How To Stand Out In The Attention Economy

Four principles to help you navigate through uncertain times.

How To Stand Out In The Attention Economy
[Photo: 20th Century Fox/Photofest]

There is blood everywhere. And lithe, scantily clad bodies. Music thrums hypnotically. Laughter rings. A weapon is drawn menacingly. Hundred-dollar bills float down through the fog. And don’t forget the cats: Aren’t they cute??


This is the modern media scape: An adrenaline-fueled, dopamine-engineered, titillating, exhilarating, unending plea for your ears, eyes, and mind. The channels are phone and screen, earbud and headset, social and search. The pace is relentless, and exhausting. Yet. We. Just. Cant. Stop.

In today’s Attention Economy, any brand or business that wants to establish or maintain its relevance needs to grapple with these realities. Donald Trump has risen to the most powerful position in the world by deftly exploiting attention—indeed, he may be the most deft practitioner in the modern era. His any-hour-of-the-day tweets and off-the-cuff comments are too provocative to ignore. Just ask anyone at CNN.

Related: In Six Seconds, Giphy Could Make Billions

The news cycle has become like a whiplash ride at an amusement park: Charlottesville, North Korea, hurricanes, earthquakes, NFL anthem controversies. It’s loud, and fast-paced, and a little scary. Was it ever different? Of course it was. When my kids ask me to show them what they call “classic movies” (basically anything that wasn’t shot in HD), they can’t believe how sedate the plotting is. I remind them that people actually used to wait until the evening news at 6 p.m., or even 11 p.m., to find out what happened that day. Now it is all instantaneous, a whirring, blurring swirl of information.

None of this is going away anytime soon. And we all have to react accordingly. Perhaps that means exercising a shade more discipline in how we spend our time. Professionally, though, we need to learn how to play this game for all it’s worth. Because if we don’t, our competitors surely will.

[Chart: Lazaro Gamio courtesy of Axios]
Easy to say; hard to do. One quick example: Giphy, the insta-video resource that now has—brace yourselves—almost 300 million users a day. Yep, more than Snapchat or Twitter. Betcha didn’t see that coming. What Giphy offers, as writer Nicole Laporte explains in our new cover story, “In Six Seconds, Giphy Could Make Billions,” is a way to add emotional resonance to the often anodyne arena of messaging. It is a quintessential example of how much communications patterns are in flux, and how agile we all have to be in adapting to new formats and platforms.


Want to succeed in the Attention Economy—without losing your soul? Here’s how:

1. Ride The News, And Then Rise Above The Noise

A top executive at a large industrial company recently marveled to me that one of Fast Company‘s competitors was tweeting more than 150 times a day; I didn’t have the heart to admit that we weren’t much more restrained. To get people to engage with content, you need to be in front of them. Even more, you need to be constantly assessing what others are doing, and adjusting your tactics and your output in real time. While data can be useful, the critical factor if you want to separate yourself is organizational metabolism: rapid, streamlined decision making. The most distinctive, impactful content requires taking some risks without losing sight of your north star. As Anthony Bourdain, host of the hit travel and food series Parts Unknown, says in this issue, “What’s good for you in the short run is not necessarily good for you in the long run.”

2. Create Emotion

Controversy is one way to gain attention: Brashly challenge convention. (You might call this the Trump Doctrine.) Violence and sex works, too. But such engagement is often shallow and short-lived. To understand what anchors deeper, longer-lasting connection, recall how Hamilton became a global phenomenon. Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda used a 200-year-old story to tap into core human truths. The best creative linking of ideas and feelings looks effortless, but it is an art. The best advertising has always done this, whatever the medium. Giphy’s success is built on enabling our creative expression, providing just the right, nuanced image to capture a mood.

3. Use What’s New

Once upon a time, we made fun of hapless smartphone users who forgot to turn their cameras to landscape perspective before making videos. And then Snapchat turned those “mistakes” into a new, booming format. From GIFs to chatbots, the tools available continue to proliferate. Even what’s old has become new, like audio, thanks to podcasts and digital assistants like Alexa and Siri.

4. Believe In Something

If you’re going to streamline decision making, take creative risks, and connect emotionally using new tools, it helps to have guiding principles. That’s not just about style guides and preferred, brand-appropriate words and images. It’s about clarity of purpose, the mission of your enterprise, what it is you really want to get done. A great example of this can be found in our first-person story about Trader Joe’s work culture from the latest issue. The word “authentic” gets thrown around, as if it’s something to be managed (or, in the worst cases, manufactured). But there’s no substitute for actually believing in something. Whether we kneel, link arms, or stand on the sidelines, our actions reveal who we really are.

About the author

Robert Safian is the editor and managing director of The Flux Group. From 2007 through 2017, Safian oversaw Fast Company’s print, digital and live-events content, as well as its brand management and business operations