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Fight For Consumers' Attention Online Heats Up

More companies doing business online are heading the Attention Economy--the idea that attention is scarce and valuable in an information-rich world. There's more to this than New Age hucksterism, and businesses that ignore this dynamic could be lost in the maturing noise of the Web.
Share The Wealth
During a trip to India last December, Bill Gates suggested in a televised panel discussion that Google wasn't sharing enough of its online advertising wealth. Microsoft, he said, was considering ways to share ad revenue with users through free software or cash payments. Four months later, though, details are scant. A Microsoft spokesman acknowledges that the company is looking into sharing some of its online ad revenue with consumers but has nothing further to announce.

Coming from Microsoft, which has been losing search market share to Google over the past year, Gates' suggestion seems born of desperation. But others say it's not such a crazy idea. Henry Blodget, president of Cherry Hill Research and a former Wall Street Internet analyst, endorses the idea in a blog post. When a user clicks on a sponsored link, that's pure profit for Google, and "it's easy to see how you might come to believe that getting paid something for your decision/attention is fair," Blodget writes. "And at current prices, Google could split per-click revenue 50/50 with searchers and still have plenty of profit to spare."

Just because Google can afford to kick back some of its revenue doesn't mean it will--or even that it should. But even the big companies looking to nurture customer loyalty in the Attention Economy can't ignore the growing trend of rewards and reimbursement.

The decision in January by social bookmarking site Simpy.com to let participants collect money for their bookmark pages is an explicit recognition of the value of attention. "A big part of this was trying to share with people who contribute to the site," Simpy founder Otis Gospodnetic says.

Simpy uses Google AdSense, an advertising service for Web site publishers. Simpy and others that have signed up are given code to insert into their Web pages. The code fetches online ads from Google's advertising partners that are relevant to each site's content. When an ad is clicked on, the advertiser pays Google, which then splits the proceeds with the publisher hosting the ad. It's that revenue that Simpy leaves on the table for its users.

Two-year-old Simpy declined to give details on its finances, but it lags behind del.icio.us, which doesn't give away prizes, in usage. As of June 1, Simpy ranked 19,514 among all the sites visited on the Web, according to traffic-monitoring site Alexa. Del.icio.us ranked 248.

RawSugar, a social bookmarking site that debuted earlier this year, is offering cash rewards to its top 10 user-created bookmark lists. Each month, the creators of the top three mosts visited directories get $150, $100, and $50. The remaining seven of the top 10 get $25 each.

Consumers are becoming more active on the Web and in some ways are seeking larger stakes in it. In turn, they'll reassess their relationships with more of the companies they do business with, both online and off. Bombarding them with unwanted information and ignoring the value of their attention are mistakes that will lead to failure in the Attention Economy.

Illustration by Viktor Koen

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