The Mechanics of Attention and the Creator Economy

Franco Varriano
June 15, 2021
 min read
"First party data is the goal, which in turn drives additional earned reach."

-The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), source.

As internet culture continues to shift from advertising to commerce, we need to update our understanding of what qualifies as marketing success. The most important performance metric is no longer the number of eyeballs served with ads—instead, businesses are increasingly relying on a mix of first party data and the deep, passionate, collaborative attention that is a trademark of the most active communities.

This is the Attention Economy, and it will have a huge impact on the future of commerce and the Creator Economy.

In our distraction-filled world, time stays finite but content continues to explode: the average person now spends seven hours a day consuming digital media, up from three hours daily a few years back. There is more competing for our time than ever before.

If audience-first is the future, then (deep, authentic) attention is the currency that will be bought, invested in, and creatively bartered. As Li Jin points out:

“Attention has become such a scarce thing to capture that people are willing to pay for it.”

The value of attention

We’ve talked before about the concept of Linear Commerce. 

To summarize, Linear Commerce is a multi-step strategy to build a company or product that involves:

  • Starting with a media-creation effort to build an audience interested in that content;
  • Slowly iterating to refine the content being served to that audience;
  • over time getting the audience more engaged and understanding their unique wants and needs. Through this collaboration, the audience is transformed into a community.
  • Developing a product or experience there will always be demand for—the depth of understanding and community that has been built is what guarantees this. 

The shift from audience to community is an important one. In fact, it's foundational in the coming evolution of the internet.

In order to assemble the building blocks of modern brands and create a cult-like community of adoring fans and customers, the value of capturing that community’s attention is almost priceless:


The value of real, authentic attention is something many, but not all, creators have figured out long before others...

Attention is a multi-directional street

During a recent interview, Li Jin pointed out that when many people talk about "attention" it's typically unidirectional: fans and customers paying attention to a creator or brand.

But strong communities have much more dynamic relationships: from creators to fans (one-to-many), between members (one-to-one at scale), from fans to creators (many-to-one), as well as from fan to creator (one-to-one).

Li explores this fan to creator relationship in the context of what direct financial transactions, such as non-fungible tokens, can enable:

“I think what’s really interesting about NFTs and some of the new creator economy products that are coming into existence, is that they are reversing that relationship. They’re flipping the economic transaction between the direction that the attention is flowing and the way that the money is flowing. And what I mean by that is, the audience member is purchasing the attention of someone they admire [...] 

I think of it as not just monetizing the attention that you have, but potentially paying for the attention of someone that you want to establish a relationship with.” 

While it's never been easier to broadcast and reach people through the internet, the cost and calibre of expectation required to build a strong community will only continue to rise as more creators and entrepreneurs realize the immense value they generate.

In that same podcast episode, Li and host James Currier elaborate on another point: the skillset needed for this next evolution of the internet. Namely, the ability to capture attention, create, or “meme-ify” ideas and create a culture around it.

A few entrepreneurs and creators have already seen the possibilities for scale that passionate communities can provide. Brands and creators like Glossier, Away, the Kardashians, Charli D'Amelio, Ninja, and a long list of individual niche creators are better than celebrities among their own communities.

The tighter and stronger the bonds of attention, the more opportunity for growth that community will provide to not only the entrepreneur, but also the people who care about and engage with their tribe.


What's next?

In the shift from advertising to commerce, attention remains the critical constant.

However, there are two major distinctions in the quality of that attention:

  • The way that attention feels like it’s being harnessed is vastly different (i.e. more genuine, not opportunistic);
  • The value of the authentic attention that creators and communities build can't be forced or replicated.

Some brands, entrepreneurs, and creators have managed to do this right, and it's thanks to a combination of these two elements.

As the internet matures and we recognize its continued ability to influence and shape our culture; as consumers and fans are empowered to move from passive consumption, to collaboration, to leading communities of their own, the "click-bait" patterns designed to hold our attention will (hopefully) fall out of favor and out of use.

We're already seeing this happen through the rapid rate in which existing platforms are releasing and reinventing features to support the monetization of the Creator Economy.

In the long run, it's not about the size of the community—it's the depth of passion and the layers of attention and connection between members that matter the most.