A picture of me standing at a lectern, working on a laptop computer, on the stage of the FWD50 digital government conference

Hi! I’m Alistair. I write surprisingly useful books, run unexpectedly interesting events, & build things humans need for the future.

Most enterprise innovation problems are attention problems

In 1882, things were pretty simple. If you made a good product, you won. This is before the era of broadcast media, mass production, and even what we think of as advertising today.

That year, Ralph Waldo Emerson said,

“If a man has good corn, or wood, or boards, or pigs to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.”

Seven years later, Emerson was quoted as saying, “If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor…” Later, writer and salesman Elbert Hubbard put his copywriting spin on it, and it became the familiar saying, “if you can build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door.”

Picture by Whatleydude on Flickr. Used under a creative commons license.

It’s something we’ve believed for a century, which is a pity. It’s a damned lie, from an irrelevant time—and yet it’s what most enterprise marketers do. They write press releases, spec sheets, and web copy to convince the world they’ve built the best mousetrap, and then cross their fingers and hope someone comes to the door.

It’s wrong because in many cases, the products are the easy part. It’s the attention that’s hard.

In the early seventies, a brilliant researcher named Herbert Simon observed that we don’t live in an information economy.

This was heresy at the time. We were just getting started with data and computing. Fueled by science fiction, we imagined a future of jet-packs and personal robots. And while the information available in the seventies seems but a thin trickle to today’s data deluge, we still thought it was a lot. Alvin Toffler was writing Future Shock, and John Bruner’s The Shockwave Rider fictionalized many of those ideas, freaking out an entire generation of open-minded, self-styled, post-hippy thinkers.

Simon was a smart guy. He realized that economies are driven by what’s scarce—oil, gold, land—and not by what’s abundant, because economics is the study of supply and demand. What’s abundant defines what’s scarce, or more specifically, what’s scarce is whatever the abundant thing consumes. He said it better than that:

“…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence 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”

With this statement, he’s credited with laying the foundations of attention economics.

The problem with traditional marketing is that it creates information—which is competing with an abundance of information. Once you have customers you get lazy. When you have 0% market share, every problem is an attention problem. So you align your whole organization with the capturing of attention. On the other hand, when you have significant market share, you focus on other things—margins, minimizing churn, and so on. In an information-saturated world, you’re always competing for attention.

Instead of creating more information, enterprises need to hack attention. Once I have your attention, I can do anything with it. I can innovate; I can ask you to spread the word; I can experiment with pricing; I can upsell.

It’s no longer true that the world will beat a path to your door for a better mousetrap. Instead, if you can get the world to your doorstep, it will tell you what kind of mousetrap to build. And it just may be a fire hydrant.

And for reading this far, here’s the little-known documentary about Toffler’s Future Shock, featuring Orson Welles. Boy, did it get some things wrong.