Blog Post

The Economics of Attention: Why There Are No Second Chances on the Internet

In my last Om Says, Why Some Apps Works and Some Don’t, I started to explore one of my core theses — the growing importance of the economics of attention and how it relates the success and failure of Internet (and mobile) applications.

I believe that the economics of attention is much more ruthless and unforgiving than the real economic underpinning of a product. What I mean is that you can find money for your company from an investor, but it wouldn’t really matter if you don’t have users’ attention.

This is a hard reality that has been obvious in highly competitive and somewhat subjective marketplaces. Hollywood movies, music and even fashion are markets where “attention” determines the outcome. As far as I am concerned, the Internet and mobile applications fall in the same category.

No Second Chances

And just as it is hard for a movie to recover from a bad opening weekend, today’s “apps” are likely to lose their place in the marketplace if they don’t make a good first impression.

For nearly a decade, the start-up mantra has been release early and release often,” a concept that first was applied successfully in the development of Linux. I think it is time to amend that line of thinking a little. That means that developers will have to find a balance between the speed of offering a service and the promise of happiness and utility from the get-go.

If an app makes you happy or if it is useful, then you will more likely focus on the positive and overlook the shortcomings, argues Chaitanya Sareen, co-creator of the foodie app, Chewsy.

MVP + Happiness + Utility = Early Traction

Sareen makes a good point. If you look at some of the more successful products, they found early traction because they combined a concept popularized by Eric Ries as the “minimum viable product” and “happiness/utility.”

I distinctly remember the day I downloaded MoveableType’s blogging software and installed it on my server. It was an arduous process, but in the end it was worth it because it made my blogging experience so much better. Ben and Mena Trott added features as they went along, but it was that first stage of “satisfaction” and “happiness” that made me use the platform for nearly four years.

It is hard for any of us to remember that Google’s Gmail was a pretty bare-bones product when it first launched, but it had search and seemingly unlimited storage, which helped us focus on the upside and less on the downside. Ditto for Apple’s iPhone 1.0, which seems downright dowdy compared to its younger siblings. It was so delightful that we put up with AT&T’s terrible network, the lack of copy-and-paste and long wait lines.

What Doesn’t Work?

Now compare these examples with the likes of search engine Cuil, video platform Joost and more recently Color — they all found themselves in a hole from the minute they launched. All the focus was on their shortcomings.

Before focusing on the latest whipping boy of the web, Color Labs, I wanted to point your attention to Joost, one of the most anticipated startups of its time. As an early enthusiast, I loved the possibilities of the company, which was started by Skype co-founders Niklas Zennstram and Janus Friis.

It had pretty much everything going for it, and yet it flopped. It had gained so many early adopters but it didn’t have content for them and it didn’t know how to solve the technology problems it faced.

Cuil, which was co-founded by an all-star team from Google, had similar issues — it had a ton of money ($33 million and change) and an idea that made perfect sense. Except it wasn’t able to deliver on its original promise — to out-Google Google — and to it all, the site went down when faced with an onslaught of visitors to the website.

Cuil lacked that aha feeling that keeps end-users coming back for more. The service’s initial promise turned into a negative experience, and the company failed to recover. Joost and Cuil are cautionary tales for anyone, and I cannot but notice eerie similarities between the three companies

  • Exceptionally well-known and talented founders.
  • Big hairy audacious goals
  • Tons of initial investment money
  • Promoting a new consumer usage behavior
  • Lack the happiness/utility balance

I would argue that the Joost and Cuil failures came at a time when social media amplification was not as effective as it is today. Today, the sentiment good or bad news gets amplified very quickly, thanks to the growing number of people using Facebook and Twitter. Furthermore, it takes a lot longer for those waves of negativity to slow down.

Now if there was only a little competition on the market, then Color could find its way back to the forefront, but these days there are just too many options. Tomorrow there will be a new hot app, and another and another. And if you miss your chance once, then as I said earlier, you are toast.

So What Does Work?

In my post mortem of Joost, I wrote:

Remember what your mom used to say when you took too big of a bite? If you’re not careful, you’re going to choke. Startups are just like that. Unless you focus, you’re going to choke. Joost couldn’t focus on one single market — and startups need to focus on one market at a time in order to win.

