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.