Last week, I gave a talk at the South By Southwest conference in Austin where I focused on the increasing importance of return on attention. I believe this is becoming more and more central to success, but that business people are viewing this much too narrowly. There’s a significant untapped opportunity waiting to be addressed.
Paying attention to return on attention
Let me begin by saying that most business people are primarily focused on a very different metric to measure progress – return on sales. While I don’t want to dismiss this, I suggest that it’s too limiting for two reasons.
First, it’s inward looking – it focuses on the financial performance of the company. While that’s certainly important, the financial performance of the company is shaped by events and needs outside the company.
Second, by focusing on financial performance, it draws the attention of management to lagging indicators. It tells them how they have been doing. In a rapidly changing world, we need to be looking ahead, focusing on indicators that will help us to anticipate emerging opportunities.
We need to pay more attention to return on attention. In an increasingly competitive world, customers are gaining more power. Where customers choose to allocate their attention among a growing number of options competing for their attention, will determine who succeeds and who becomes increasingly marginalized.
We need to find ways to measure and monitor return on attention. But the challenge is that return on attention can be viewed at many different levels.
Level 1 of return on attention
When I talk with executives about return on attention, I find that they quickly narrow their focus to their own company. For them, return on attention is how much they have had to spend per unit of attention from their customers and promising prospects.
Once again, they understandably fall back to financial metrics and what they have had to “pay” for the attention of their customers. This is still very focused on the company and lagging indicators – how much have they had to pay in the past.
Level 2 of return on attention
We need to expand our horizons. Rather than focusing on the company, let’s shift our attention to the customers and their return on attention – what value are the customers receiving for the attention they are providing to the company? What’s their return on attention?
And, let’s stay focused on value received, rather than the amount of time and effort that customers have to invest in order to receive the value. The temptation here is to narrowly define value as delivering what the customers want and need today.
The challenge is that what customers want and need today may not be what is ultimately most valuable to them. As I’ve written about in The Journey Beyond Fear, people around the world are increasingly driven by the emotion of fear. In this kind of world, the most effective way to draw attention is to address the fears that are consuming customers – feeding the fear, providing them with defenses against perceived threats and helping them to escape from the fearful world around us (dare I mention metaverse?).
Addressing current needs can help to attract attention with less effort but, if the needs are not sustainable, is this the most promising way to increase return on attention for customers over time? Even more importantly, if the needs that customers perceive today are limiting their potential to create value that is more meaningful to them, are businesses serving the true needs of the customers?
Level 3 of return on attention
This takes us to an even more promising level of return on attention. Rather than just focusing on the current needs of the customers, maybe businesses should look ahead and anticipate emerging needs of customers that can create much more value.
Businesses need to expand their horizons even further. They need to not just focus on the return on attention to the customer today, but the return on attention to the customer over time. They need to ask what can help customers to achieve much more impact and value that is meaningful to them than what they are achieving today. What are the unmet needs of customers that customers themselves might not even be able to articulate today, but that could help them overcome their fear and motivate them to provide more and more attention?
While this requires businesses to look ahead, business executives should realize that the timing could not be better. One of the challenges for businesses today is the significant erosion of trust from their customers. While most customers could probably not articulate what is eroding their trust, a key driver is the growing recognition that companies are focused on serving their own short-term needs, rather than understanding and addressing the evolving needs of their customers to achieve more impact that is meaningful in a more and more challenging world.
Businesses that understand what is driving the erosion of trust and actively seek to increase the return on attention of their customers will find that they will draw and retain the attention of those customers much more effectively than they have in the past.
Level 4 of return on attention
But that’s not all. There’s an even bigger opportunity that remains to be addressed by both customers and the businesses serving them. In a rapidly changing world with mounting performance pressure, all customers have a need to find ways to continue to increase impact that is meaningful to them.
This creates a need for all customers to learn faster about how they can increase impact in areas that matter to them. In this rapidly changing world, this is not about learning in the form of training programs that share existing knowledge, but instead it’s about creating environments and conditions that can help customers to create entirely new knowledge at an accelerating rate – finding ways to create more and more value with less effort.
This kind of learning doesn’t occur in a training room. It occurs out in the real world as customers take action, assess the impact they are achieving, and reflect on what new actions they can take that will yield even more impact. As customers begin to see the need for this and the value it can provide, they will also begin to see that they can learn much faster and more effectively if they come together in small groups where they share a passion about increasing impact (I call them impact groups and have written about them here).
Customers will significantly increase their return on attention if they can participate in these learning environments because they will create much more value for themselves and for others. Businesses that see this emerging need and act aggressively to provide these learning environments will ultimately draw more and more of the attention of more and more customers and create much more value for themselves as well.
We need to see an intriguing paradox. The same long-term forces that are creating mounting performance pressure and a growing need for impact that is meaningful are also creating exponentially expanding opportunity – we can create far more value far more quickly and with far less resources than would have been imaginable a couple of decades ago. Those customers and businesses who see this exponentially expanding opportunity and actively seek to address it will dramatically increase their return on attention.
There’s an untapped business opportunity that I describe as “the trusted advisor” where businesses focus relentlessly on increasing the impact that their customers can achieve. This business opportunity has exponential potential.
In a more and more challenging world, where fear is becoming the dominant emotion, it is understandable why businesses are pursuing more and more short-term financial metrics for impact. But those metrics are increasingly limiting our ability to create value.
If we are going to unleash the exponentially expanding opportunity that is emerging around us, we need to find metrics that will excite and inspire us, and help us to overcome our fear. We need a deep and nuanced understanding of “return on attention” that is focused on the growing impact that our customers can achieve. This will help both our customers and our businesses to move beyond their fear and succeed in ways that will help all of us to flourish.