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Attention is Abundant, But You Have to Earn It

As marketers and media companies become more alike, let’s look for answers together

Ryan Pauley, Chief Revenue Officer, Vox Media

Advertisers used to take our attention for granted — because they could.

For every hour of television we watched, networks force-fed us 17 minutes of commercials. Radio jingles were a fixture of every car ride. Whenever we opened a newspaper or a magazine, we were greeted by pages upon pages of slogans and taglines.

In those days, marketers could always count on having a direct line to consumers. There was no opting-out; audience attention was an entitlement. But we all know those days are long gone.

Today, reaching consumers and building connections require marketers to earn attention — a more difficult task that requires far more innovation.

Now, for less than $10 a month, you can stream almost every song ever recorded or binge watch shows and movies for hours — all without the threat of an ad.

Even where the majority of advertising budgets are spent, scale has been the defining metric and continues to persist today. On social media, where it’s still possible to reach consumers at scale, audiences are far from captive. Instead, the average person scrolls through 300 feet of feeds every day — the height of the Statue of Liberty, including the torch. It might be easy to capture a click, but it’s much more difficult to make a connection.

The job of a marketer is ever changing. Once the mouthpiece of innovation, a marketer now needs to be the source of innovation, through new customer acquisition strategies, consumer mobile experiences, or customer service, to name just a few. For those who try to avert this new reality, there are real business consequences. (See: the DTC disruption of larger incumbents across nearly every industry, or the $15B writedown of Kraft — an action directly tied back to lack of investment in the brand and innovation).

The risks of not building a brand that matters — a brand that is worthy of people’s attention — are becoming more evident.

It’s in this light that marketers and media companies are becoming more alike. Delighting audiences, creating connections, building a brand people trust are not only priorities for us, but they’re also prerequisites for building a modern media company.

If you’re nodding along thinking that this state of things is obvious, I ask you this: If we’re not entitled to time with audiences, what can we do to earn it?

1) Redefine context to include mindset

I wake up in the morning and check how the Sixers did last night (trust the process), read a few daily newsletters, and waste time by saying something snarky on Twitter on my way to work. In the office, I’ll read industry news, research a client’s latest business opportunities in preparation for a meeting, and end my day listening to a podcast while trying to find the newest restaurant in New York worth a try.

Why am I telling you my media diet? For starters, it’s because this user did much more than act as a male 18-34, business-decision-maker who recently put another pair of white Converses (free ad) in his cart. I acted like someone who didn’t want to look stupid in front of colleagues to going on a fact-finding mission and getting in dinner-planning mode.

I am the same person through those experiences, though my mindset changes constantly — with different expectations, different intentions, and a different level of receptiveness to very different messages.

Every minute we’re online, our attitude changes. It’s no longer enough to frame context solely around premium environments or whether the words on the page are brand safe. It’s about reaching and connecting with people based on the mindset they’re in, not just the latest pair of shoes they put in their cart.

People have many (often independent) identities and marketers should treat people like the multi-dimensional — and yes, fickle — internet users that we are.

To earn attention and build real connections, do a job for audiences. Don’t just look for a transactional relationship based on personal information. Consider the whole context (and the whole person!), and meet audiences in the right mindset.

2) Measure what matters — not what’s easy to count

Too often we optimize for what’s easiest to measure, focusing on the data that’s most readily available.

We even try to justify bold decisions, like Nike’s recent campaign with Colin Kaepernick, with easy-to-access metrics like stock price: “What a bold move, their stock is up XX%!” In reality, if Nike’s core customers love and identify even more with the brand because of it, that sounds like enough of an outcome to me. People overly worried about what Nike’s stock price does in the immediate aftermath aren’t assessing Nike’s long term health anyway.

Real, long term returns come from optimizing for things that are harder to measure. And just because it’s harder to measure doesn’t mean it’s not worth focusing on. Rather, the harder something is to measure, the more it’s worth your time and energy.

Our industry values scale, clicks, views. But what about impact, connections, and loyalty? These are the metrics that matter.

How do you make an impact? How do you make a connection? By communicating brand values to your audience through creative storytelling. Telling great stories transcends platforms, audiences, formats, and environments. Combine this with our new definition of context and you will build deep audience relationships delivering both near and long term business results.

Earning attention means remembering value creation exists outside of a spreadsheet. Don’t let technology and data set your entire strategy. Make a connection, earn one.

3) Find a long term partner worthy of your trust

My final message for marketers is this: I need your help just as much as I believe we can help you. Like you, we are laser-focused on developing stories that break through the noise and appeal to audiences. And like you, we do it across platforms — through articles and videos, podcasts and live events.

But that’s only part of the reason marketers and media companies make such good partners. Modern media companies work every day to earn audience attention, beginning with an unwavering dedication to audience trust. These are not transactional relationships and they are not lost in 300 feet of mindless daily scrolling. From this perspective, it’s obvious to us why consumer trust in social media is half that compared to modern media.

From there, we take a holistic, strategic, and long-term approach to building our brand and making an impact — and we approach our partnerships the same way. Our goal is to find collaborators who are in it for the long haul, who make us smarter about what we do — and who expect us to do the same for them. These kinds of long-term partnerships are more strategic, consultative, and iterative (and more fun!).

As a result, this delivers compounding returns. Partners who have mastered creative storytelling in all forms, develop technology platforms for publishing, deliver high-value distribution channels, and layer insights across everything will continue to emerge as leaders.

To push us forward, let’s think of audiences in their fullest contexts — mindset-first — and respectfully foster relationships, loyalty, impact, and deep connections. Let’s lean into the creativity and storytelling that we know matters most. Let’s be worthy of our audiences trust and their time — and earn their attention together.

Ryan Pauley is Vox Media’s Chief Revenue Officer. When he’s in the mindset to waste time, you can find him on Twitter @rypauley.