You ain’t seen ugly yet

Some aspects of business are just plain ugly. Consider the world of cellular service providers and directory assistance. T-Mobile (my carrier) and Verizon charge US$1.49 per directory enquiry, while AT&T and Sprint charge $1.79. I’ve read that the cost to carriers of handling a 411 call is between 25 cents and 50 cents (the service is actually provided by third-party bureaus), so carriers are getting a three- to six-time markup. Given the lack of competition in the cellular carrier market, this is tantamount to price fixing, which is really ugly.

As an alternative, we’ve seen free 411 services appear over the last couple of years such as 800-FREE411 and the now-defunct 800-411METRO. These services work by having you listen to a short advertisement before they provide you with the directory service. They trade on what is called “the attention economy.”

The idea of the attention economy is a powerful one which recognizes that there’s way too much information available and not enough human attention to consume it in the process of finding the useful stuff.

How much information is there? I just interviewed Dave Evans, chief technologist for the Cisco Internet Business Solutions Group, for a forthcoming Network World podcast about how fast technology is changing and what you’ll be dealing with in the next few years. The scale and growth projections are astounding.

This means that filtering the oceans of information will become an ever more valuable service for users, so I wonder what would happen if this model were to become an even bigger part of the world.

You already get ads in all of the search engine results, but what about when you fire up your PC? Perhaps we’ll have Windows Vista Free Edition and to log on you have to watch an ad brokered by Microsoft. Then to access the ‘Net you have to watch an ad from your free broadband provider. Fire up your free browser and an ad view is again required by the browser publisher.

It would be feasible to apply the attention-economy advertising model to pretty much any facility or service where users are looking to minimize their expenditure. Given the way the economy is going, that will apply to pretty much everyone and for everything. Only large businesses will actively avoid such services, but even then, trading a few seconds of employee’s attention by subjecting them to phone-based ads in exchange for cutting the phone bill in half could be compelling.

One thing that concerns me about this brave new advertising whirl is the privacy issue. With so many people collecting data on your behaviour as part of their attention-economy transactions, you are going to have to work considerably harder to not be an open book.

Will laws work? Not really. I think we’ve passed a critical political-event horizon where the flood of information is too great for any part of the government to do much more than go with the flow; a flow that is becoming ever-more directed by big business.

What all this means is that huge repositories of consumer-behaviour data will be sitting there waiting for any advertiser to come along and connect the dots. They will then fill in your outline, and the full might of the advertising world will focus on you and your organizations.

If there’s one thing certain about the future of the attention economy, it is that you ain’t really seen ugly yet. Just wait.