The Economics of Getting (and Paying) Attention: Putting the Audience to Work

Attention is a scarce (and precious) resource.

A gargantuan number of media outlets, advertisers, influencers, and brands vie for our attention every day. In turn, many of us (including me) are out there trying to attract attention, too. We want people to pay attention to our posts, our offers, or our perspective. At the same time, the changing nature of the attention market (as well as larger macroeconomic shifts) creates some real weirdness

A piece of weirdness recently caught my eye. The Conspirtuality podcast Instagram account posted a simple screenshot of a landing page.

In it, there’s an image of a woman with blonde Farah Fawcett-style waves smiling directly into the camera. In the foreground of the photo, blurred by shallow depth of field, is a man wearing Air Pods and a tank top, looking at his phone. The photo gives the impression that these two are sitting by a pool, doing something work adjacent.

Overlaid on the image is white script text over a hot pink highlight. It reads: Best Year Yet. The subtitle is “12 months of private 2-1 coaching & exclusive life changing experiences.”

Below that, we get the price tag—which the Conspirituality guys have helpfully circled in black. The price? $100,000. Limited Availability. Apply now. Matthew Remski, one of the co-hosts of Conspirituality, captions the image, “New wellness price point just dropped.”

I immediately remembered a conversation I had with Michelle Mazur, co-host of the Duped podcast. She told me about a recent “trend” among some influencers to receive an intuitive hit during a live broadcast. This intuitive hit would inspire them to make an offer on the spot—say, a 6-month group coaching program for $20k. No additional information on the program, no idea what the program would even be working on. But if a viewer also had an intuitive hit to fork over $20k and sign up, then the universe had aligned to make that all happen—so it must be good.

All this begs the question: what the hell is going on here?

This is the first of a two-part exploration of the economics of getting (and paying) attention. We’ll get into how media businesses really work, how they sell your attention, why paying attention is a form of work, and how the need for constant economic growth exacerbates our attention scarcity. We’ll tackle the economic concept of supply and demand and how it relates to how immaterial offers are priced. And we’ll use that $100,000 coaching offer as a case study of how influencers and creators create value. 

Understanding the Attention Business

When I first came across the Instagram post I mentioned, I had no idea who the people in the photo were. After the tiniest bit of internet sleuthing, I found Steph and Josh—the people in the photo offering 12 months of coaching for $100,000. I landed on Steph’s Instagram account, on which she describes herself as a “multi 6-figure mamapreneur and adventurer.” Her account boosters more than 78k followers. 

I’m not going to link to her account or website because this case study isn’t about her, her business, or her Instagram account. I aim to describe and explain an economic phenomenon that goes well beyond any individual account. If you’re curious, you can find them. 

The next thing I notice is that most posts on her account have few, if any, comments. What’s more, she’s opted to hide the number of “likes” on her posts over the last 6 months. Before that time, her posts averaged around 600 likes. That’s not a small number—but it is much smaller than I’d expect for an account with even 20k or 30k followers, let alone almost 80k. So I’m suspicious about whether those 78k followers are organic or whether they were paid for. But I’m happy to give her the benefit of the doubt for our purposes today.

Steph’s Instagram account looks like a stereotypical “healthy lifestyle” influencer’s account. Photo after photo is Steph in a beautiful location, color coordinated in reds, oranges, and pinks. Her blonde hair is almost always immaculately curled in loose Hollywood waves. When she’s not posting pics with calls to action to DM her for coaching options, she posts Reels, most often about some aspect of weight loss or fitness. Her account is perfectly attuned to what is going to attract attention. 

She leverages the symbols of American celebrity as credibility boosters.

When I click through to her website, I expect to see a super-polished, perfectly rendered pixelation of success. But instead, the website is a bit haphazard and DIY. Nothing wrong with that—it just doesn’t match her more curated Instagram account or the logos of high-profile companies like Lululemon or Whole Foods that she claims to have worked with. 

After an initial pass on the home page, I find Steph’s “Elite” coaching offer under the Work With Me tab. That takes me to the page that appears to be what was screenshotted in the post that set me off on this journey. 

