The Strange Logic of Value in the Attention Economy

Did you know that 54% of 18-38-year-olds want to be influencers? Or that kids these days would rather be “influencers” or “YouTubers” than firefighters, astronauts, or teachers?

Okay, Boomer. Calm down. 

The “troubling trend” of all our kids putting themselves on the path to internet stardom as employment has been greatly overblown. That 54% of Gen Zers and Millennials who want to be influencers? The Morning Consult actually found that 54% of respondents would become an influencer if given the opportunity. Considering the financial fortunes of many Millennials and Gen Zers, I think that’s a pretty reasonable response to the question. And it’s certainly different from arranging your whole career path around the aspiration to become an influencer.

And the surveys that found “influencer” to be on the top of kids’ “What I want to be when I grow up” lists? Honestly, I think that says more about public opinion toward more traditional careers like teacher, firefighter, or even astronaut. Who can blame a kid for thinking it’s a better idea to become an influencer than it is to go into teaching with tons of debt, low pay, and a regular barrage of vitriol from politicians and pundits thrown in your general direction?

Influence and attention-getting represent a dramatic shift in how younger people think about their careers today. But the rise of the influencer and micro media company represents what is perhaps an even greater evolution in how we think about value and why we consume what we consume. 

This is the sixth installment in “The Economics of…” and a follow-up to my previous piece on the economics of attention. In that essay, I broke down the mechanics of attention businesses, how the principle of supply and demand relates to attention, and how advertisers put audiences to work. In this essay, we’ll build on each of those pieces and look more closely at the influencer business model, how today’s micro media creators produce audiences to sell back to themselves, and why mini-monopoly power might be at the root of why some folks charge absolutely outrageous prices for ill-defined products.

How The Right to Publicity Becomes Promotional Labor

There’s nothing new about celebrity influence. Josiah Wedgwood leveraged Catherine the Great to promote his pottery in the 18th century. But it was in the late 1800s and early 1900s when celebrity endorsement really took off. In the 1930s, brands favored the endorsement of famous athletes. By the mid-1940s, movie stars became the preferred influencers.

“The right to publicity” was introduced into the US legal system in 1953. The right to publicity is a form of intellectual property that protects a person’s likeness, name, or other distinctive characteristics from being used for promotional purposes without their consent. Ultimately, the right to publicity is owned by the individual in question. In practice, that means that a company can’t say you use and endorse their product without your permission.

The thing about intellectual property is that as soon as a form of IP is protected by law, it becomes a commodity that can be bought and sold. So the fact that I have a right to publicity means I can choose to sign it over or sell it. For what it’s worth, I sign over my right to publicity all the time—sometimes as part of a financial transaction and sometimes as part of an in-kind transaction. Each time I do, I affirm that my identity, or at least my self-presentation, is a product that can be sold.  

Tune in next week for a deep dive into the economics of intellectual property.

Celebrity becomes a valuable economic condition.

Celebrities—specifically the movie stars of the studio system—were the original beneficiaries of the right to publicity. The recognized right over their identity gave them the power, ostensibly, to manage their reputations. But soon, the studios (who catalyzed the instantiation of a right to publicity in the first place) incorporated promotional requirements into their contract with stars. Studios recognized the value of the celebrities they controlled in terms of promotional labor. By incorporating the right of publicity into a celebrity’s contract, they could dictate the nature of that labor and prohibit other promotional labor.

Celebrity value grew and grew over the course of the 20th century.  Eventually, celebrities weren’t just potential endorsers. They were celebrity brands themselves. A celebrity didn’t just represent fame or talent. The celebrity brand was a whole lifestyle, even a distinct worldview, that a product could attach itself to. As the economy depended more and more on producing unnecessary consumer goods, the celebrity brand became an anchor for desire. Today, instead of a celebrity informing you of a new problem-solving product or helping you choose between two competing brand names, the celebrity brand offers a comprehensive blueprint for consumption. 

The celebrity brand is legible to both its audience and potential brand partners. The audience reads the celebrity brand as an aspiration and the celebrity lifestyle as something that can be constructed piece by purchased piece. The potential brand partner reads the celebrity brand as indicative of the type of audience it produces—an audience that the brand partner would very much like to reach. In this way, celebrity itself became a valuable economic condition.

What Happens When Anyone Can Be a Celebrity

Today, the economic condition of celebrity is not limited to famous athletes, movie stars, and chart-topping musicians. It’s a condition that seems available to anyone thanks to the totalizing attention economy.

