What We All Really Want: Attention

I'd like to be bold and boil down thousands of conversations I've had over the past 10 years as well as about 5 years of After Thought columns into one word: attention.

Entrepreneurs, CEOs, and business owners want people to pay attention to their companies. Marketers, PR pros, advertisers, and salespeople are on the payroll for one reason: to generate attention. Truth be told, the editor of this magazine, Michelle Manafy, my contributing editor colleagues, and I all want you to pay attention to us.

There seem to be four main ways to generate attention today. I evaluate companies on a regular basis, and it appears that they are spending too much time, money, and effort on three of these ways. They don't work hard enough on the fourth, which is to earn attention by publishing great information online that people will find. First, let me define the four ways to get attention:

You can buy attention (this is called advertising). You buy access to people through commercials, magazine and newspaper ads, the Yellow Pages, billboards, trade shows, direct mail lists, and the like. Advertising agency staffers are really good at buying attention. The problem is that whenever you have an attention problem and you consult an advertising agency, the solution always involves buying attention.

You can beg for attention (this is called public relations). You beg for access via editorial gatekeepers at radio and TV stations, magazines, newspapers, journals, and, these days, bloggers, podcasters, and other social media. The word "beg" may sound extreme. But in my former life as VP of corporate communications for econtent companies, I did feel a bit like a beggar. And these days I get a multitude of pitches from people (usually PR agency staffers) who want me to write about something in this column, my blog, or books, and many of these pitches have a whiff of desperation about them. PR professionals are good at begging for attention. The problem is that whenever you have an attention problem and you consult a public relations agency, the solution always involves generating attention from third parties.

You can bug people one at a time to get attention (this is called sales). You knock on doors, call, send personal emails, or wait for individuals to walk into your showroom. Again, sorry about the loaded nature of the word "bug," but that's how I feel when I'm confronted with pushy sales tactics. Salespeople are really good at getting attention one person at a time. The problem is that whenever you have an attention problem and you consult a sales professional, the solution always involves generating attention one person at a time.

You can earn attention online (there is debate on what this is called-people refer to creating information on the web as "inbound marketing," "new marketing," "social media marketing," "content marketing," and "permission marketing"). No matter what you call it, this approach involves creating something interesting and then publishing it online for free: a YouTube video, a blog, a research report, photos, a Twitter stream, an ebook, a Facebook page, and the like. Increasing cadres of social media gurus claim to be really good at generating attention through social media. The problem is that whenever you have an attention problem and you consult a social media guru, the solution always involves earning attention by publishing content online.

Most organizations have a corporate culture based on one of these approaches to generating attention (examples: Procter & Gamble primarily generates attention through advertising, Apple via PR, EMC via sales, and Zappos via social media). Often, the defining organizational culture is determined because the founder or the CEO has a strong point of view. When the CEO comes up through the sales track, all attention problems are likely to become sales problems.

Chances are that your CEO did not come up via the social media track. So you'll probably have to work on your boss a bit to get him or her on board with option four. Since most organizations overspend on advertising and sales and underinvest in social media, this effort is well worth your time.

I recommend that every businessperson be familiar with all four ways of generating attention. You must also make an effort to understand the point of view of the person you are talking with to garner attention. Know your intermediaries and know your audience. You also need to be prepared to tackle the inevitable push back about earning attention through what I call the new rules of marketing and PR.