I click on the  “Apply Now” button under the $100k price tag out of curiosity. Maybe there’s more info on the application? Or maybe I can infer something about the offer through the questions she asks? However, instead of being taken to an application or sales page, I’m taken to a Shopify product page. The first thing I notice is that this coaching offer is now listed at $130,000. There is still no explanation of what’s being offered or what the coaching package includes. I don’t know if I’m paying $130k for daily, weekly, or monthly coaching. I don’t know if the travel and accommodations for any of the unnamed life-changing experiences advertised are covered. At this point, I feel like I’ve gone down the rabbit hole for nothing. 

While I could click the button to “Add to Cart,” I pass. There are some lengths even I won’t go to in the name of research.

Steph’s online presence typifies what I’d call an  “attention business.” 

Somewhere along the way, Steph attracted (or purchased) a large number of Instagram followers. With an audience (and its attention) in hand, she could then make offers to those followers. A vanishingly small percentage of her audience purchases those offers, and she takes home a solid paycheck.

That might not sound unusual to you. It might even sound like what you’ve done if you run an information marketing business. And you’re right. This scenario is neither unusual nor all that different from what you might be doing.

The market is full of attention businesses—from behemoths like Netflix to micro media companies like mine. 

Clearly, I don’t take issue with attention businesses. But attention businesses do navigate territory that can easily become extractive and harmful. An attention business opens economic doors that can easily lead to ethical and financial integrity issues. 

Before we get there, though, we need to take a closer look at what is actually being bought and sold in an attention business.

Attention is a Scarce Resource in High Demand

The principle of supply and demand is almost as basic an economic concept as opportunity cost

Essentially the higher the ratio of supply to demand, the lower prices will be. The higher the ratio of demand to supply, the higher prices will be. So if lots of a product exists and fewer people are looking to buy it, the price will go down. On the other hand, if lots of people are looking to buy a product but there are few available, the price will skyrocket.

Could scarce supply and high demand be why someone charges $100k for coaching?

Our attention is in scarce supply today. We don’t have less attention than we used to. But there is more vying for it. The demand far outpaces the supply we bring to market. 

But it’s not only the multiplicity of media we might tune into at any given time that taxes our attention. Our attention is wearily divided by all of the choices we must make to stay afloat. Whether you’re juggling multiple streams of revenue, multiple jobs, multiple kids, or multiple health conditions, making your way in the 21st-century economy requires most—if not all—of your attention. 

Today’s economic landscape forces us to use that attention to shop—for a doctor, for a retirement plan, for new skills, for daycare. In our “spare” time, we attempt to connect with each other, training our attention on social media platforms driven by advertiser needs. We even unwind by channeling what little attention we have left into TikTok, or YouTube, or Instagram.

Whenever there is a scarce resource with commercial uses, you can be sure there will be multiple players vying for dominance. Attention is no different. Our attention has always been limited, of course. There is only so much we can focus on at any given time. And that means that attention is valuable

The market for our limited attention has changed dramatically. 

The Berkey Economic Review described our contemporary attention scarcity this way: 

“…what distinguishes the present day is that technological advances have made an overwhelming amount of information available, strategically aimed at capturing our attention.”

While it’s common to refer to today’s constellation of internet businesses as the “information economy,” it’s probably more accurate to describe it as the “attention economy.” 

“Attention economy” was first coined by psychologist and economist Herbert Simon in 1971, stating what now seems obvious: “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

Venture capitalist Albert Wenger argues that our attention is “misallocated” to superficial distractions rather than the real problems we face as a society (and as individuals or families, too) in his book The World After Capital (the book is available free). That misallocation occurs because “we currently use the market mechanism to allocate attention.” In other words, we allow the market to determine the price of our attention—which in turn determines who or what can buy it.

If you’ve ever dabbled in Facebook advertising, you’ve seen this firsthand. 

When you place an ad on Facebook, you select the audience you want to see the ad and then set a budget for the campaign. Facebook doesn’t give you a set price for the number of people in your audience who will see the ad. Instead, your bid and others’ bids for the same audience go head to head. The more advertisers vying for a particular audience, the more money each view or click will cost—and that then impacts how many times your ad will be seen by those who you’re hoping to reach.