What that means is that you need to do one thing and do it well. If you are making a mobile app, then you focus on developing for one platform — one that offers the path of least resistance, has the highest market penetration and, more importantly, is the platform of choice for the people who are likely to use and talk about your product. In the U.S. at least, developing for Apple’s iOS platform is a good bet.

And once you have made the platform choice, I think it is important to get the user experience just right, even if it means holding out for a couple of weeks.

With over 650,000 apps across multiple mobile platforms and tens of thousands of web services, it is pretty clear that there are no second chances on today’s Internet.

15 Responses to “The Economics of Attention: Why There Are No Second Chances on the Internet”

  1. Thanks for the thought-evoking post. Your point regarding “promoting a new consumer usage behavior,” describes the predominant ingredient for market adoption. A perceived or real reason to change consumer behavior. I had no idea why I needed Joost. Cool, sure, but Joost wasn’t enough of a mind changer add something to my already over-digitized day. Consumers change slowly – not abruptly – even in the fast world of “social media amplification,” good or bad.

    I know why I keep buying iPhones – I perceived I needed a single device for my music, and my phone, and my photos. Yes, I am an Apple junkie; the 12-step program didn’t work. Apple already trained me like a circus monkey to download portable digital media and understand apps with iTunes and iPods (and widgets to a lesser degree). Also, it wasn’t so very different than my mobile phone at the time which was a RIM Blackberry – it had a screen and apps too, but those keys were so SMALL and I hated the thing. Now I was familiar a new form factor: the touch screen. So lo and behold, when the iPad came out, I was not a virgin to the technology and snapped one right up.

    The same holds true for applications. What makes me use apps and stick with them? At least right now, an app takes real world behavior (gaming, printing, signing PDFs, booking travel, reading) and moves them in a useful way to the new platform and even a big brand that I use in my daily life – like my bank. But to keep me from tapping the little “x” on the nervously shaking apps on my screen and flushing your one-trick pony from my precious screen-top real estate…don’t make me change to understand what you do. Understand what I do instead and you’ll be one of those shaking apps that won’t be so nervous the next time I hold down my finger on the screen.

  2. Kathy Sierra

    “better to release half a product than a half-assed product”
    — the book “Rework”

    Excellent post, Om!
    Novel and screenplay writers have kind of a similar notion… “Start well. Because you can’t sit next to your reader and say, ‘no, stick with it, trust me, it will get better later on…'”

  3. The wonderful world of attention:
    Let me demonstrate a few things about it:
    Please follow the link to Havard vision lab in a new tab.
    Follow the instructions and come back:

    This is basically what publish early and often meant in the past the part without motion. Only App stores with their constant rotation changed the rules. One might loose track of changes.
    Now one could bring the following hypotheses forward:
    Things in motion do not change color or form, so the brain in its evolutionary process focuses on motion and filters things which are rally happening in nature out.

    Only math tells us otherwise. So if you haven’t already broken it, all engineers brake things as soon as they have the slightest idea how they work, that’s why they are not MDs. Let’s brake it. Go back and do not follow the rules, look directly at the dots not at the static middle point, another way is to blink in rhythm with the change, distance to focus, or many other ways.

    Woops, now one can see some parts change at all times but not all. Why? Attention is feedback based, like all context, it has a past present and future. Every time you focus you alter perceived surrounding reality, that’s why there is a Steve Jobs reality distortion field. He knows how to focus people. Focus on moving parts and it filters moving parts, focus on static and it delivers static, magician know that intuitively without the math. Emotions are a really really strong feedback loop, use it to focus your customers and you might become Apple or brake Apple.

    Problem is most people and specially in marketing have really weird ideas how attention works, why do they put moving parts where people focus on text or visa versa? That might work only where one hasn’t focused yet, after focus game over. Or distract from focus, in which case it annoys, since if gives the feeling of cognitive dissonance (predicts to do something but doesn’t or different, … for an over simplified explanation)

    The point is: Developers focusing on one thing is well, one thing. Developers focusing their customers is a whole new ball game.

