The Intention Economy

by Doc Searls

Is "The Attention Economy" just another way for advertisers to skewer eyeballs? And why build an economy around Attention, when Intention is where the money comes from?

That's the question at the front of my mind as I hear one speaker after another struggle to cast light on "The Attention Economy", which is the theme of this year's eTech conference, where I am sitting in an audience, writing this, right now.

I've been looking forward to what Steve Gillmor would say about Attention here, since Steve got this meme rolling two years ago with attention.xml, and later helped launch the Attention Trust., with Seth Goldstein and some other folks. Search for "Steve Gillmor" and Attention on Google, and 113,000 results come up.

Steve is a good friend. I'm a member of his weekly Gillmor Gang podcast. He's talked about attention many times on many shows, and even has a radio show on Sirius called Attention Tech. And yet, I've got to admit, I've never understood more than a fraction of what he's talking about — even when I've given him my full attention. (Which isn't easy for a techie typically given to "continuous partial attention", as Linda Stone pointed out in one of eTech's best talks.)

Steve isn't here at eTech. Nor has he been mentioned in any of the talks I've attended, which is ironic at several levels. Especially since the center of Steve's attention has moved on to Gestures. Steve was slated to talk about Gestures here at eTech, so it looks like I'm stuck with TWO things he still hasn't made clear to me.

Which is cool. Steve is patient with me on stuff I don't understand. Meanwhile, here at the show, I have developed a real problem with the perspective behind what a number of people have been saying about Attention behind the podia. That perspective is sell-side. Its point of view is anchored with sellers, not buyers.

This is natural. Most of us are in business, one way or another. We're sellers who want buyers. And the Web 2.0 economy, like the Web 1.0 economy, continues to repose in the Media Economy, which continues to live off advertising. Even the biggest success story in the Web Economy (through Web 1.x, 2.x and beyond, probably), Google, makes nearly all of its money from advertising.

Google has radically altered the whole advertising business. It's results are far more relevant and personal than anything the old mass media ever came up with. And its system opens participation to countless businesses and categories, of all sizes. But it's still about advertising. And advertising is woefully inefficient. Most of it is wasted. Even by Google.

Recently a friend placed some advertising on Google, and shared some of the report with me. While he only paid for a handful of click-throughs, these were bought at the expense of something like a hundred thousand "exposures". While the costs of wasted exposures may be tolerably low to both the sell and the buy side, they are still real. They subtract value.

There is an old saying in the advertising trade: "I know half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. I just don't know which half." Typical of the advertising business, this a gross exaggeration. Nearly all advertising is wasted. Google may have radically reduced the amount of money wasted in advertising. But it still produces a mountain of waste and expense.

In the hallway yesterday I was talking with r0ml Lefkowitz, who now works with Seth Goldstein at r0ml was talking about how his brother, not a techie, didn't understand what r0ml meant by working with "attention". After r0ml explained, his brother said, "Oh, isn't that what they used to call 'eyeballs'?"

Bull's Eye.

Now, I'm sure eyeballs aren't what Steve Gillmor means by Attention. Or what Seth and r0ml mean, either. In fact, r0ml explained to me that is actually concerned with something much simpler and less creepy than eyeballs; namely, leads. In other words, people who are ready to buy.

Though I'm not much more comfortable being a "lead" than being an "eyeball", at least "lead" regards me as a potential buyer, rather than as yet another "consumer" who might become a buyer if I find a "message" persuasive. The chance of that happening in any individual case is so close to zero that advertising only yields useful numbers in the calculus of mass marketing. Which, even in 2006, at eTech, we still use.

So I'm thinking, Can't we get past that now? Please?

Hence my idea: The Intention Economy.

The Intention Economy grows around buyers, not sellers. It leverages the simple fact that buyers are the first source of money, and that they come ready-made. You don't need advertising to make them.

The Intention Economy is about markets, not marketing. You don't need marketing to make Intention Markets.

The Intention Economy is built around truly open markets, not a collection of silos. In The Intention Economy, customers don't have to fly from silo to silo, like a bees from flower to flower, collecting deal info (and unavoidable hype) like so much pollen. In The Intention Economy, the buyer notifies the market of the intent to buy, and sellers compete for the buyer's purchase. Simple as that.

The Intention Economy is built around more than transactions. Conversations matter. So do relationships. So do reputation, authority and respect. Those virtues, however, are earned by sellers (as well as buyers) and not just "branded" by sellers on the minds of buyers like the symbols of ranchers burned on the hides of cattle.

The Intention Economy is about buyers finding sellers, not sellers finding (or "capturing") buyers.

In The Intention Economy, a car rental customer should be able to say to the car rental market, "I'll be skiing in Park City from March 20-25. I want to rent a 4-wheel drive SUV. I belong to Avis Wizard, Budget FastBreak and Hertz 1 Club. I don't want to pay up front for gas or get any insurance. What can any of you companies do for me?" — and have the sellers compete for the buyer's business.

This car rental use case is one I've used to illustrate what would be made possible by "user-centric" or "independent" identity, which was also the subject of the cover story in last October's Linux Journal, plus this piece a year earlier, and various keynotes I've given at Digital Identity World, going back to 2002. It is also the use case against which the new open source Higgins project was framed.

Even though I've been thinking out loud about Independent Identity for years, I didn't have a one-word adjective for the kind of market economy it would yield, or where it would thrive. Now, thanks to all the unclear talk at eTech about attention, intentional is that adjective, because intent is the noun that matters most in any economy that gives full respect to what only customers can do, which is buy.

Like so many other things that I write about (including everything I've written about identity), The Intention Economy is a provisional idea. It's an observation that might have no traction at all. Or, it might be a snowball: an core idea with enough heft to roll, and with enough adhesion to grow, so others add their own thoughts and ideas to it.

As for the Linux connection, I believe that The Intention Economy is, by necessity, built on free software and open source principles, practices, standards and code. It's not something that requires any company's "platform" or "environment". That's why, much as I like the services provided by companies like Orbitz (which is built on LAMP, and does a very good job), I believe no company's system can encompass The Intention Economy. The encompassing has to work the other way around. In other words, silos are fine. But the choice can't be "nothing but silos".

By the way, somewhere in the course of writing this, Michael Goldhaber gave an outstanding talk titled The Real Nature of the Emerging Attention Economy. Yesterday Seth Goldstein called Michael "the Einstein of Attention" or something like that. I couldn't disagree. I don't see a link to Michael's talk yet, but The Attention Economy and the Net may suffice in the meantime.

While I didn't disagree with anything Michael said (and learned quite a bit by listening attentively to him), I also believe we need to start viewing economies, and markets, from the inside out: from the single buyer toward the surrounding world of sellers. And to start constructing technical solutions to the buyer's problem of getting what he or she wants from markets, rather than the seller's problem of getting buyers' attention.

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