Actually, Facebook ads are a perfect example of a second component of the attention market. The price of an ad is determined by the supply of attention available to purchase and the demand for attention by advertisers. Even if you’re not paying for attention, you might be competing for attention with what you post online or the way you build a personal brand.

The questions I get about social media, podcasting, and marketing in general are often framed in terms of attention rather than sales or customers. How can I get more followers? How can I get more downloads? How can I get more email subscribers? How do I deal with the absolute crickets I hear every time I post? Embedded in these questions is the assumption that more attention equals more sales and higher revenue. But I think it’s telling how the part people ask about most is the attention part. 

We crave attention.

Georg Franck, an Austrian philosopher and architect, thought about this, too. In a 1999 essay called “The Economy of Attention,” he writes: 

“Attention by other people is the most irresistible of drugs. To receive it outshines receiving any other kind of income. This is why glory surpasses power and why wealth is overshadowed by prominence.”

Franck argues that accumulating attention is a sure way to attract more attention. “Nothing appears to charge advertising space with a stronger power of attraction than display[ing a] wealth of earned attention,” he writes. It’s the media’s skill “to collect and deliver the critical quantities needed to run gathering attention as a mass business.” (emphasis added)

So we know attention is in scarce supply. We know it’s in high demand—both by brands and individuals. We know that scarce resources fetch higher prices when demand outpaces their supply. And we know that our attention is up for grabs to the highest bidder.

Attention, in this case, is a sort of raw material. It needs to be refined and packaged to be used efficiently. And that brings us to “audiences.”

Audience as a Commodity

The economist and activist Dallas Smythe started to publish on the economics of media and communications in the 1970s, around when Simon coined the phrase “attention economy.” At that time, the television industry was still young, and the business models behind it were just starting to coalesce. Smythe described the core business model by naming the “invisible triangle” that it revolved around. The invisible triangle consists of the broadcasters themselves, the advertisers, and the audience.

Unlike a 2-dimensional retail business model where the retailer offers a product and customers buy that product, the media industries work in a 3-dimensional model. There are the producers that create content—the film studio, the broadcast company, the newspaper publishing company, etc. And there is the audience that consumes that content, but the audience doesn’t pay for it (or pays something well below its full market value). Instead, advertisers pay for the cost of creating the content by purchasing ad spots. 

Here in the 21st century, this whole business model seems natural and unremarkable. You know what it was like to sit through commercials as a kid watching cable TV. You know that listening to the radio in the car means listening to an ad every few songs. You know Hulu keeps its subscription fee low by making you sit through commercials. And you know that successful YouTubers make money by virtue of the ad spots that play in their videos. 

As I said, unremarkable. 

Even when Smythe was working, the ad-supported media business model wasn’t new. It was just undertheorized in economic terms. 

Smythe dove into the lively economic theory conversation of the day: 

“What is the principal product of the mass media?” 

Or, put another way, what is an advertiser really buying when they buy a 30- or 60-second ad spot on a crowd-favorite TV show? What gives an ad value

The obvious answer is that purchasing an ad spot puts your brand or product in front of whoever is watching, listening, or reading at that time. The less obvious answer is that what’s actually being purchased is the audience’s attention, which the advertiser hopes to convert to revenue.

Smythe dubbed an audience’s attention “audience power,” borrowing Marx’s “labor power” construction. You might remember the definition of labor power from a previous installment in this series. Labor power is the capacity to work—one’s skills, talents, and time. Labor power is sold to an employer who turns that potential for work into actual, productive labor.

Audience power functions in a similar way. 

Audience power is the potential for “work” on behalf of the aggregate audience, the potential for us to focus our attention on what an advertiser wants us to focus on. When an advertiser purchases an ad spot, they’re betting they can mobilize a portion of that audience power into productive (that is, consumptive) labor.

In this case, instead of being paid work, the productive labor of an audience is the shadow work of purchasing the commodities and navigating the systems necessary to make a life in capitalism. We do shadow work when we do the “shopping” activities I mentioned earlier, as well as other work for the family or self.