An influencer is a micro media company. The production and distribution of media via platforms focus attention on an aspiring influencer. Over time, the influencer gathers an audience and increases their influence over those that follow them. A brand zeroes in on a particular influencer to gain access to that audience vis-a-vis their interest in the influencer’s content.

When a brand pays for a “sponsored post,” they’re not paying for the post itself. 

In part, they are paying a use fee on the influencer’s right to publicity—like you might pay a licensing fee for a song or company trademark. The other thing the brand is paying for is the audience power that the influencer is a conduit for. Now that the audience power is being traded in the market, we can call it—as Dallas Smythe did—an audience commodity. 

Each influencer trades in their own audience commodity. The core product is the same—attention—but the value of any particular influencer’s audience commodity is a function of its demographics, psychographics, scale, and level of engagement (i.e., audience power). If an audience is large, but the demographics and psychographics are diverse, the value of the audience commodity will be a little lower. If an audience is on the small side, but the demographics and psychographics are narrow and consistent, the value might be significantly higher to the right advertiser. A highly engaged audience has more value than an audience with lower engagement.

Influencers sell audience attention. 

This might come as news to many people! Maybe even many influencers! But it’s true. On the surface, it looks like an advertiser is “hiring” an influencer or paying for an endorsement. But what the advertiser knows they’re buying is direct access to an audience. A savvy influencer doesn’t curate their feed to mold themselves into the perfect brand spokesperson. They curate their feed to capture a particular audience they can sell to a brand.

You might ask, as many have, why a brand would care about reaching an influencer’s audience at all when they’ve successfully relied on the audiences of mass media for generations. One reason is that audiences are more fractured today than they were even twenty years ago. While more people are consuming media today, the monocultural audience has gone the way of the dodo bird. More people consume media in more ways—streaming services, cable, podcasts, news sites, social media, YouTube, etc. So it’s become harder to purchase the same kind of audience that was available when CNN was the only 24-hour news network or when a significant segment of the population tuned into Must See TV on NBC.

The other reason advertisers are willing to pay for access to an influencer’s audience is the attention scarcity we discussed in the previous installment. While traditional advertising has become a less reliable means of purchasing audience power, influencer marketing promises a more reliable opportunity with clear performance measures. 

Influencers Work—Even If It Doesn’t Look That Way

Remember those annoying headlines about kids these days wanting to be influencers when they grow up? Sure, rapid technological and demographic change is scary. 

But I think what really bothers some people about these headlines is something more nefarious. While we’re familiar with how teachers, firefighters, and even rockstars labor, influencer labor is largely hidden. If you haven’t been a content creator as your primary job, it’s almost impossible to imagine the amount of work that goes into it or the vital role that labor plays in late-stage capitalism. 

So when “kids” want to be “influencers” when they grow up, many “people” read that as kids not wanting to “work” for a living. And that is a generational panic that is repeated with every generation. 

We might joke that professional influencers don’t work. They just get paid to be themselves a little more publicly than the rest of us, right? But this misses a key component of the labor of celebrity and micro media creation.

It’s possible to imagine the economy slowing down without influencer labor. 

Media scholars Alison Hearn and Stephanie Schoenhoff dub this system of work “promotional post-Fordism.” Instead of producing material goods in a factory setting, our economy is increasingly based on the production of immaterial commodities like marketing and branding. This requires immaterial labor,  “which inclues creativity, innovation, and the manipulation of personal emotion, personality, and affect.” 

We might think of the worksite, then, as a “social factory.” “Work is dispersed into all areas of life and human sociality becomes the site for the creation of new forms of productive activity,” they write.

Hearn and Schoenhoff argue this makes self-presentation and self-branding critical workforce skills. Displaying a skill or ideology becomes more valuable than actually having that skill or holding that ideology. In fact, popularity becomes a “proxy indicator” of ability or talent. These skills aren’t limited to full-time influencers, of course. This kind of labor is ubiquitous today, even crossing the lines of class, gender, and education.

Like in a traditional factory, the social factory requires production efficiency to generate profit.

When it comes to influencers or anyone building an audience online, efficiency happens in how media is created (e.g., batching, outsourcing, process development, etc.). But efficiency can also be a driving factor in editorial decisions. The media one creates can build an audience more efficiently or less efficiently depending on the style, content, and platform. 

An inefficient way to build an audience might be, say, writing 8,000 words on the economics of attention or producing detailed carousel posts for Instagram on topics like cash flow or the changing nature of work. It takes an immense amount of time—about 30 hours per week. And it only appeals to a tiny fraction of people interested in those topics. 