  4. I agree, focus is where success lies. Like you said focus on one goal and outcome. The problem lies when you try to please everybody without focusing on your main targeted group. Do your diligence, understand your product and service, know your demographics and stick to it. Then you can branch off and expand

  5. Om, great article! In product development, this is a brutally difficult process that’s dogged us for generations. Getting to the minimal product can be a painful process because invariably there are hard debates about what features need to be in the first product. What’s important to the UX for one person may be totally unimportant to another.
    Ultimately, I’ve seen the need for a “Steve Jobs” character in charge of each product. Someone with a product vision that unifies the team. Someone who is brutal – “we MUST improve this aspect of the UX and will not ship without” and “those features are totally unnecessary, cut them”. I believe this is where design by committee fails.
    Once an excellent (but imperfect) product is launched, you can start iterating, but you better have a compelling product from the get-go. As you say “there are no second chances on today’s Internet.”

  6. If there are no second chances for apps, then surely the same applies to the mobile operating systems that ride beneath them.

    Windows Phone 7 comes to mind. The quote about Colour also applies to WP7: “Now if there was only a little competition on the market, then [it] could find its way back to the forefront, but these days there are just too many options”.

    Mobile is an absolute cut-throat business, and that applies to every level of the stack, from hardware, OS to apps. A lackluster effort will get nowhere.

  7. I think the most common misunderstanding about the start-up mantra “release early and release often” is that this means that you don’t have to have a quality product.

    Well, you do ! However, you should release with a minimum set of features because you really don’t know what people actually want – so you start out with the basic features, release it, get feedback from *real* people, and then adjust, customize and improve.

    But if the quality on the “minimum viable product” is lousy, the social media will make sure that if you’re among the “lucky few” to get any attention at all, then this attention will be *negative* (and the “waves of negativity” will last for a long time, as you say) .

    In a world with an overload of new services and products, getting any attention from anyone is *hard*, so if you’re lucky enough to get it, you should have a quality (even if simple) product to avoid getting buried.

    Now, compared to a hollywood blockbuster, you can actually use the feedback and improve your product – and then release V2.0 of your product later and try to get some attention once again.

    I guess a good example of your “do one thing and do it well” combined with the “focus on one market at a time” is Facebook; start simple at Harvard, improve and extend reach to other colleges, improve and extend to the rest of the world etc.

    I’m therefore slightly more optimistic than you – I do believe there can be second chances on the internet, but not if you screw up at the beginning (“no second chance to make a first impression”) :-)

  8. I totally agree with the “focus on one thing and do it exceptionally good” part. The core experience of the product must be there and working properly. But further than that, anything else can be added later on, so “release early and release often” is still the way to go, as shown by the likes of hipmunk, airbnb, etc.

  9. There are some very good points here, but I would argue that saying “app devs should focus on a single platform initially” (I paraphrase) is off target. For certain categories of app, that does indeed make sense – Flipboard, for example, where you’re building as great a UI as possible and having a fixed target is helpful. Even games, like Angry Birds – it’s sensible to make it great on one platform first, have it prove itself, and then get it out everywhere else.

    But for a broader category of apps, those that act as the delivery portal to the company’s services, this makes less sense. I’m thinking of things like Catch/Evernote, the Kindle/Nook apps, cross-platform messaging apps, etc. There are more and more of these out there, and they thrive on their “anywhere-ness”, the ability to run on web, on desktop, and as apps on multiple platforms. Part of what “grabs attention” here, and provides that utility/enjoyment factor, is that everyone can use them. The dropbox app isn’t very intuitive or slick to use on mobile devices, but the service behind it is wonderful, and that’s what keeps us coming back for more.

    • I think if you look at all the names you brought up, they all found success on a single platform before expanding into multiple platforms.

      I think most underscore the complexity of handling multiple products – different OSes are different products with different interaction behaviors and you can botch it up nicely — for a small company launching a product.

      Of course, once you get the first platform right, it is time to scale really really fast.

  10. Great couple of posts and totally agree on your formula “MVP + Happiness + Utility = Early Traction”. We actually started right with that approach (sharing virtual gifts on Facebook: MVP, utility, happiness) and got the early adopters. Then we evolved the app into a very complete sharing platform. With that approach we have been in the Top 10 social networking for over a year and half.
    We just started blogging about our experience ( that matches under many aspects your train of thoughts here.