Attention, Trust, and Advertising

John Gruber, in his response to Jason Snell’s article regarding full-content RSS feeds, which was a response to Merlin Mann’s frustration with non-full-content RSS feeds:

If you’ve got a model where revenue is tied only to web page views, switching to full-content RSS feeds will hurt, at least in the short term. The problem, I say, isn’t with full-content RSS feeds, but rather with a business model that hinges solely on web page views. The precious commodity that we, as publishers, have to offer advertisers is the attention of our readers. Web page views are a terribly inaccurate, if not outright misleading, metric for attention. Subscribers to a full-content RSS feed are among the readers paying the most attention, but generate among the least web page views.

A reader asking for a full-content RSS feed is a reader who wants to pay more attention to what you publish. There have to be ways to thrive financially from that.

John’s 100% right: “The precious commodity that we, as publishers, have to offer advertisers is the attention of our readers.”

But it doesn’t stop there. If attention is the resource, trust is what makes that resource valuable. Because trust turns attention into permission.

Seth Godin:

Permission marketing is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them.

It recognizes the new power of the best consumers to ignore marketing. It realizes that treating people with respect is the best way to earn their attention.

Pay attention is a key phrase here, because permission marketers understand that when someone chooses to pay attention they are actually paying you with something precious. And there’s no way they can get their attention back if they change their mind. Attention becomes an important asset, something to be valued, not wasted.

The most effective ads are the ones placed within a permission-based content model, because it’s a model built on trust. One friend recommending something to another friend is worth its weight in marketing gold.

Here’s an interesting side note: In general, the months which generate the highest percentage of click-through rates for the Fusion Ads displayed on are not the months with the highest page views. Rather they are the months in which I write the most.

If, during a month, the bulk of this site’s traffic comes from external links to a popular article I wrote, click-through percentages are lower for that month. If the bulk of the traffic comes from regular readers visiting the site to read then click-through percentages are higher.

In short: Attention alone does not make the ads more effective. (Even though during those months with higher page views I had the attention of more people unacquainted visitors don’t click on the Fusion Network ads nearly as much as regular readers do.)

Attention alone does not create the most valuable opportunity for an advertiser. Interruption marketing is also based on attention, but it’s forced attention rather than volunteered. (When was the last time you bought something from a door-to-door salesman or a telemarketer?) If you, as a reader, don’t trust me, or John, or Macworld, or The Atlantic, or whomever, then you won’t give us your attention. And you certainly won’t give us permission to place ads in front of you so we can continue writing and still afford put food on our tables.

John’s RSS sponsorship model is not a new idea. Websites have been trying to use their RSS feed to monetize their site for nearly a decade. But much of it is based on the same idea that “impressions equal value”. Impressions do not equal value, impact does. And impact comes through trust. While Digg and Slashdot can generate page views, only the publisher can generate trust.