“The attention auction” is a phrase that has stuck in my head since I first read it earlier this year, on AJ Kohn’s blog Blind Five-Year-Old. The idea is that we’re all competing for a finite amount of attention , and it’s a zero-sum game. If people are paying attention to your competitor, they can’t pay attention to you at the same time.
Another term for the same basic idea is “attention economics” – in an attention economy, attention is treated as a scarce commodity. We’ve got access to more information than ever before, but no more time or attention to give.
The concept is pretty key for us content marketers. When you publish new content, you’re putting a bid into the attention auction. And not everybody can win.
Here at WordStream, we put a lot of thought and planning into our content projects. Some of them work, and some of them don’t. Why? As much as we’d like to believe we’ve nailed the process down, it’s not always obvious.
So how do you win the attention auction? We’ve espoused a bunch of theories and provided a lot of examples of stuff that has worked for us, including:
- Better content promotion 
- More long-form content 
- Unique, contrarian content 
- Just generally GREAT CONTENT 
But even when we follow our own advice and seemingly do everything right, sometimes we just don’t win. Why, God, WHY?!!
I’ve been thinking about this stuff, and I’ve arrived at two hard truths about the attention economy:
- Attention is to some extent random
- Eventually you hit the attention ceiling
I’ll talk about both of these hard truths in a little more detail below.
What Wins the Attention Auction is Sometimes Random
To state the obvious, and reference The Smiths, some blog posts do better than others. This graphic speaks volumes:
Our top 50 blog posts (ever) do as well as all the other blog posts combined (over a thousand of them).
Try as we might to develop repeatable processes to ensure that almost everything we publish does amazing, it just doesn’t work that way. All the key metrics trend up over time, so we keep hitting new highs, but there are always relative hits and relative duds.
Effort vs. Attention
For example, we recently released the results of an internal study that, we believe, provided concrete evidence of gender bias in the online marketing industry. We put a ton of time and effort into this article. A TON. It was a group effort involving multiple people from multiple departments.
Now, it’s really important to note here that we weren’t looking for traffic for traffic’s sake. We wanted a lot of people to read it because we believe it’s an issue that deserves a lot of attention – one that’s bigger than just marketing. The gender bias issue comes up again and again, but there’s a lack of hard data to reference in the debate, particularly when it comes to our industry. So personally, as a vocal feminist, I really wanted the piece to do well and find plenty of sympathetic readers.
Did it? Well, kind of. The response was incredibly positive – many people told us the article was fascinating and thanked us profusely for the transparency and the effort. A huge percentage of people who read the post went on to share it. It got some great media coverage, including coverage in spots outside the tiny filter bubble of search marketing . That was really rewarding. So it wasn’t a “failure” by any stretch.
But the traffic numbers weren’t stellar compared to our most recent hit: this post on the Panda 4.0 update  and how it affected eBay surpassed it in page views in less than 24 hours. That’s right – a post we spent weeks on and promoted the crap out of has fewer total page views than the Panda post got in just a day. (At this point, it’s not even close.) The Panda post was a quick reaction to some big industry news; we did put some analysis and time into it, but not nearly as much as we did for the gender bias study. Regardless, it’s the one that won the attention auction.
However, it’s not just about whether your article touches on a hot trending topic – we write about big industry news all the time, and it doesn’t always strike a nerve. Along the same lines, sometimes the articles that win the attention auction are evergreen topics that have nothing to do with anything in the news. You think you can predict the winners, but the attention auction has randomness built in.
I’m not the only one who has noticed this phenomenon. Gianluca Fiorelli tweeted last week:
You write a post saying that Google is broken and obtain fantagillions shares. Write a better post about strategy and people say "Meh!". Bah— Gianluca Fiorelli (@gfiorelli1) May 22, 2014 
Yep. Been there my friend. Aleyda Solis has noticed it too:
@gfiorelli1  I think it's relatively common ... it happens to me too :) the one I invest most time in doesn't perform as I expect.— Aleyda Solis (@aleyda) May 22, 2014 
In the attention economy, attention doesn’t always go to the most “deserving” articles or the ones you put the most effort into. It’s not purely random, of course, but there’s a butterfly effect that introduces unresolvable unpredictability.
The Attention Ceiling: Sorry, But People Will Eventually Get Sick of You
The randomness of the attention economy isn’t the only barrier to your success as a content marketer. I’ve also noticed a phenomenon I’ll call “the attention ceiling.” What this means is that even if you publish five totally amazing blog posts in a week, probably only one or two of them will be runaway hits. In other words, you can’t earn all the attention all the time because people just don’t want to pay attention to you all the time.
We published two posts this week, aside from the Panda post, that I thought had the potential to be hits. They were well-thought-out articles with really interesting angles and lots of actionable advice. Neither one of them had nearly the same impact as the Panda post, though we promoted them all equally. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him click.
But this isn’t all bad. If you find yourself hitting the attention ceiling from time to time, it’s probably a good thing. When people or companies blow up stupid-huge and are everywhere all the time, it’s a dangerous position. Sometimes it seems like you’re killing it and winning every auction, and then everyone gets sick of you all at once.
This seems to be what happened to Groupon and what is now happening to Upworthy – they hit upon a winning formula, but it only lasted for so long before the big collective UGH. Once your formula is recognizable as a formula, the magic is gone.
Image via The Bachelors Brand 
So Where Are My Actionable Takeaways?!
Sorry, but this post isn’t really about actionable takeaways. It’s more about setting expectations.
Rand Fishkin did a great slide deck recently  about setting expectations around content marketing. First of all, great content usually doesn’t lead immediately to leads or sales. It’s a more meandering process:
It works this way if you give people time to grow to love you for your content and then come to you as a customer when they’re ready. When it doesn’t work, it’s often because people give up too soon.
Rand says that his wife Geraldine’s blog, The Everywhereist , never broke 100 visits a day for two years. Then she had a couple of posts that got some attention, but traffic fell back down shortly afterward. Luckily, she kept plugging:
So here are the takeaways for content marketers working in an attention economy:
- If you have a hit, try to reproduce it, and fail, don’t give up – even people at the very top of their game experience relative wins and relative losses. Attention comes in waves.
- Anticipate and plan for the attention wave – if you’ve got five awesome pieces of content planned for June, don’t front-load them all in the first week. Spread the love and you'll give your best stuff a better chance to succeed.