“In traditional cultures the shadow-work is as marginal as wage-labor, often difficult to identify. In industrial societies, it is assumed as routine. Euphemism, however, scatters it. Strong taboos act against its analysis as a unified entity. Industrial production determines its necessity, extent and forms. But it is hidden by the industrial-age ideology, according to which all those activities into which people are coerced for the sake of the economy, by means that are primarily social, count as satisfaction of needs rather than as work.”
— Ivan Illich, “Shadow-Work” 

Smythe noticed that while the paid work week had been dramatically reduced over the course of the 20th century, the unpaid work, or shadow work, necessary to live had increased. While advances in home appliances and the availability of durable consumer goods seemed to reduce the amount of time spent on household work, the opposite was true. Not only did those appliances and consumer goods have their own labor requirements, but the consumer environment that made them possible kept giving us more to think about and new goals to integrate into daily life.

As Smythe put it, “There is an ever-increasing number of decisions forced on audience members by new commodities and their related advertising.”

Full-Time Consumer: Putting the Audience to Work

What is the nature of the work an audience does? Even Smythe had a hard time describing it precisely. But I think our familiarity with marketing principles gives us a leg up on Smythe here. Let’s look at an example.

Imagine I’m watching the latest episode of Good Mythical Morning on YouTube. Halfway through the episode, there’s an ad break. The video that starts to play is for the Febreze Fade Defy Plugin.

“You want your home to smell fresh. But when you can barely smell your plug-in, what are your guests smelling?”

Oof, I don’t know, but I don’t think it can be good! Here’s the first piece of work I do as an audience member: I decide whether or not I have this problem.

Now, I’ve talked about my feelings—or more specifically, Sean’s feelings—about Febreze and products like it. So I’m immediately turned off as soon as I hear the Febreze music playing. But even an ad for a product I undoubtedly won’t buy puts me to work.

What are my guests smelling? Does my house smell bad? I don’t even have a plug-in: Do I need a plug-in?

They’ve mobilized my attention against my will! Sheesh.

This leads to what Smythe describes as the second part of my work as an audience member: learning that there is a category of products that can help me solve this problem and that people like me buy it.

The ad has already indicated the category of product: home fragrance plug-ins. They’ve also indicated that people like me use this product by casting two middle to upper-middle-class women in their 30s or 40s, dressing them in athleisure clothes, and giving them yoga mats to carry. Check, check, and check.

Finally, I start to do the third part of my audience work. I need to make a decision between specific products in this category. Febreze gives me some things to think about:

“Try Febreze Fade Defy plug-in. It has built-in technology to digitally control how much scent is released to smell first day fresh for 50 days.”

Of course, this 15-second ad spot is just a small part of my work. Now that I’m thinking about this potential problem and considering my options for solving it, I might do some internet sleuthing, talk to Sean about solutions that are less irksome than home fragrance, or actually leave my house to explore my options at a store.

Now, you’re well within your rights to question whether this is actually work

I’m happy to see this as work because I see the work I do when I listen to a podcast or read a book. I’m learning new information, analyzing it based on previous knowledge, and potentially forming new ideas. That is the work I get paid for. Responding to advertising uses the same mental muscles.

Taking in an ad’s message is so normalized today that we don’t think about how recent an innovation the whole process is. Before the age of mass media and consumer capitalism, paying attention to advertising was a very small part of one’s mental work. There were fewer choices and, therefore, fewer messages.

So what creates this dramatic increase in consumer choice and advertising?

Before the turn of the 20th century, most economic development was focused on meeting the needs of survival. The economy grew as capitalist industry absorbed more people into its scope. Our ability to produce “the basics” efficiently meant that people didn’t need to spend quite so much time on subsistence activities. And as industrialization continued, more people found employment in the kinds of jobs that we’d recognize today. They were paid wages, which could then be used to buy things (produced by others) that they would have, at one time, produced themselves (e.g., clothing, bread, food).

This is what Albert Wenger calls the Job Loop. We sell our labor to earn wages so we can buy stuff and services, which employs others who earn wages to buy stuff and services, which employs others who earn wages to buy stuff and services—and so on. The Job Loop simultaneously keeps workers working and consumers consuming—which kept the economy growing and growing.

Eventually, we got so good at producing the basics that it actually required fewer employed people to produce what was needed by the masses. 

Firms recognized that they could cut labor costs by virtue of efficiency. And the result? An unemployment problem. Unemployed people don’t have the money they need to buy from the firms cutting costs.

