Posts tagged as amazon

The fight for attention

Wednesday September 6th, 2006 in , , , , , ,

Historically we’ve seen how software companies used proprietary data formats to achieve vendor lock-in, thereby exerting control over their customers. Fortunately, recent years have given us open formats such as XML, which makes systems integration and data exchange simpler. The interesting questions is what caused this development? Did the vendors suddenly decide to embrace open formats?

The vendors relied on their lock-in to stay in business, and would not willingly give up this advantage. So what happened? The customers got smarter, that’s what happened, and they started to make demands: “we already have 20 systems that can’t talk to each other. We are not adding any more systems until they start talking together!”. So, integration became a selling point that vendors would have to deal with to stay in business.

Fast forward to 2006. A lot has happened. We’ve got tons of new web 2.0 services launching each day, massive amounts of user generated content, social networks, feeds, you name it. All of which are fighting for our attention. Although I primarily see this development as a positive thing, it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that we are dealing with a brand new kind of lock-in: Attention data lock-in.

Even though attention starts with the user, who expresses his or her intentions as gestures that generate attention data, vendors currently have the upper hand when it comes to these data. They are hiding it in huge silos secured behind huge walls. Why? For vendors such as Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Amazon, the attention data that their customers generate is the most important asset they have. It’s what gives them a competitive edge - they surely don’t want their competitors to get their hands on it!

Where does this leave us as customers? Currently, most of us aren’t in control of our own attention data; the digital representation of who we are, our identity. The fact is that our attention data is scattered across these different locked silos, and something has to happen before this changes. Let me give you a few examples:

  • You searched countless times on Google for a specific topic, and clicked search results. Can you take this with you to Microsoft Live, Yahoo or other search engines?
  • You rated, bought and did all kinds of stuff using your amazon account. Although amazon is great, Barnes and Noble might have other books you would enjoy. Can you take your list of books, likes and dislikes with you?
  • You’ve spent countless hours building buddy lists and social networks. Along comes a new exiting service that adds that killer feature you just got to have. Can you take your “buddies” and your shared connections with you?

We spend all this time and attention to create the content, the value, yet we don’t have control over it. We can’t take it with us. This is how the majority of current services work, but Flickr is leading the way by opening up their API for direct competitors that are willing to do the same.

A new kind of playing field

What we’re seeing with Flickr is the beginning of a totally new kind of playing field, where customers and users are more in control of their content; pictures being the example of attention in this case. But giving up some of the control will seem frightening to most vendors, since customers can chose to take their content and attention elsewhere.

On the other hand, history has shown that vender lock-in couldn’t withstand the pressure of customer demand, e.g. in terms of integration. I think the same thing will happen in the case of attention data lock-in. Services become more valuable to us when we have control of our attention data. In direct competition, giving users control of their attention data will become a selling point. It provides us with a sense security. We won’t have to worry about loosing time and attention spent on one specific service, we can even get additional personal value from the same attention across different services.

The question that remains is who will take us there and when will we arrive…

Attention Brings Service Online

Scientists from the RAND Corporation have created this model to illustrate what a “home computer” could look like in the year 2004. However the needed technology will not be economically feasible for the average home. Also the scientists readily admit that the computer will require not yet invented technology to actually work, but 50 years from now scientific progress is expected to solve these problems. With the teletype interface and the Fortran language, the computer will be easy to use. — Popular Mechanics, 1954

June 2006, Internet World Stats reports that more than one billion people use the Internet. That’s one billion people looking to connect, be entertained, discover something new, even learn something. As a result, the Internet has fundamentally changed how some of the most basic human needs are met. The problem is that the principles on which our society is built no longer apply, including the laws of physics and many of the established economic models. It’s an entirely different animal and it’s called The Attention Economy. 

One important aspect of how this attention driven economy works is known as The Long Tail. Simply put, the long tail means that in terms of business, small is the new big since storage, shelf-space and distribution no longer factor into the equation. When the product range is broadened the sales generated from small names, for example in books and music, starts to add up and the volume of low popularity items exceeds the volume of high popularity items. One thing remains constant though, it’s still all about giving people what they want, and herein lies the challenge.

The challenge can be outlined as follows:

  1. Assume an almost infinitely broad selection of products
  2. Attention is the most precious resource that the user has - for this reason consider it extremely limited
  3. Present the user with the most relevant products in the shortest possible time, and a minimal amount of work required on their end.

I’ve been focusing on how we spend money on music and books, but variations of this challenge exist anywhere we spend attention. We chose the search engine that provides us with the best results, subscribe to the feeds that have the best chance of keeping using up to speed. Or at least we like to think that’s what we’re doing. We can never really know what’s out there, if we missed that one important thing that would have made all the difference.

Hi, I’ll have the Usual / What’s Good?

We’ve established that we all spend attention. The challenge ahead is to maximize the “return of attention”. Ideally, I want relevant products and information at my fingertips. Products that are a perfect match for me, information I can use and enjoy. How can we achieve this? Logic dictates that in order to do this better, the source of these products and information needs to know more about me - my likes and dislikes, what I’ve done previously. This is where attention data comes into play.

As a consumer you can think of attention data as the relationship you’ve established with the seller of the product in question. A premise for this kind of relationship is trust, but once established the experience becomes more enjoyable for you and more profitable for the seller. A few real-life examples of this includes:

  • The staff at your favorite restaurant - they come to know how you like to be seated, the kind of food and drink you like. As a result they will be able to recommend new dishes you’re likely to enjoy.
  • The bartender at the place you usually hang with your friends - lift a finger and she’ll respond with an ice-cold beer of your favorite brand. Tell her what flavors you like and she’ll suggest new drinks for you to try.
  • The same thing goes for the staff at movie theatres, record stores, bookstores, you name it. Basically anywhere they get to know you through your returned visits.

Amazon understands this, and has been hugely successful as a result. Their technology essentially serves the same purpose as the bookstore clerks do in the real world. The big difference is that their servers know about all books and all other customers. They’ve taken some of the service that people enjoy in the real world, and made it work on a large scale online.

The bottom line is that we are all uniquely special, and we enjoy being treated as such, online or not. The use of attention data will play an important role and shows great promise, but in order to succeed we need to strike a perfect balance between too little or too much data in terms of privacy. One thing is for sure:

The fight for attention has begun…