Not that I know anything about inefficient audience-building…

Anyhow, a much more efficient way to build an audience is to notice what kinds of posts garner the most gains in terms of audience and attention. Then, focus on creating that type of content over and over again. If the type of content an audience engages with changes, the editorial strategy changes with it to maintain high engagement and rocketship growth.

Consider a pair of famous internetainers.

In the previous installment, I mentioned the YouTube show Good Mythical Morning. Rhett, Link, and the Mythical Crew have been making the show for over 10 years now, five days a week. 

In the beginning, the show was mostly just the two of them sitting at a small card table, telling funny stories and teasing each other. They built a loyal following based on that format. A couple of years in, they discovered that filming themselves eating gross things really racked up the views. Today, I’d guesstimate that about 40% of GMM episodes feature them eating something. Mythical also runs a spin-off channel called The Mythical Kitchen, which doubles down on this food-based content. They even launched a sister website based on the popularity of that content. It’s called Sporked, and it’s sort of like a Wirecutter for brand-name snacks.

And for as goofy and formulaic as this show is, Sean and I love it. When Rhett & Link—who are both in their mid-40s—take time off a few times per year, our evenings are thrown into chaos. Is it the most high-brow type of culture I consume? Hell no. But it’s smart, even in its stupidity. They’re happy to gag their way through eating beef bile cheesecake, but they’re also transparently savvy about how they run their company and what kind of media they decide to create. “Doing it for the views” is an open (and joked about) secret. Good Mythical Morning is pretty much the most mature and sophisticated sophomoric media on the internet.

Editorial efficiency doesn’t generally produce quality content.

Rhett and Link are the exceptions that prove the rule. Their transparency and sophistication about what they’re doing and why add to, rather than detract from, the media they produce. In general, editorial efficiency produces something more along the lines of derivative reality TV than it does quality media.

The most efficient way to produce more audience power is to ensure that the media published or broadcast attracts as many people as possible. These media are homogenized and engineered for the lowest common cultural denominator. Dallas Smythe remarks about a Hollywood publicity agent with a sign over his desk that read, “You never lose money by underestimating the level of popular taste.”

Editorial efficiency depends on the algorithms that dictate content distribution today. In the new media model, platforms amplify media that get the most people engaged—or rather, put the most people to work as consumers. As we’re all too familiar with now, these media often induce rage and disgust rather than thoughtful discourse or even harmless fun. These  media produce smaller, more niche audiences—but produce audiences at scale.

Influencers and Creators Make Money Moves

Recall that influencers don’t sell their endorsements or sponsored posts, per se. Instead, they sell access to their audiences when they work with brand partners. In this way, the influencer business model is similar to more traditional ad-supported media business models. But especially in the last five years or so, influencers and creators realized the value of their own audience commodities in a new way.

Influencers produce highly niche audiences with a veneer of intimacy and personability that neither the old nor the new media model can match. Broadcast media offers access to audiences at scale with very little precision targeting. Social media platforms offer access to audiences with highly precise targeting and (less precise) performance measurement. But influencer advertising promises a unique form of audience power—one that is itching to get to work on behalf of both the advertiser and the influencer. And influencers realized that advertiser and media creator could be the same person.

Savvy influencers don’t just produce audiences to sell to, and they produce the products to advertise to those audiences.

There’s a growing trend among influencers toward vertical integration in attention production. Vertical integration is a strategy wherein a company owns more than one stage of its production process. 

The classic example of vertical integration is Carnegie Steel. Traditionally, a steel foundry would purchase iron ore from a mining company that made a profit on that sale. The steel foundry would then process the iron ore into steel and sell the steel to a fabricator at a profit. The fabricator turns the basic steel product into a specialized steel product and sells that to a builder at a profit. The mining company, foundry, fabricator, and builder all make money—but not as much as they would if they were all one company. 

The Carnegie Steel innovation was to purchase the mines where raw materials were extracted, as well as the foundries where iron was turned into steel. Instead of having to purchase raw materials at a markup from a mining company, Carnegie could enjoy the lower costs—and higher profit margins—of owning the whole process.

Netflix is another example of vertical integration. The early iterations of Netflix, both the DVD business and the streaming business, paid licensing fees to content producers so they could distribute content to subscribers. Media companies made a profit on the licensing fees and Netflix made a profit (theoretically) on distributing the media to subscribers. Netflix “realized” that they could save money by becoming both the distributor and the media creator. This integration of production and distribution allowed it to lower its licensing expenses and weather the swift exodus of licensor content as media companies themselves got into the distribution business. 

Traditionally, the media production process is divided between at least three players—Smythe’s invisible triangle. 

