Your Attention Please

As the mass market fragments, the Web opens up ways to put it together again

If you want to know why media and advertising executives look so grim these days, spend a few nanoseconds with Adrianna Montague-Gray. That's all the time she's got. The 28-year-old public relations manager at a New York nonprofit group hasn't bought a daily newspaper in four years and rarely watches television. Instead, she flits like a hummingbird from one new Internet medium to the next -- scanning Web log posts at Bloglines (IACI ), tuning into her own customized online radio at, sharing articles with friends on Yahoo's (YHOO ) Web bookmarking service, downloading podcasts from National Public Radio. Says Montague-Gray: "I like being able to read or watch what I want, when I want."

It's not just that media is splintering, as it has been for decades. The difference now is that the Internet is thrusting that trend into overdrive. With every quick click, millions of people like Montague-Gray are slicing and dicing media into ever-tinier little bits, just the nuggets they want and nothing more. And by the millions, they're reassembling them into personalized digital channels of their own choosing -- all too often, minus the advertisements that sustain nearly all media today. The result: a serious case of attention deficit for every business that depends on traditional mass media to reach customers.

It's an affliction plaguing everyone from master marketers such as Coca-Cola (KO ) and Ford (F ) to ad agencies to newspaper chains, TV and radio networks, even Internet powerhouses like Yahoo and Microsoft's (MSFT ) MSN. They're all scrambling to answer the central conundrum of their existence: How do you reach folks who don't sit still long enough to see or hear ads -- and who use their iPods and TiVo (TIVO )s to vaporize them instantly?

Truth be told, too many marketers and media outlets have no clue. But there's a glimmer of hope emerging for these embattled industries. Because even as the Montague-Grays of the world are disassembling media in the Digital Age, they're also reconstructing it. In these millions of networks-of-one lies a surprising opportunity: the chance to engage the masses one by one instead of hoping some ad punches through the flatlined brains of couch potatoes.

String together enough of these micro-markets of customers, the thinking goes, and you will get something that adds up to a new kind of a mass market. After all, the same Net that lets people decide what to watch or read also helps media and marketers to target them with unprecedented accuracy and efficiency. By their very online actions -- links on their blogs, the digital breadcrumbs left by their Web browsing, the reviews they post on Inc. (AMZN ), the video clips they share on MySpace -- these new mini- media moguls essentially reveal exactly what they want to watch or read or buy.


But what matters is not how many eyeballs you pull into a Web page. More than ever, the key is what they're doing there. Hours spent building a MySpace page may end up having no economic value; a split-second click to a mortgage ad is something for which a lender may pay $50. So in the new world of micromarkets and accompanying micromedia, simply getting people's attention isn't enough, says Don Tapscott, co-author of the upcoming book Wikinomics, about the sweeping impact of mass collaboration on business. Instead, he says, the key is catching that attention at the "instant of truth" -- when people are ready to buy -- and providing just the right information they need to make a decision.

A few leaders are finally doing just that. At Nike Inc. (NKE ), marketers are moving beyond ads to engage online communities of fanatic customers whose word-of-mouth strengthens the brand. A 21st century ad agency, Efficient Frontier, is showing how math and technology can target specific groups of shoppers, so that they're more likely to pay attention to the ads. And perhaps most surprising of all, the British Broadcasting Corp. is handing its programming over to viewers for them to remix and reformulate, engaging their attention at a much deeper level.

Here's a look at how each of these three companies -- an innovative consumer products marketer, a newfangled advertising middleman, and a traditional media outlet -- is shining a light on how to navigate this strange new digital landscape. (Read on for the next installment, "Nike: It's Not a Show, It's a Community")

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By Heather Green and Robert D. Hof

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