m at least as bad as anyone else at divining the future, I focused on something more obvious and fundamental: paying attention.

Media doesn’t work if no one is paying attention. Forget about paywalls and CPMs, meters and bundles. The foundation underneath anything and everything we do in media is consumer attention. On the business side of media, it’s attention, really, that we’re selling. If our stuff is worth enough of the consumer’s attention, she might buy a subscription, make a donation, or buy a ticket. Advertisers, of course, are buying access to that same attention.

Before we get too far into this, I want to talk about one possible unit by which attention might be measured: Kardashians. Media scholar Ethan Zuckerman, who teaches at MIT’s Media Lab, has proposed (partly in jest) that we use this new metric to quantify the attention we pay to media. One Kardashian is “the amount of global attention Kim Kardashian commands across all media over the space of a day.”


What I especially like about Zuckerman’s Kardashian system is that it’s a measure of SURPLUS attention. It measures the kind of thing you can look at without really paying much attention.

The attention I’m talking about is a different kind — one that’s harder to measure in Kardashians. I’m talking about the way we pay attention when we travel on vacation — when everything is so vivid, and we still think about it a year later. Or when we’re watching an amazing movie, or we get caught up in book, and the whole world just falls away for a little while. We’re transported. We’re not checking email, and we’re not even thinking about checking email. These moments of attention aren’t actually work. They’re a gift. The minutes when we’re paying attention to something more absorbing and gratifying than a Kardashian. When I refer to time spent in minutes, it’s those kind of minutes. The really, actually paying attention kind.

Jeff Zucker

Jeff Zucker, the former CEO of NBC, is famous for his pithy comments about the erosion of advertising rates as an audience moves online. “We are trading analog dollars for digital dimes,” he said. (He later upgraded dimes to quarters.) In other words, CPMs for digital advertising are much lower than CPMs for TV or print.

It’s the same premium content and the same upscale audience. Why, then, won’t advertisers pay the same rate to advertise to them? It’s just not fair, is it?

Hal Varian

Well, maybe it is. Hal Varian, the chief economist at Google, has studied the role of format and context in the news business. Zucker wasn’t talking about news specifically, but Varian’s stats regarding consumer attention are relevant to the current issues facing the entire media business — news outlets, magazines and television alike.

On the one hand, digital has been great for news media. More people read news now than ever before, and 40% of Internet users look at news every day. But if you measure attention in minutes spent reading, laptops — it seems — have been very very bad for news publishers. Newspaper readers who get the print edition spend 25 minutes per day reading the news; those who consume it online spend only 70 seconds.

Let’s face it: If the digital version of a media product gets a fraction of the attention captured by its analog counterpart, the digital ad space is just less valuable.

Yikes. Consumers are fast moving from analog to digital media. If that means they will soon lose their ability to pay attention to media in general, then it also means ad rates for media in general won’t support premium journalism and storytelling. And consumers aren’t likely to pick up the slack if they aren’t drawn deeply into the digital media experience either. First we pay attention, and only then — maybe — will we pay for a ticket, a membership or a subscription.

But hold on a nanoKardashian.

We do pay attention to lots of digital media. We bought 457 million eBooks in 2012. We binge-watch TV shows when Netflix posts the entire season all at once. And we’re starting to read really really long articles on our phones.

So there’s something wrong with the argument that we can’t pay attention to media if it’s digital. It can’t be a platform problem. There’s nothing magical about paper, nor is there an ideal screen size that will save the media business. Instead, capturing attention comes down to three things.

Storyteller and Children

1) Tell a story

There are different ways to unveil a piece of content, and they are all good in their own ways. The narrative structure, however, affects how readers will read it.

News reporting, for example, starts with the most important part of the story, the “news lede,” to make sure we get the bulletin right up top just in case we don’t have time to read the whole article. The goal of the news publisher is to deliver the news, not hold our attention and delight us with narrative surprises.

Many digital media outlets have another goal: To drive social sharing, to create viral goodness. And, like news, they’re not optimizing for attention. In this line of publishing, there’s no reward for driving readers to a story, sucking them in, getting them to volunteer a half hour of their time. The goal here is retweets, Facebook Likes and racking up large numbers of unique visitors to a website — regardless of how long they stay or how deeply they lose themselves in the stories.

Great television shows, movies and magazines take a different approach. They make different decisions on how much of the story and when to reveal it, and how to create delight as those pieces of the story are revealed — delight in exchange for some attention. (A great example is Caitlin Flanagan’s recent feature for The Atlantic, The Dark Power of Fraternities. Read the first two paragraphs and see if you can put the story down.)

We rely on different types of media for different styles of content and levels of commitment. But if you create compelling stories that reward the reader for offering his or her attention, you have a better chance of winning it, no matter the platform.

House of Cards Season 2

2) Tap into tribal urgency

I don’t mean FOMO, fear of missing out. It’s more like FOMSA — fear of missing something awesome. That’s a fear that grabs our attention. Especially if it’s a media event that is important to your inner circle, your posse of most-respected friends, your “tribe.” Big global mass media event like the Super Bowl may not matter to your inner circle, in which case they are miss-able media events. But if your crew all watches House of Cards, you better start binging.

When you make media more like a live event, audiences are reluctant to miss out, and they make an appointment to be there.

Leisure Time Readers

3) Reach them in leisure time, not work time

After work, before work, and over the weekend we don’t have to divide our attention among meetings, IM, the boss, and the project we’re being paid to work on.

Hal Varian makes this point in his study of the news business: It’s actually not about format, it’s about context. Reading the newspaper on your laptop at work is the context in which we only spend 70 seconds doing something that used to capture 25 minutes of our daily attention. People who read newspaper apps on their tablets spend roughly the same amount of time with the news as the print newspaper readers of old.

His diagnosis? When we read things at work, we aren’t able to pay much attention. When we read outside of work — on the couch, in bed, at the beach or (in the case of news) at the breakfast table — we spend much more time doing it.

(A version of this post originally appeared at Ad Age.)

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