How Understanding the Economics of Attention Can Help Small Businesses Stand Out



  • Some experts view attention through the lens of scarcity—a critical concept in economic theory. 
  • Business owners may want to consider the economics of attention in their decision-making across marketing, product offerings, branding and other areas.
  • Focusing on quality over quantity is one way to capitalize on the concept and break through the noise.

If you feel like it’s harder than ever to earn and keep your customers’ attention, that’s because it probably is.

Since the acceleration of the digital information age, business messages have increasingly had to compete with more than just their peers’ and competitors’—they’ve had to compete with every message their customers see on television, social media, email and more. This means the pizza shop down the road trying to promote its Thursday night special on Facebook to customers has only a split second to land its message before other posts from friends, families, and favorite bands, athletes and politicians take its place on their wall.

One way to think about this phenomenon is through the lens of economic theory—by looking at attention in the information age as a scarce resource similar to land or oil. Businesses that embrace this mindset and make decisions based on it may find that their product, messaging and sales ultimately end up being a bit stickier than ones they’d been deploying before.

The Economics of Attention

In a 1997 article in the Michigan Quarterly Review, Richard A. Lanham, author of The Economics of Attention, said, “In an information economy, what’s the scarce resource? Information, obviously. But information doesn’t seem to be in short supply. Just the opposite. We’re drowning in it. Coping with the ‘short supply’ has been compared with trying to drink out of a fire hose.”

Now in the days of constant media bombardment your company message has to be on point, succinct, and your branding clear so that the consumer can get you and your message in under two to three seconds.

 —Denise Buzy-Pucheu, founder and president, The Persnickety Bride

He went on to describe that one of the biggest challenges for businesses then was to stand out in the new information economy. Keep in mind too that Lanham wrote this in the ’90s, when the internet was still in its infancy. Today, with the whole world available at our fingertips, the scarcity of consumer attention is even worse.

With this theory in mind, how can you adjust and improve your business strategies?

Branding: Keep It Simple and Clear

If a customer sees your website, brochure or logo, you may only have a few seconds to get your point across. Try not to get overly cute or fancy and risk hiding information. If the message isn’t obvious, people might just move on before figuring it out. Instead, Denise Buzy-Pucheu, founder and president of bridal shop The Persnickety Bride, recommends laying out your value proposition immediately.

“Now in the days of constant media bombardment your company message has to be on point, succinct, and your branding clear so that the consumer can get you and your message in under two to three seconds,” she says. Make sure that when customers visit your website, they understand exactly what you do and what value you offer. Buzy-Pucheu recommends listing customer testimonials in a prominent place as well.

Your logo, slogan and materials should also let people know who you are and what you do in an instant. For example, a roofing company should consider using an image of a roof in their logo and all other materials. Keep this in mind as you’re building your brand. Every element that you choose to craft your brand—including the logo, font family, color palette, and even the name—can communicate who you are and what you do in that precious split-second window to consumers. 

Product or Service Offerings: Less Is More

When you’re planning your product or service line, it can seem like the more you offer, the better. Since everyone has different tastes, wouldn’t casting a wider net help your chances?

In a 2000 research study, psychologists from Columbia and Stanford University analyzed a grocery store selling jam. In one session, they offered six flavors and in the other, they offered 24. The researchers found that shoppers presented with fewer options were more likely to make a purchase.

This famous study has been reproduced with other products and services with similar results. Customers are already overwhelmed in the attention economy, so giving them too many choices doesn’t help. Focus on your key specialties. Not only does this help the client make a decision, it also makes you look like an expert in these specific areas.

Marketing: Quality Over Quantity

Even if you ramp up the number of ads, brochures and emails you send out, it’s still a drop in the bucket compared to everything out there. To stand out, Reuben Yonatan, founder and CEO of cloud communication company GetVOIP, believes less is more. “One great post is better than five average posts because it gives us time to focus on what our consumers need and generate valuable, relevant and impossible to ignore content.”

One way to do so is by using your specialized industry knowledge to create content that helps customers, rather than just to try to sell them. “There is no new idea under the sun, but there is always a fresh angle. We go above and beyond to find an angle that consumers have not seen elsewhere. It makes consumers curious enough to continue interacting with our brand,” said Yonatan.

You could take this even further by creating more engaging types of content, like infographics and quizzes. With your social media, you could post videos and photos that show off your unique personality and values, rather than just selling a product. Putting this extra effort into your marketing efforts can help you stand out even in an over saturated market.

Customer Experience: Leave a Lasting Impression

John Ward, account executive at decontamination company Mold Busters, believes that the key to landing referrals is by going the extra mile with your customer experience. “Any business can offer referral incentives to encourage their customers to spread the word, but first you need a product or service that they love,” he says. 

In whatever field you’re in, aim to deliver this superstar experience for your customers. If they leave satisfied, they are more likely to refer you to others. Customers often trust personal recommendations, so a warm referral can be the way for your business to overcome the endless ads of your competitors. 

As you work to land new customers, don’t forgot about your previous clients. There’s a general rule that it cost five times as much to land a new customer as to retain an existing one, and that makes sense given the economics of attention. With new clients, you’re just one of many strangers trying to get your foot in the door but with existing customers, you’ve already got that relationship.

Buzy-Pucheu uses a few strategies to stay in touch. “Engage your repeat clients on private Facebook pages and have them take polls on Instagram and Facebook to encourage participation with your company.” She also suggests contacting them about new product launches and other milestones for your business. While people may ignore messages from a stranger, they are more likely to learn more about your outreach given their past good experience.

Remember, customer attention is a scarce and precious good in our modern economy that shouldn’t be taken for granted. Keep that in mind as you plan your business strategies.

This article first appeared in

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