Time, attention, and the content creation curve

BSrinivas Rao, Contributing {grow} Columnist

If you’ve read any of my previous posts here on {grow}, you know that I  view attention as a form of currency on the social web. In fact it’s the most valuable form of currency because it’s the start of every single relationship. However as the supply of attention decreases, the demand increases, and the mass attention myth becomes more prevalent, we need  to give some thought to how we’re going to get people to spend their attention with us.

The Cost of Attention

“A link, a funny photo, a famous quote, or even a recipe or coupon are legitimate types of content, but these are not the types of content that will optimize your social media presence and bring you powerful, lasting results.”  – Mark Schaefer

Interactions on the web occur across multiple channels and the amount of attention that people spend at each channel varies greatly.  For the sake of this post, let’s use a rating system that assigns an attention cost (i.e. how much of their attention somebody spends with you). let’s take a journey together up the content creation curve:

Tweets/Status Updates

Attention Cost: 1

You’ll rarely  hear anybody say “that status update changed my life.” As my friend Charlie Gilkey brilliantly pointed out, tweets and status updates don’t change lives, they interrupt them.

At best we might pique somebody’s curiosity with a status update. We might gain a new follower or fan. We’ll have their attention until the next shiny thing in the clickstream grabs their attention. The world of tweets and status updates is like a virtual flea market. People move from stall to stall spending tiny bits of their attention.

Blog Posts

Attention Cost: 3

A blog post is where your fans may linger but the attention is probably transient. A rule of thumb is that 80 percent of your visitors have never been to your blog and probably will never be there again.

Most people scan blog posts. But consistent blogging does create a valuable body of work that can lead to dedicated fans and a base of content that can establish a voice of authority. And blog posts can create conversations and engagement like no other content form.


Attention Cost: 3

Newsletters cost more of your attention because you made a choice to receive them. You gave somebody your email address. Access to your inbox is a bit like breaking out your wallet at the flea market and saying you’ll buy something small. Even Scott Stratten who is a self proclaimed social media “fanboy” once told me that “social is a terrible pull mechanism.”  Don’t underestimate the power of email as a way to get people spending more of their attention with you.


Attention Costs 4

“Every major religion has a text. Your manifesto or free e-book is that for your blog.” – Jeff Goins

Marcus Sheridan is quickly becoming a guru of marketing through this form. He doesn’t sell ebooks. He gives away a 250 page bible on content marketing.  It’s resulted in clients, speaking engagements, and much more.  In his words “I’d rather land a $10,000 client or speaking gig than sell a ten dollar e-book.”

But the more important thing to observe is why this works. It requires a significant investment of somebody’s attention to read a 60 page manifesto or 250 page ebook. It gets them invested in your worldview. It also filters out the people who don’t resonate with your ideas.   Here are a few other ebooks/manifestos that have catapulted people to prominence:

  • Chris Guillebeau’s World Domination Manifesto has been downloaded over 100,000 times. Since publishing it, he’s gone on to publish two wildly successful books.
  • AJ Leon wrote The Life and Times of a Remarkable Misfit. It’s been downloaded over 87,000 times since he published it just 5 months ago. The result is a fanatical fan base.


Attention Costs 5

95% of communication is non-verbal.  When somebody hears your voice or sees your face you go from being words on a screen to being a real person. Consider the average time spent on most blogs. For me it’s roughly 2-3 minutes. Contrast that with somebody listening to a podcast for roughly an hour and it’s clear that it requires much more of their attention. It’s difficult to “scan” a podcast. As attention becomes scarcer and mobile devices become more prevalent, it’s no surprise that some of our greatest minds on the web are diversifying their content efforts.


Attention Cost: 6

When we talk about how someone uses words to impact a tribe, what a manifesto or book book does is show that you’re serious. It makes a prolonged consistent argument.  It demonstrates a point of view. It’s  a whole river not a drop of water. – Seth Godin

Why are books so special? A book requires much more effort on the part of the creator and of the reader.

