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I am here to compete for your attention

Apr 28, 2019 Strategy, Success, Sunday Nation

Photo by Stefan Cosma on Unsplash

I want you to read this column. I want you to stay here, not go somewhere else. Who’s my competition?

I started writing this column in 2003. Back then, it was simpler to compete. Had I failed to engage your interest in those days by the time you reached the third paragraph, you might of course have turned the page and read something else in the newspaper. Or you might have reached for another newspaper – though you needed to have bought it first. Perhaps you’d give up on columnists in general and reach for the TV remote. Even then, you needed to find something interesting to watch – and it needed to be playing right there and then.

I was more assured of having your attention back then, because the ‘switching costs’ were higher. You needed to have made some arrangements in order to abandon me. Perhaps a book could have taken my place – but that required you to have gone to a bookshop first to buy it. Perhaps you could have just thrown me in the bin and done some socialising instead – but to chat with people back then you needed to conquer some physical distance, or at least make some phone calls.

While I still have your attention, which is precious, let me make my point quickly: today, we are all competing for attention.

Consider your options today. If I’m boring you, social media is right there on the smartphone that never leaves your side. Heck, you are probably reading these words on that very device, so you don’t even need to pick it up. Your societal life, which is now ensconced in social platforms and messaging apps, is a click away. So is a whole universe of videos, TV shows and movies. Even your books may be downloaded onto the same device, ready for reading.

To switch me off today and do something more interesting, you probably don’t even need to move one buttock!

The onus is now on me to make this article useful, interesting or intriguing enough for you not to raise your thumb to click. You’re still here, so I guess it’s working. For now…

I would be deeply mistaken, however, to imagine I just need to be better than other columnists at holding your attention. I’m also up against Twitter and Instagram, YouTube and Netflix. And so are you, whatever your line of business.

Time was always precious for the human being. We have only a finite amount, and we don’t know how much. The intelligent human uses this scarcest of resources very, very carefully. What the digital era has brought with it is a huge number of alternatives competing for our attention – and most of them accessible without too much cost or inconvenience.

There was a time when you competed fundamentally against those similar to you, sitting alongside you in your industry. Switching costs for your customers were way higher once they considered substitute products or services from further afield. In the digital world, it’s one click for you to be silenced. And if that click leads to something more engaging, or which seems like a better use of time, then you are obliterated.

Netflix is the company of the moment when it comes to video, having revolutionised how we all watch TV and movies. But there is all sorts of talk that Netflix now faces real competition from even bigger companies coming into its streaming video-on-demand space soon: Disney and Apple. This is in addition to those other giants already trying to fight it tooth and nail: Amazon and Google. But Netflix is a very savvy player. Its CEO, Reed Hastings, said recently that these competitors pitching similar services don’t worry him as much as Fortnite does – the game that every teenager in the world seems to be playing at the moment. (Don’t believe me? Go and look at what your teenager is doing…)

Hastings knows he’s fighting for attention. He’s done everything possible to take on the players similar to him – great selection, sharp pricing, snappy user interface. But he also needs to take on competitors completely unlike him…and they could come from any direction.

You, too, are competing for attention. Do you know it? Perhaps you think this only applies to tech companies, or those whose products can appear on smartphones. Surely it doesn’t affect those who sell tangible stuff in the tangible world? Allow me to disabuse you of that notion, right here, next week.

(Sunday Nation, 28 April 2019)

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