The invisible hand of time: How attention scarcity creates innovation opportunity

Thinking in terms of time and attention will quickly start to change the way you think about products and services, customer behavior, even business models. This is the great frontier for innovation for the next decade, this author believes. Companies that master time and attention innovation will find lots of market traction. Readers will learn how to get that traction in this article.

If a new product is launched and no one notices it, does it really exist?

Marketers and executives have always known that the standard economic model of fully rational decision makers (sometimes playfully referred to as homo economicus), carefully considering alternatives before deciding on the best choice, doesn’t match reality very closely. Billions if not trillions of dollars are invested each year in the belief that through marketing we can at least affect, if not control, the choices and preferences of our customers. We believe whole-heartedly that the invisible hand of self-interest drives markets—an invisible hand that we can influence via product design, features sets and strategic pricing.

Though we’ve broadly rejected the purely rational customer, ironically much of the effort in marketing continues to assume that customers will in fact at least semi-rationally consider the information we put in front of them with our marketing and positioning efforts. That’s an assumption that is increasingly wrong.

Today, there is an invisible hand guiding customer choices that is every bit as powerful as Adam Smith’s invisible hand of self-interest: the invisible hand of time. Smith’s invisible hand was driven by production scarcity. The invisible hand of time is driven by attention scarcity.

If necessity is the mother of invention, scarcity is the mother of innovation.  Time scarcity, and the attention scarcity that necessarily accompanies it, will be one of the most fruitful and productive paths for innovation over the next decade, but only for the companies, executives and marketers that accept, study and understand how the invisible hand of time operates on their target markets and customers.

Time is more valuable than money

Many executives I speak to worry about the increasing competitive pressures and complexity—more competitors, more products, more business models, more channels. What few of them appreciate is that the same pressures and complexity are afflicting their customers—and that hose customers have even less ability to manage the demands on their time and attention. Consider that despite the huge increase in the number of products available to consumers, my research on U.S. statistics indicates that the amount of time spent shopping (not just buying, but also considering alternatives) has not changed at all in more than 30 years (see Figure 1). In addition, social media and its ilk will create more data in the next few years than in the entire previous history of civilization. As there will never be more than 24 hours in a day the pressure on this attention bottleneck will continue to mount.

Figure 1: The increasing pressure on attention (reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers)

Figure 1: Time Spent Purchasing Goods and Services Has  Remained Constant While Products Have Proliferate

Like land, there is a finite amount of time and attention: they are not making any more. In fact, research shows that they may be making less. Multitasking is mostly a myth and as the volume of attention and media coming at us (much of it chosen voluntarily) increases, the quality of the attention we can pay to anyone thing, even after turning all of our devices off, declines.

The bottom line is that the most important scarce resource for customers today isn’t money. It’s time. The old adage that time is money no longer applies. Time is more important than money.

To cope, customers are constantly triaging their time and attention. That should sound familiar because we all do it—we find ways to limit what we pay attention to by deploying filters. Those filters range from high-tech (Gmail’s new “Priority Inbox”) to low-tech (we increasingly trust reviews from strangers on commerce sites) to no-tech (how often do you even glance at snail mail that isn’t obviously a bill?) to a reliance on habit (when was the last time you switched toothpaste or laundry detergent?). Even still, our filters can easily be overwhelmed. When that happens, essentially everything, even things we want to pay attention to, get ignored.

To date, the primary reactions from companies to customers increasingly falling under the sway of the invisible hand of time have fallen into one of three camps: inaction, denial and desperation. In the inaction camp, companies aren’t standing still. They’re launching more and more products that end in failure for reasons they can’t quite understand. It is a often a bit mysterious why a product with an attractive feature set and price, marketed to highly targeted segments with just the right media mix fails to capture any traction in the market. Mysterious, that is, until you consider how hard it is to get prospective customer’s time and attention today. In the denial camp, you see many brands believing, somewhat comically, that they can forge a deep relationship with a customer over a product that will never be worth their time. Recent examples I’ve seen include cat litter and mayonnaise. In the desperation camp, you see companies constantly getting “louder”—both literally with louder commercials and figuratively with deeper and deeper discounts. But even “Free” isn’t enough of a discount any more. How often in the last year have you passed over a free trial or a free service simply because it wasn’t worth the time to sign up or learn how to use the product? Even understanding customer wants and needs is no longer enough.

Take Johnson & Johnson’s InTouch diabetes care services, for example. People with diabetes don’t just want to keep their diabetes in check; they need to, since the consequences of uncontrolled diabetes are severe, even fatal. Still, J&J found that about 50 percent of diabetics in the U.S. struggled to maintain the daily regimen necessary to keep their diabetes under control. These people needed help managing their time and attention in order to follow through on their wants and needs.

