I recently participated in an interesting discussion with prolific authors who were becoming concerned about the future of books as a way to communicate ideas and as a source of income. It prompted me to return to a theme that has engaged me for quite some time. Everyone focuses on “return on assets” as a key measure of performance in business, but I’ve come to believe that a different form of ROA will become increasingly critical as a performance measure – “return on attention.”
Return on attention
What do I mean by this? I’m talking here about the return that customers receive when they allocate their attention to something. It certainly doesn’t have to be a financial return (even though for some reason we talk about “paying” attention), but it has to be the value they perceive they are receiving when they spend time paying attention to something. I’ve been writing about this for over 15 years, including in these two blog posts here and here from 2015.
Why is this form of ROA becoming increasingly important? It’s one of many outcomes of the Big Shift that is transforming our global economy and society. The Big Shift has many dimensions but one key trend is the expanding array of options that are competing for our attention, which is a limited resource – limited by 24 hours in the day. Because our attention is a limited resource, we as customers are becoming more and more powerful and demanding. It’s becoming more and more challenging to attract and retain the attention of customers given the growing options that are competing for our attention.
The shift in return on attention
How do we choose to allocate our attention in the realm of ideas? We understandably want to earn a return on that attention. Over the past couple of decades, this has taken the form of scalable efficiency. Customers have been seeking faster and cheaper ways to access ideas. The result has been the decline of longer formats like books and lengthy papers that require a significant investment of our time. Instead, we have been drawn to social media where we can quickly access ideas for free. Our approach to increasing return on attention is to reduce the time and money we spend, rather than focusing on maximizing the value we are receiving.
I believe that’s about to change. In a world of mounting performance pressure, the quest for efficiency yields diminishing returns. The faster and cheaper our quest for ideas becomes, the harder it becomes to get that next increment of efficiency improvement. More importantly, we are under increasing pressure to achieve greater impact that is meaningful in our lives.
As a result, 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. What are the implications for those of us who are in the “idea business”?
Implications for idea providers
We’re going to need to expand our focus beyond the ideas themselves. In the recent past, we’ve focused on how novel and interesting our ideas are and whether we can present the ideas in an entertaining and engaging way. It’s all about the ideas themselves. And, of course, we’ve become increasingly focused on how much time is required to present the ideas, so that we can attract a bigger audience when we find shorter and more concise ways of presenting our ideas.
As customers focus more on value received from the ideas, those developing and presenting the ideas are going to have to shift their focus as well. Success in the idea business will increasingly hinge on the extent to which we’re able to move beyond simply attracting attention. We’ll need to find ways to help the recipients of our ideas to act on those ideas and to achieve impact that is meaningful to them. Even better, we’ll need to find ways to help the recipients of our ideas to learn from the action they take and the impact they achieve, so that they can achieve increasing impact over time.
So, how can we do this? It starts with explicitly framing some compelling calls to action as part of the presentation of an idea. What should the audience do differently as a result of this idea and what kind of impact could be achieved from that action? It would be even better if we can provide some advice on how to act in ways that will be most likely to yield the impact that is being sought. Of course, there’s also the opportunity to cultivate trainers and coaches who could help the audience to take action that yields greater impact. By clarifying what kind of impact might be achieved as a result of this action, we can help people to focus on assessing how much impact has been achieved and reflecting on how to achieve even more impact, so that they can learn how to achieve even more impact over time.
That’s a powerful way to increase the return on attention of the audience we’re trying to reach. It has the potential to significantly increase the size of the audience we reach as word spreads about the growing impact that’s being achieved. Of course, we want to make this approach as efficient as possible as well, starting with how much time it takes to access and absorb our ideas and extending out into the time and effort required to action, impact and learning. But the key is shifting beyond time spent to focus on impact achieved as the key component of return on attention.
This isn’t just a theoretical perspective from me. I’m living it. Many of you know that I published my 8th book last year – The Journey Beyond Fear. I’m not just stopping with book. My plan is to create a new Center that will offer programs based on the book and help people to take action that can significantly increase impact that is meaningful to them. I want to significantly increase their return on attention. If this sounds interesting, you can see more here.
Early indicators of the shift ahead in return on attention
What are some early indicators of the shift ahead in return on attention? Well, one interesting indicator is the growth of coaching businesses across a broad spectrum of impact, ranging from physical performance improvement to overcoming emotional obstacles. Customers are increasingly seeking help in achieving more impact that is meaningful to them – of course, it starts with ideas, but the focus is on action, impact and learning.
Another indicator is the “Great Resignation” that we’re seeing as the global pandemic continues to unfold. 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.
If you’re in the idea business, you need to focus on the return on attention that you’re delivering to the people you are trying to reach. Rather than narrowly focusing on how much time people need to spend in accessing your ideas, expand your focus on how to help your audience achieve greater impact from your ideas through action and learning. In a world of mounting performance pressure, the ideas that can lead to more and more impact that is meaningful to people will be the ideas that prevail. Those are the ideas that will generate the greatest return for the idea providers. In short, if you want to improve your return on assets, find ways to increase the return on attention of the people you are seeking to reach.