People needed a job to buy the stuff produced by other people with jobs. Capitalism’s answer was to shift from a needs-meeting basis to a consumption basis. From about the 1940s on, to maintain a strong level of employment, the economy requires the production of unsatisfied consumer desires and the invention of novel consumer products to fulfill them. Those unsatisfied consumer desires are driven by the immaterial labor of marketing and advertising. 

In some ways, this has led to an increase in quality of life, almost across the board. Wenger dubs it a “virtuous cycle” for this reason. Yet, he also argues that it’s time to make this type of economic activity a much smaller part of our lives and a smaller part of how our societies work—just as the agriculture and needs-meeting economic sectors have shrunk relative to the size of the economy over the last 100 years. 

Today, the Job Loop has also led to the commodification and commercialization of all facets of our lives. 

In the last twenty years, ever-more abstract concepts have been commodified—from therapy to education, to memories, to tenuous social relations. To keep the economy growing and keep people employed, we are constantly inventing new consumer goods and services to sell—which require elaborate advertising campaigns to market to audiences. Those advertising campaigns leverage new ideologies—new beliefs and ways of understanding the world—to manufacture desire for the previously unknown product.

Take “social media, ” as media scholar Christian Fuchs does in a paper revisiting Dallas Symthe’s work. Fuchs points out that after the dot com crash in 2000, capital investors were hesitant about sinking money into unproven bets online. Then, a new kind of company with a new kind of internet product emerged on the scene. In the way that we’re so familiar with now, there was no established market for these internet products—that is, social media platforms. There wasn’t even an indication that consumers would care at all if these products came to market. To attract both investors and users, the emerging companies needed an ideology, a narrative that would produce the market.

Soon, new companies and old mass media were telling this new story. 

Social media platforms were new; they were the next evolution of the web. They would create new ways to participate online. They’d help establish new forms of economic participation, direct action, and political struggle. In short, the ideology made social media platforms irresistible to users and investors alike.

This seems like ancient history now. Just two decades later, we can see this make-believe ideology for what it is—another innovation designed to produce audience power at an even greater scale. Only this time, the companies figured out how to do it as inexpensively as possible since audiences produced both the attention to sell and the media that produced the ad inventory.

Today’s Influencers & Creators Commodify Ideology Itself

As I wrap up the first part of this two-parter, I want to come back to our attention business case study. What kind of work happens in the audience for Steph’s Instagram content? 

First, remember the straightforward Febreze example. It gives us a look at how advertisers guide the audience through each stage of work: problem identification, category discovery, and product selection. But Steph, and most of us with similar goals, make the process less explicit. 

At best, we understand this as a process of proving the value of what we offer through free content. But at worst, we can understand this as selling an ideology that positions the influencer as the value on offer.

Steph’s content isn’t an explicit manual for audience work as the Febreze ad is. It’s an invitation to imagine yourself as her. To do the work required to become her. She presents herself as both the ideology and the product being sold. To me, this is the direct result of the economy going through that same dramatic shift as when it shifted from needs-meeting to consumption. It’s a solution to an economic problem—not a personal pathology. For many people, navigating the 21st-century economy means finding the capital needed to make a buck—even if that means your hobbies, spirituality, vulnerability, or identity become that capital. 

As consumers, we don’t know how to parse the kind of advertising this change generates. When we’re viewing the Febreze commercial, we know we’re being advertised to. We know how that process works and what thoughts it might trigger. But when we view an influencer’s content or a social media marketer’s campaign, it’s much harder to see the pitch. The process of problem identification happens covertly. The category of products they want to pique your interest in isn’t represented as something for sale but rather a lifestyle, an ideology, or an identity. The specific product they’re offering might be hidden behind layers of obfuscation: DM me to talk about coaching, sign up for this webinar, or hop on a free call with me.

We’re sold before we ever hear the $100k price tag. Our work as audience members is done. Now, it’s time to pay up.

Next week, we’ll pick up from here. How do influencers relate to the audience commodity? What happens to the media we consume when everything is an ad? How does today’s attention business produce audiences to sell to themselves? And truly, how can you charge $100k for coaching?

Cover of What Works book by Tara McMullin

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