The InTouch service provides just that help. By exploiting technology and communications, InTouch helps diabetics keep track of their regimen, and gives motivational rewards and nudges to support the development of healthy habits.

J&J is an example of a fourth camp of companies that are neither stuck doing the same old thing nor striving to shout louder and louder to be heard above the noise. In this fourth camp are companies that have started to innovate around scarce time and attention. These companies have, sometimes unwittingly, found ways to break through time and attention barriers and gain traction in the market. The innovations they apply frequently aren’t about gaining attention per se, but about helping customers limit and control the amount of time and attention they need to apply.

An approach to time and attention innovation

In the above discussion it might seem that time and attention are interchangeable, but nothing is further from the truth. For instance, customers may be willing to spend more time if they have to spend less attention. Research on retail experiences consistently finds that people feel they have spent less time standing in line when there’s a single queue (such as is often seen at Barnes & Noble’s or banks) than when there are multiple queues (the format used in most retailers and grocery stores). Why? Because in a single queue the customer can redirect their attention—they no longer have to pay attention to see if they are in the fastest moving line or if there would be a benefit to switching lines.

Think of time and attention as separate commodities that customers choose to allocate, along the lines of Figure 2. I call this the Time-Value Framework (a.k.a. the Time-graphics Framework) because it, like other forms of demographic segmentation, helps to explain and understand customer behavior, and evaluate product and offering fit.

Figure 2: Time-Value Framework (reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers)

Figure 2: Time-Value Framework: Customers prioritize offerings based on time/attention constraints

The Motivation Quadrant is where customers willingly devote significant time and attention; in the Convenience Quadrant customers will devote attention but not time (but note this attention is usually devoted to saving time, not to the products or services being consumed); in the Habit Quadrant, customers devote time but not attention, as they do when buying the exact same products and brands at the grocery store this week as they did last week; and finally, there is the Value Quadrant, where customers devote neither time nor attention.

Too often, executives assume their product is in or can reach the Motivation Quadrant. Rarely the approach works, and when it does it does so spectacularly like the recent Old Spice campaign. More often the campaigns are expensive failures that aren’t noticed or become the object of ridicule, like Miracle Whip’s “We Will Not Tone It Down” campaign. Unfortunately the successes generate lots of copycat behavior that doesn’t appreciate that the key ingredient of success was novelty. No one will attract attention by copying Old Spice; the next success will have to be completely different.

But even the successes are short-lived. Even Old Spice’s brilliant campaign cannot make the product a permanent resident of the Motivation Quadrant. Customers are subject to attention entropy—over time their attention will inevitably drift. So while achieving a Motivation Quadrant position is difficult and expensive, maintaining that position is usually even more difficult and expensive.

The alternative to this margin-destroying equation is to stop looking at the Motivation Quadrant as the goal, and start innovating around the other quadrants. In other words, stop coveting a position in the Attention Economy and start innovating ways to profit from the Inattention Economy.

Five Modes of Time-Value Innovation

There are many different ways to innovate time and attention value in order to profit from the Inattention Economy. Let me explore five modes of innovation that have yielded big successes:

Time Magnets: Time magnets are products that capture and hold time and attention. Innovation here isn’t just about creating products or services that customers want or value. To create a time magnet you need to find ways of continually rewarding customers who allocate time and attention to you, giving them a reason to keep coming back. In that sense, time magnets don’t just capture large blocks of continuous time. They can capture smaller chunks of time and attention on a regular basis.

Perhaps the best current example of a time magnet innovation is social gaming like Farmville. Players are continually rewarded for devoting time and attention, and punished when their attention drifts. Of course, these punishments can’t be so severe that the customer is driven away entirely. Instead they are just gentle nudges that remind the customer that there is a reason to stay loyal.

The pursuit of time magnet innovation is all about finding ways to add incremental value during each session of customer time and attention. That’s the underlying strategy of start-up SCVNGR, recently profiled in the New York Times. The company’s mission is to create the “game layer” on top of everyday life. In contrast to location-services providers like FourSquare, SCVGR isn’t just looking at turning location into a game, but at integrating game-like elements into every possible activity in conjunction with its customers: businesses that are trying to find ways to attract time and attention.

Time Slicing: The goal of time slicing innovation is to find ways to deliver value in smaller and smaller chunks of time that can more easily fit into customers’ schedules. The predominant example today is Twitter. Twitter used a time slicing innovation to become a time magnet for some of its users, illustrating how these various modes of time and attention innovation can intersect and overlap.

