The Coming Battle for Long Attention Patterns

Facebook are moving into long-form video, and they might not stop there.

How do you decide how to spend your attention? Growing up in the ‘golden era’ of TV and print media in the 1980s, there was a limited choice. You could scan the TV guide to see what was on one of the limited number of channels, or read a newspaper, magazine, or book.

If you asked the same question now, it would be far more complex. The options for spending our attention have grown exponentially, and we have in turn become far more sophisticated in how we spend our attention. But it isn’t just about more choice — the patterns of how we spend our attention have changed as well.

The Attention Pattern Spectrum

Looking back to the late 20th century, it’s remarkable how limited these patterns were. Because of the economic and technical limitations of the distribution channels, most content was designed for patterns that lasted between thirty minutes and two hours. The business models of television, movies and print was focused on these attention patterns. A film that lasted 5 mins, or 3 hours, was more likely to be seen in festivals or art galleries than a local cinema. The only TV programmes that lasted longer than 30mins or an hour were movies or live sport — the native formats for TV all strictly conformed to fit the hour/half-hour TV schedule.

Over the last decade, the growth of smartphones and social streams has created ways to deliver — and crucially, monetise — content for attention patterns that are far shorter than 30mins. Although companies like Blogger, Twitter and Vine played a crucial role in developing the products and business models for these shorter patterns of attention, Facebook has emerged as the big winner, almost completely monopolising advertising income on mobile and social streams.

But something else happened at the same time. Just as we’ve got used to scrolling through mobile screens on our thumbs, clicking to look at memes or short videos that typically last only a few minutes, our attention patterns have also extended upwards, past the one to two hour limit of late 20th century TV and movies.

Unlike mobile streams, there is, as yet, no one platform or provider dominating our longer attention patterns in the way that Facebook dominates the social stream. This might be because the decisions we make around these patterns are more complex — these are things we choose to organise our attention around, carving out the time in our daily lives to immerse ourselves in a Netflix drama, podcast series, console game or live stream.

On mobile streams, we want an easily browsable, constantly updating list of moderately distracting content, and we don’t really want to jump from platform to platform to find it. But when we want to immerse ourselves in longer attention patterns, we seem happier to pick different platforms based on the context of our attention — do we want to listen to audio stories while we’re driving or taking a long train journey? Hunker down on the sofa with the family to binge-watch a favourite comedy or drama? Or get together with online friends for a few hours of gaming? There is no single service or product that owns all of these longer attention patterns — Amazon has yet to really crack gaming, Apple still sees TV as a ‘hobby’, and Microsoft closed its Xbox Entertainment Studio in 2014.

Why Facebook is moving into Television

In the last month, we’ve seen lots of rumours that Facebook is now looking to commission longer video, similar to the half hour/hour lengths of traditional scheduled television. It’s clear why this is strategically important to Facebook — the market for display advertising around shorter attention patterns is pretty much saturated, and some publishers are starting to move content out of Facebook as the returns don’t justify the investment.

There is still a huge amount of money spent on TV advertising, and getting users to spend enough time watching video on Facebook to run ad-breaks full of 30 second spots would mean Facebook could claim a chunk of this ad spend.

This is one of the interesting, and weird, aspects of the advertising market — it’s essentially cannibalistic. Over the last century, the ratio of money spent on advertising in the US has been pretty much static, at around one to two percent of GDP:

The changes in the sector have, instead, been between the various platforms. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Advertising was split entirely between newspapers and magazines. Then the broadcasting revolution started, first with radio, then TV, eating advertising budget until, by the end of 20th century, scheduled broadcast media was responsible for around 50% of all advertising spend.

Look at the chart above, and it’s clear that the rise of internet advertising in the early 21st century has been almost completely at the cost of newspapers — TV ad spend has hardly been affected. So this is why competing for ad dollars with television is the next logical step for Facebook — there’s far more scope for ad sales growth in competing for traditional 30 second spots ad dollars than there is in newspaper-like display advertising.

Could Facebook own the entire attention pattern spectrum?

Facebook’s business strategy might be to build out their platform until it is the single most popular destination for the entire attention pattern spectrum. Imagine if Facebook managed to park their tanks all the way from the left hand side to the right hand side of this chart, making them the first-choice platform for every single attention pattern in our daily lives:

That would be a scary outcome indeed, not just because of their domination of ad markets, but because every content producer would have to play by Facebook’s rules to reach an audience. Publishers are already getting very annoyed with Facebook’s dominance of the mobile stream, so imagine the outcry if they owned every screen in the living room as well.

But I don’t think that would happen for a couple of reasons. Firstly, we’re in a bubble for premium long-form video content at the moment, with Netflix and Amazon Prime fighting with existing broadcasters and cable providers for the best talent. If investment continues to grow at the same rate , there will be diminishing returns for everyone, both in terms of audiences, and ad sales.

Secondly, the longer end of the attention spectrum is structurally more diverse than the shorter end. The Stream is overwhelming dominated by Facebook, viewed on mobile phones, and subsidised by display advertising. But long-form content has many different business models, including subscription, direct sales and bundling. This is why Facebook launching subscription products for news is an interesting new development. They clearly recognise that they have to diversify their income models to move further up the attention spectrum. Although the subscription feature is being trialled for news, if it takes off, I would bet on Facebook offering it to premium video producers as well.

But if I was a broadcaster with a business model that relied on selling 30 second spot ads between half-hour or hour long programmes, I would be very worried indeed. Digital advertising now is like broadcast advertising in the early 1940s. Radio had already captured about 20% of the ad sales market by then, but the really big disruption — television — was only just beginning to emerge. It might not be Facebook, but something will come along to take broadcast TV’s share of the ad sales pie, and it will happen sooner rather than later.

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Director of Runs,, and lots of other stuff.

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Matt Locke

Matt Locke

Director of Runs,, and lots of other stuff.

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