Content creators produce and distribute media that produce an audience. The audience commodity is sold to advertisers at a profit. The advertisers produce goods that are then sold to the audience at a profit. It’s a little more complicated than the Carnegie Steel examples—but that multi-prong production process is still there.

But today’s savvy influencers and creators build attention businesses that are vertically integrated. This kind of business both produces the audience and produces the product the audience will purchase. Media are the raw materials that get turned into audiences, which are then utilized as audience power by the attention business to cash out.

The Pros & Cons of Vertical Integration

Vertical integration, in theory, introduces efficiency, cost savings, and economies of scale into the operations of a company. While it can be expensive to get going because a company might have to build a factory or buy another company, it can reduce expenses and increase profits over time. 

With adequate capital for vertical integration, a business generally comes out on the winning side of this strategy. If a business continues to buy up or build out additional aspects of the production process, it may be able to lower prices so much that it drives competitors out of the market. This results in significant market power or even monopoly control over the market. So while low prices create this scenario, consumers lose out on choice and will ultimately lose out on price, too.

The effects of vertical integration on consumers depend on the incentives at play and the strategy or values of the company one looks at. For instance, HBO has used a degree of vertical integration to make riskier bets on content which benefits the consumer by bringing them different options from cable TV networks. In turn, this had a positive impact on consumers’ television choices as a whole because HBO influenced what consumers demanded from other networks. The jury is still out on how vertical integration in streaming services will impact the overall price consumers pay for entertainment.

Vertical integration is tricky territory for influencer and creator businesses.

You might remember Steph, the “6-figure mamapreneur and adventurer” we looked at in the previous installment. Steph’s Instagram feed is full of pictures of her in beautiful outdoorsy locations. She appears conventionally attractive—that is, thin and blonde with all the hallmarks of 21st-century celebrity. She offers weight loss tips and self-help-style motivational pep talks in her captions. This is the kind of content she used to produce an audience.

We can assume that Steph knows the most lucrative way to use her personal brand and minor celebrity is to vertically integrate her business. She could sell access to her audience to a brand partner (and I didn’t look far enough back to see if she does do this), but it’s more profitable to sell her own products to her audience. So what is a mamapreneur to do? Steph has a host of products that promise to close the gap between who her audience members are and who she is

There’s a weight loss course, a birthing course, and a happiness course. There’s a course for finding your “king” and a meditation and self-healing course. There’s even a pack of six classes that seem to walk you step-by-step through becoming more like Steph and her husband.

Sure, these programs address concerns that her audience has. But when and how were those concerns created?

How were those concerns amplified and agitated? Steph’s content isn’t solely responsible for these concerns, of course. But it does serve as an aspirational reminder of all the things her ideal audience member is not. And that makes these courses an easy sell. Even Steph’s $100k coaching offer starts to make a strange sort of sense when you consider that the “best life yet” value proposition is Steph’s life to the audience member.

In an attention business that produces its own audience and then utilizes that audience for profit via direct-to-consumer sales, the attention business can put the audience to work worrying about any number of invented problems or desires. 

The more invented the problem or desire is, the less likely there is to be competition to solve it. Now that business is the only one offering a solution—and so they can set the price for the solution at whatever will bring in the target volume of sales. This, in effect, turns the vertical integration strategy into a monopoly strategy. 

A personal brand can potentially insinuate that the problem or desire their audience members have is, well, not being the person behind the personal brand. And if what the personal brand is selling is access to that person, there is no competition. The supply is vanishingly scarce since there is only one of that person and only 24 hours in their day. And the demand might be extremely high because of the scale of the audience they’ve produced. Hence, it starts to make economic sense to charge $100k for a year of coaching.

What is the primary product of a micro media company?

A couple of years ago, before I discovered my interest in media theory, I wrote a popular article about the difference between audience-building and finding clients. I argued that many small business owners and independent workers try to build audiences on social media rather than taking actions that would actually help them connect with clients. While it’s absolutely possible to use social media to find clients, there are all sorts of other ways to do it, too. And building an audience on social media looks different than finding clients on social media.

And that’s because if you’re building an audience on social media, as influencers do…

…the primary product you are producing is that audience

What you sell is secondary. No one attracts an audience with promotional content. To attract an audience, you need to produce media that people want to see and interact with. All that free content you create, the comments you respond to, the shares your work inspires—ultimately that produces an audience the same way an influencer or any media creator does. 

These creators put the audience to work for them. They create the media that suggests a problem or need that the audience might have. They raise awareness of the category of products that the audience might use to solve that problem. And they educate the audience on the differences between their product and alternatives. The audience engages (i.e., labors) by watching, liking, commenting, subscribing, following, and sharing. And eventually pays the creator back by purchasing.

