The Rise of the Inattention Economy

The last decade initiated a war for attention. With customer attention reaching its limits, I expect the next decade will expand to a new front: a war for inattention.

Have you ever paid for a subscription service and forgotten to cancel it? Have you ever purchased a product with a rebate but forgot to file it because the rebate form was buried under a pile of papers on your desk? Welcome to the inattention economy.


The attention economy has gotten plenty of, ahem, attention. Competition for limited attention spans has led many companies to get louder, either literally, or figuratively via social media, deep discounts or misguided attempts at technological differentiation. No doubt, the attention arms race has escalated – but this has been to little avail as customers have found ways to tune it out.

Information Overload: 82% of Social Media Customers Connect with Fewer than 10 Brands 

It is estimated that the average American is exposed more than 1600 advertising impressions and comes in contact with hundreds if not thousands of products every day. If you spent every waking hour devoting attention to the products you use, and spent just ten minutes per product, you would only be able to interact with 96 products.

More realistically, combined with work and family demands most people can only devote serious attention to a single-digit number of products each day – a scarcity that drives time-onomic decision-making.  A report by ForeSee Results indicates that 61% of U.S. Online Shoppers who use social media only follow, friend or fan five or fewer brands. Another 21% (totaling 82% surveyed) follow, friend, or fan ten or fewer brands.  The bottom line is that only a select set of brands will get the attention and ongoing social media conversations that companies desire. 

Rather than competing in a red ocean of attention, some companies have turned to the inattention economy. Take banking, telecoms or insurance as an example. These are all products most consumers consider “important”, but that still doesn’t mean they are willing to devote attention to the products. People just want them to work – precisely because they don’t want to pay attention. Companies that succeed in these categories aren’t the ones yelling the loudest, they’re the ones who are staying quiet.

Do You Honestly Want a Social Media Conversation with Your Insurance Company?


When low attention priority companies over-communicate with customers they annoy. Do you really want to have a continuous social media conversation with your bank, insurance company, or utility software provider if the service is working? Such companies best serve customers by not making a lot of noise but by prudently communicating high value, providing a fair deal, and by providing responsive, personalized service when customers demand it.

This approach can be lucrative. According to Javelin Strategy & Research only 11% of customers in the U.S. switch banks every year. For most people this is not an economic decision – their current bank doesn’t necessarily offer them the best financial benefits. The key reason they stay is that the value of switching to a new bank does not exceed the time and effort for customers to switch. Time-onomics over economics.

Subscriptions and rebates work the same way. A certain percentage of customers will continue to automatically renew, forget to cancel, or forget to file – it falls off the attention radar. Customers that pay attention and cash in rebates are rewarded with a deeper discount than they would receive if discounts were spread evenly across all customers.

The last decade initiated a war for attention.  With customer attention reaching its limits, I expect the next decade will expand to a new front: a war for inattention.


Adrian Ott has been called, “One of Silicon Valley’s most respected, (if not the most respected) strategists” by Consulting Magazine. She is the author of the book The 24-Hour Customer: New Rules for Winning in a Time-Starved, Always-Connected Economy (HarperCollins, August 2010). As CEO of Exponential Edge® Inc. consulting, she helps businesses gain market advantage in an exponential economy. Follow her on twitter at @ExponentialEdge


 This article reflects the author’s opinion and does not represent those of clients and affiliates.

© 2010 Exponential Edge Inc., All Rights Reserved



About the author

Adrian Ott, award-winning author, speaker, and CEO of Exponential Edge Inc., was called “one of Silicon Valley’s most respected strategists” by Consulting Magazine. She helps relentless visionary executives to foresee disruptive opportunities and accelerate market leadership