When you write a book it causes people to take you seriously.  While there are plenty of people declaring the death of the publishing industry, getting a book deal with a mainstream publisher is still a huge credibility builder.  There’s something about walking into a bookstore and seeing your book on the shelf that gives it a very special quality. Many authors will tell you their books don’t’ make money, but rather serve as a business card.

A book cements their authority on a subject.  C.C. Chapman said when he asked an organization why they called him, they replied “because you wrote the book on the subject.”

The Relationship Between Attention and Effort

As you look down this list there is another important correlation. Each step on the attention ladder represents more commitment to attention, but also more effort on the part of the content creator.

  •  A blog post requires more effort than a status update
  • An ebook/manifesto requires more effort than a blog post
  • A traditional book requires more effort than both of the above

When I submitted this post to Mark the first time, he sent it back.  He holds us to excruciatingly high standards.  But it’s tough love because his high standards have resulted in some of my best work.  That’s the trade-off — The more effort you give something, the more attention it gets. In Mark’s email to me he said something that could really summarize the entire the point of this post:

“The most important thing is to create something exceptional, even if it takes a little more time.” 

Now, I’ll leave you with a question. Are you creating something that’s going to matter over the course of a lifetime? Are you willing to do the work?

Srinivas Rao writes about the things you should have learned in school, but never did and his the host-co founder of BlogcastFM.  You can follow him on twitter @skooloflife

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  • RogierNoort

    Excellent post Srinivas! This is a great point to make, and I believe it to be spot on. It makes me want to add more value to my work. Yes, it is an inspirational post.

    I try to write/create as well as I can. When putting in the extra effort, the return is there too. This is what drives me…

    On to the next level then…

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  • I can’t help but think that these ratings also correspond to the amount of effort needed to produce the content. So that’s also food for thought from the content-production perspective.

  • Srinivas,

    I’m glad to have come across this thought expanded from where I originally encountered it – Ryan Hanley’s podcast to be precise. I would add that manifestos or books, more than any other types of content, have a multiplier effect.

    The reason being that to write one of those, you have to have a Big Idea and support the thread through many pages, taking the reader from point A to point B. Transformation can happen – which is something that may not actually happen in a podcast.

    So, you take the transformation and people start talking about it. You receive the attention points but then based off how compelling your Big Idea is, sharing happens. Or maybe speakers start referencing you in their presentations.

    Books and manifestos have an awesome “You’ve GOT to read this!!” effect that can make those attention points rack up big time.

    Thanks for this post and your interview with Hanley.

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  • Dan Armstrong

    There’s a risk aspect to this continuum. When I worked at The Economist’s sponsored research (AKA thought leadership) business, sometimes have companies come to us and lay down large sums of money for data- and interview-intensive papers to distribute to their clients. Sometimes the papers were successful, but not always. If you tweet and nobody reads it, who cares? But if you pay six figures for a big survey and paper and there’s no pickup because it’s too boring or promotional, you’ve bet heavily on a losing hand.

    There’s an organic way of creating big attention-grabbing content that reduces risks, and that’s building up from small pieces. Tweet and post, see what floats, build on it.

    Thanks for a thoughtful post.

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  • Daniel Bachmann

    Thank you Mark for your presentation in Ireland, and agree on your attention post based on the fact, that I am active in all relevant networks with a Klout score of 72, still seeing myself at the beginning of social journey with 5k follower on Twitter, 2.5k on G+, 1.4k on Linkedin, 2k on Instagram, 700 friends on Facebook etc. On a good tweet I get maybe 10 retweets (0.2% of followers), while on FB on a high around 20 likes (3% of friends), it has to be said however, that it was easier for me to grow Twitter, so each network serves their purpose like well described in your book!

    Kind regards Daniel Bachmann
    List of my social presence:

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  • Srinivas, I’m going to hold on to this and use it to evaluate each piece of content as aI develop my content strategy. The “attention” cost makes sense; and as you describe it form the perspective of the viewer/reader/listener’s commitment—it’s so true! (as how I myself have committed to content). If it’s true for me, it is probably true for others; making what you’ve shared a true “light-bulb” moment. Thanks!

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