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The Attention Economy: Prominence as a Core Capability

The Attention Economy: Prominence as a Core Capability

“Marketing is a contest for people's Attention" – Seth Godin

In today's fast-paced digital world, attention is a valuable commodity. People are bombarded with countless messages every day, and it is becoming increasingly difficult for brands to capture their attention. The term "attention economy" was coined by Herbert Simon (1994), who described it as a bottleneck in human thought. In this essay, we explore the importance of prominence in the attention economy - the ability to attract or evade attention as a core capability. We turn to nature to understand the problem better, where attracting and evading attention is equally important.

The Two-Sided Role of Prominence in Nature

Attracting attention is a critical part of survival in nature. Most importantly, it is required as part of the mating process. Living organisms are surrounded by observers of different types - mates, predators, prey, resource rivals, and group members. There is usually a primary valence of prominence towards any of these categories - attract (high prominence) towards a mate, and detract (low prominence) towards a predator.

However, things are not always that simple. In many cases, the roles are reversed, and it is required to avoid a potential mate and attract (and distract) a predator. Thus, organisms are required to develop a high level of prominence capabilities in concordance with the number, type, and sophistication of its observers. For example, the male Bowerbird, native to Australia and Papua New Guinea, builds elaborate and attractive nests to attract a mate. The more intricate the nest, the higher the chances of attracting a female. On the other hand, the African wild dog, which hunts in packs, has evolved a unique pattern of camouflage to avoid being detected by prey. The wild dogs' fur blends in with the savannah grass, making it difficult for prey to spot them until it's too late.

Prominence in the Attention Economy

In the digital age, businesses have to compete for people's attention like never before. Brands that can attract and hold attention are more likely to succeed in the attention economy. However, attracting attention is not the only way to succeed. Avoiding attention can be just as effective, particularly in situations where negative attention can harm a brand's reputation.

For instance, in the early days of the internet, many startups operated in "stealth mode" to avoid alerting potential competitors to a market opportunity. They exposed prototypes to customers only during highly orchestrated "beta" tests. This allowed them to test their products while avoiding negative attention from competitors and the public.

Similarly, secrecy behind the release of a new product is a good example of the contrast effect in action. By keeping the product under wraps until the launch date, brands can create excitement and anticipation among customers. This low-prominence followed by high-prominence approach can be an effective way to grab attention in the crowded attention economy.

However, it is not just about avoiding negative attention. Brands also need to find ways to stand out and grab attention in a positive way. In this regard, creative and attention-grabbing advertising campaigns are critical. For instance, the Old Spice "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" campaign was a massive success in the attention economy. The campaign featured actor Isaiah Mustafa as the "Old Spice Man," a suave and confident character who humorously promoted Old Spice products. The campaign was a huge success, generating millions of views and shares on social media.

Prominence and Digital Marketing

In the digital age, businesses have access to an unprecedented amount of data and tools that can help them attract and hold attention. Digital marketing has become a critical part of the attention economy, and businesses are increasingly investing in digital marketing strategies to stay competitive.

One effective digital marketing strategy is content marketing. Brands can use content marketing to attract and retain the attention of their target audience. Content marketing is a strategy that involves creating and sharing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience. The goal of content marketing is to drive profitable customer action by building a relationship of trust and loyalty with the audience.

One example of effective content marketing is the "Will It Blend?" campaign by Blendtec. The campaign featured videos of the company's CEO, Tom Dickson, blending various items such as an iPhone and a golf ball in the company's blender. The videos were humorous, engaging, and showcased the power and durability of the company's products. The campaign went viral and generated millions of views, greatly increasing the company's brand awareness and sales.

Another effective digital marketing strategy is influencer marketing. Influencer marketing involves partnering with influential individuals on social media platforms to promote a brand's products or services to their followers. The goal of influencer marketing is to leverage the influencer's credibility and reach to increase the brand's visibility and credibility.

One example of successful influencer marketing is the partnership between Daniel Wellington and various social media influencers. The watch brand partnered with popular influencers on Instagram, providing them with free watches in exchange for posts featuring the product. The influencers' posts featured aesthetically pleasing images that aligned with the brand's aesthetic, and the partnership greatly increased the brand's visibility and sales.

While content marketing and influencer marketing can be effective strategies for attracting and retaining attention, it's important for brands to also consider the ethics of these strategies. For example, brands must ensure that their content is not misleading or deceptive, and that their partnerships with influencers are transparent and authentic.

In addition to digital marketing strategies, there are also various ways that brands can avoid attention. One example is the use of dark patterns, which are design elements that are intentionally misleading or confusing to users. Dark patterns can be used to trick users into purchasing products or signing up for services they don't actually want or need. While dark patterns may be effective in the short term, they can lead to a loss of trust and credibility in the long term.

Another way that brands can avoid attention is by limiting their exposure. This can involve targeting a niche market rather than attempting to appeal to a broad audience, or focusing on building a loyal customer base rather than constantly seeking new customers. By limiting their exposure, brands can reduce the risk of negative attention and focus on building a strong and loyal customer base.


Success in the attention economy depends on the ability to attract and retain attention, as well as the ability to avoid attention in certain situations. Digital marketing strategies such as content marketing and influencer marketing can be effective ways to attract and retain attention, but brands must also consider the ethics of these strategies. Additionally, avoiding attention through the use of dark patterns or limiting exposure can be a viable strategy for brands looking to build a loyal customer base and reduce the risk of negative attention. Ultimately, the key to success in the attention economy is to balance the need for attention with ethical considerations and a long-term focus on building trust and credibility with the audience.


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