In fact, for the audience-building “attention business,” what they sell isn’t just secondary to producing an audience. It’s a shadow of it. 

Let me say that a little more clearly: The attention business creates free media to produce an audience. That audience reflects value back on that business and its media. The commodity being sold, while it likely has some value on its own, primarily gets its value from the audience’s interest rather than a particular value proposition.

Without the audience casting light on the business and its media, the product for sale probably wouldn’t exist. At the least, the value of the product would be understood differently.

Value and the Attention Business

If you’ve ever tried to explain the online course you just bought or the workshop you just attended to a friend who isn’t immersed in the same audience you are, you know what I mean. They probably don’t get it. They can’t imagine spending money on it—let alone hundreds or thousands of dollars. What you bought was valuable to you because your attention on the person selling the thing made it valuable.

That doesn’t mean you were had. It doesn’t mean the audience-builder is a grifter. Although, both of those things are possible. It means that the value of an influencer’s or creator’s product is understood differently by a member of the in-group (audience) than by a member of the out-group. And that difference brings with it the potential for serious price gouging.

If you’re picking up what I’m putting down here, you’re probably thinking: “Um, duh, Tara. That’s how social media and content marketing works.”

Yeah, totally. You’re right.

So what does this teach us about how value functions in relation to an audience? And what does it teach us about how we go about marketing and selling our own offers?

What makes a $100k coaching package worth the money?

Valid question. And sure, I can rationalize it for you. We might consider the clientele she’s working with or a track record of success in situations where a lot of money is on the line. There are likely coaches and consultants whose work can easily justify a $100k price tag. 

But no rationalization like this appears on Steph’s website. Nary even a sales page can be found!

Offering a package like this is a bet. It’s a bet that, having amassed 20k, 50k, or 100k followers, a few people in the audience have the power to pay that amount. It’s a bet that the ideology—the life—on offer is strong enough to activate those people. It’s a bet that the audience power shining on an influencer’s or creator’s account is enough to produce that shadow of value.

As both the producer and consumer of the audience commodity, you gamble that the audience power you now have access to has the capacity to fork over the money.

To be clear, I have no idea if Steph has ever signed a $100k coaching client. I don’t know if her business is in any way successful. It doesn’t matter because there are people who operate models like this and do make boatloads of money. You can find them discussed and complained about in multiple subreddits.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

Plenty of influencers, creators, and even major media companies find considerable profit by selling directly to consumers without taking advantage of monopoly power. 

HBO charges a monthly fee so that it can generate revenue through the audience itself rather than advertisers. The result was not only that we got to watch The Sopranos or Game of Thrones ad-free but also that we got to see The Sopranos or Game of Thrones at all. Those shows would likely never have been given a chance in an ad-supported media business model—too expensive and too niche an audience.

Or consider public broadcasting. NPR and PBS produce audiences and use them to fund their programming directly. While these broadcasters do receive public funds, it’s a very small part of their overall budget.

Or consider the thinkers who have built audiences on social media first, and then received significant book deals which spread their ideas beyond even their own audiences—people like Tricia Hersey of The Nap Ministry, Dr. Devon Price, author of Unmasking Autism, and Jessamyn Stanley, author of Every Body Yoga.

And yeah, I also run a sort of attention business with my podcast and newsletter. You are part of the audience I produce—and producing this audience helped me find a publisher for my book and participants for my workshops.

Understanding the attention economy makes us savvier media producers and consumers.

Attention is truly a resource in scarce supply and high demand. Attention is arguably one of the biggest sources of capital accumulation today, just ask Zuckerberg or Musk. Some businesses choose to ignore the sustainability of that resource. Others choose to steward it.

If you, like me, are running an attention business, you can be a steward of your audience’s attention. 

If you’re a consumer of attention products, you can choose to pay your attention to those who are doing their best to be good stewards.

I find a simple framework for thinking about both in Jenny Odell’s book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. She suggests that anyone with a margin of attention to spare cultivate “the ability to not just withdraw attention but to invest it somewhere else, to enlarge and proliferate it, to improve its acuity.”

I choose to create media the way I do because I want to steward your attention in precisely that way. I want to help you invest your attention in new ideas and perspectives. I aim to structure the media I create in a way that helps you focus and direct your attention. I withdraw my own creative and intellectual attention from soundbites, quotegrams, and Twitter threads to create a small attention refuge for you to inhabit.

I won’t be offering any $100k coaching. But I can offer you my attention to that cause.

Cover of What Works book by Tara McMullin

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