The original idea of Twitter was micro-blogging. The founders realized that blogging was an incredibly time- and attention-intensive activity. Only the die-hards and professionals would be able to devote that much time and attention for the long haul. Twitter allows users to get thoughts out quickly without having to write paragraphs or track down lots of links or images. The 140-character limit almost forces itself into the nooks and crannies of time and attention—and plays on the difficulty our brains have in calculating how lots of very small slices of time add up into large blocks of time over days and weeks.

Other good examples of time slicing innovation are Digital Chocolate, which makes simple, quick, easy-to-play games for smartphones and other portable devices, and Extraordinaries/Sparked, which enables people to volunteer small chunks of time to help nonprofits with tasks like data processing and copy editing.

Up-ending the traditional product innovation thinking of adding new features or capabilities, time slicing often involves breaking products or services down into smaller and smaller chunks.

Time Shifting: There are some products and services that can’t be effectively sliced, like movies. But Netflix shows there is still significant opportunity to innovate around time and attention for such products. The time and attention innovation that Netflix delivers isn’t about avoiding a trip to the video store. It’s about shifting the time you need to choose what movie you want to watch into a better slot in your schedule. I’m sure you can remember, before Netflix, wandering around the video store for an hour trying to figure out what to watch (since the movie you wanted was never in stock). Netflix allows you to shift that time, and make it more productive by offering better information, away from the time when all you really want to do is watch a movie.

Time shifting innovation opportunities are built around de-anchoring products and services from a need to be consumed at a particular moment in time.

Time on Autopilot: Perhaps the most unexpected avenue for innovation around time and attention is the opportunity not to capture attention but to succeed in a world of inattention. As much as we hate to admit it, we spend a significant portion of our time on what might be thought of as autopilot—engaged in rote, habitual routines while our attention is elsewhere. Researchers have found that the more stress we’re under the more we resort to habits and routines as a coping mechanism. The combination of the inertia that builds up around our habits and constant interruptions means that we often don’t do even the things that we want, even need to do. That’s the story of the Johnson and Johnson’s InTouch diabetes program, profiled earlier.

Organizations that find ways to help customers build useful and valuable habits or break out of routines when they need to will find many grateful and loyal customers. Take for example the “Reminders to Save” program tested by Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA), a nonprofit based at Yale University that creates and tests new ways of helping the poor. While many assume that people living on less than $2 a day in the developing world can’t possibly have enough money to save, it turns out that these people are subject to same habit and inertia forces that affect affluent executives of multinational corporations. These people want to save, but they need a little nudge here and there to build the habit or break them out of the routine that keeps them from meeting their savings goals. IPA tested a program where it sent text message reminders to microfinance customers reminding them of their savings goals and of the importance of saving. Remarkably, this simple and cheap program had a major impact on the amount of money people were able to save, helping those in the program take a major step toward a more prosperous future.

Filters and ecosystems

Understanding how the invisible hand of time is driving customer behavior will provide massive opportunities to innovate for new value and capture customer loyalty in the Inattention Economy. But the innovations around time and attention aren’t just limited to new products and services. Building a strategy that will carry you forward requires continually thinking about customer filters and attention ecosystems.

We all are going to be relying more and more on filters to triage our time and attention as time-pressures in our daily lives increase (and they certainly show no sign of abating). That means that even time-centric product innovation may not be enough—your product or service may never make it through your target customers’ filters and never register in their attention.

A new area of strategic concern is looking at what companies are going to hold prime position in customers’ attention or provide customers with filters. A quick example will illustrate what I mean: Apple exerts tight control over the iPhone and iPad App Store, deciding not only who gets inside the walls but also how those inside the walls are displayed to customers and what they can do with customer information. Apple is at the center of an important ecosystem of customer attention—if you want access to that ecosystem you’ll have to pay Apple for the privilege and abide by Apple’s rules.

Of course, mobile apps are just a small part of customers’ total attention. But someone will fill the same role in many areas of customers’ lives—the company that runs the filter that determines who even has a chance to capture attention. In some cases there may be opportunities to seize that position before competitors do. In other cases, you’ll have to make a strategic decision about which companies with established ecosystems are the best with which to partner.

This isn’t just a question of customer behavior, though. You also need to consider whom you are allowing to triage your own and your company’s attention. Take for instance your Twitter feed. It is in effect an attention filter dictating what you see and read. Do you understand the inherent biases of the people who you are allowing to filter information for you? This is critical because the information you consume and the information you ignore will ultimately be guiding your strategic decisions. So just as you need to understand who is filtering your customers’ attention you need to understand, and make good choices about, who is controlling your attention.

Thinking in terms of time and attention will quickly start to change the way you think about products and services, customer behavior, even business models. This is the great frontier for innovation for the next decade. Companies that master time and attention innovation will find lots of market traction. Those that don’t will find themselves standing outside the attention ecosystems, desperately screaming to be heard while opportunities and profits slip away.