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6 Jul

Return on Attention (ROA)

"In a full-fledged attention economy, the goal is simply to get either enough attention or as much as possible . . . getting attention is not a momentary thing; you build on the stock you have every time you get any, and the larger your audience at one time, the larger your potential audience in the future.  Thus obtaining attention is obtaining a kind of enduring wealth, a form of wealth that puts you in a preferred position to get anything this new economy offers. . . . since it is hard to get new attention by repeating exactly what you or someone else has done before, this new economy is based on endless originality, or at least attempts at originality.  By contrast, the old industrial economy worked on the basis of making interchangeable objects in huge numbers."

— MH Goldhaber

Recently, I wrote about how content was more of an “interestingness” problem than an attention span problem.


Soon after I wrote this, I came across John Hagel, who had voiced a similar idea before, but dare I say, with way sharper phrasing than mine.

John talks about measuring the quality of content in terms of

Return on Attention (ROA).

Everyone focuses on metrics like Return on Assets or Return on Investment to measure business performance. But for idea-driven businesses, Return on Attention matters the most.

Notice that there is a huge difference between

“creating content to grab attention”


“creating content that maximizes return on attention.”

The former is a very self-centred frame of creating content while the latter is a more service-mindset / value-driven frame.

You can understand ROA by asking this question:

When your consumers allocate their attention to your content, do they get a valuable return on their attention?

Or did you just make something that managed to grab their attention and leave them with nothing valuable at the end of it?

"I believe we as customers are going to become increasingly focused on the impact that we achieve when we allocate our attention, rather than narrowly focusing on the time spent or the money spent."

John also states some implications this has, both for idea providers and consumers.

For idea providers, the biggest implication is that their success will "increasingly hinge on the extent to which we’re able to move beyond simply attracting attention."

For consumers, we are already seeing a shift in more and more people slowly drifting towards content with high ROA. Top performers are increasingly opting for 1:1 coaching instead of online courses, for a much higher ROA for the time spent and attention invested. Students are increasingly looking for higher impact apprenticeships and crisper courses to speed up their career trajectory versus going for conventional and lengthy post-graduate programs.

John also gives the example of the "Great Resignation" as an indicator for where things are heading when it comes to how people see and value their attention.

"More and more people are realizing that they spend a significant amount of their time and attention at work but that they’re not achieving enough impact that’s meaningful to them. The result is that they’re seeking new work that will offer them a significant increase in their return on attention."

In the final scheme of things, here's the one crucial thing you have to think about as a content marketer or even an educator.

Are you interested in playing long-term games with long-term people? Is your product a big investment in time, energy, and capital?

Or are you optimizing for playing a short-term game: marketing a small one-off purchase that the customer will buy and probably never come back?

The more your product leans towards the former, the more you will have to think in terms of ROA and maximizing it.

You need to start thinking about every customer as someone who trusts you enough to choose to invest their precious attention in your product. And as a creator, it is your responsibility to not betray them.

I personally feel it is a fantastic mental model to think about content as it focuses on the right thing; it focuses on maximizing value and increasing the pie within the zero-sum pie we all call 'attention'.

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