Paid Attention: Quantifying the Attention Economy

Chris Marshall
6 min readJan 26, 2022

The average American spends 8.8 hours (37%) of their day sleeping (American Time Use Survey, 2019). For the remaining 15.2 hours (63%) where we freely decide how we allocate our time and attention. Attention is “a state in which cognitive resources are focused on certain aspects of the environment rather than on others.” (American Psychology Association). I think this is just a fancy way of saying attention is where you choose to spend your time. For the next 5 minutes I hope to have your attention — an amount of time which you will come to learn is worth $6.18.

The reality is that we spend most of our time working, eating, doing household chores. During this time our attention is in a constant state of disruption. We are reading the news while eating breakfast, leering at our phones while watching a movie, or writing an email while on a zoom call. How we give our attention varies. A universal truth; however, is that our attention is limited, scare, and highly valuable. Presumably we, as rational humans, spend time on activities that give us the greatest reward. We spend time working to earn money, we spend time cooking to provide for our family, or we spend time organizing our routine.

It is no surprise that how and where we spend our time dictates where our available attention will be. It follows that where our attention goes, so do our wallets. Time and attention in a grocery store ends in a financial transaction — us spending money on groceries. Think of the last five trips out of your house, where did you go? How many of those trips ended with you spending money. The answer will vary, but it is likely that a majority of your trips ended with you spending some hard earned cash.

This relationship between money and attention is the cornerstone of the attention economy — the management of our available attention resources. This is an equation that the world’s largest brands are keenly aware of. The more attention a brand or company can command during your waking hours the more valuable that brand becomes. That is why we see the world’s largest brands and platforms are making moves to capture and increased share of our attention. They know that there are 365 days in a year and we are spending 199 of them with our eyes and ears watching, listening, and interacting with to people we will never meet in places we will never or can’t go. Amazon, an eCommerce platform provides provides Amazon Prime Video to suck up our non-shopping and non-browsing attention. Disney once captured our attention we few hours every year with theatrical releases or our full attention with a theme park stay, but they reached into our living rooms with Disney+ creating more occasions to consume the Mouse. The list continues, Apple TV+, Netflix’s entry into gaming, YouTube TV, Twitter Spaces, or Spotify buying up mega-podcasts. Media consumption has become a feature of major brands with the purpose of owning as many available minutes of your day as possible. This is all based on the premise that your attention has value. Just think how more likely you are to consider, buy or recommend an iPhone iPhone if it comes with thousands of hours of premium movies and shows.

The reality is that these platform’s are winning more and more of our attention. Here are key figures that will help you understand and quantify the attention economy.

86% of your day is being monetized

In 2021, the average average American spent 13.1 hours of their available 15.2 hours consuming traditional and digital media. This leaves just over 2 hours of your daily experience uninterrupted by media.

Time spent with media trend

Our time spent with media has increased roughly 1% each of the past 10 years. It appears that we are completely tapped out. In 2020, when the pandemic pushed us to our max, we held the line at 1.8 hours of our day not consuming media. With the upper bound or attention defined, brands and marketers are left to do battle for their share of our time and attention.

Your attention is 41% more valuable than it was 10 years ago

In the past 10 years, our collective time spent with media increased by 15% (from 689 minutes per day in 2011 to 791 minutes in 2021). In the same period, total advertising spend has increased by 72% (from $157B in 2011 to $270B in 2021). The ad marketplace has already sensed the attention scarcity — we have no more time to give. This mounting pressure has raises the cost per attention minute from $0.73 to $1.03 (41%) over the last 10 years.

Our unwillingness to spent more time with media in conjunction with a shift from ad supported media to non-ad supported environments is choking viable ad supply creating a highly competitive and pricey advertising market. Industry forecasts indicate a further increase in price of attention minute by an estimated 19% by 2021

30% of your waking hours are spent looking at your phone

We spent nearly four and a half hours staring into a glass screen. For many, the idea of putting on a VR head set is inconceivable — but these same people hold a 6 inch screen 6 inches from their eyes (note: I am these people). The fact that our lives are media habits are more digital today than they were 10 years ago should not surprise anyone with a pulse. This is in large part due to improved mobile technology, faster connections, and unrelenting content to consume, but we have to recognize that capturing attention is a zero sum game.

Media delivered through digital channels is increasing stranglehold on out eyes and ears. Streaming audio has taken share of attention from terrestrial radio, streaming video has taken over our linear TV viewing— perhaps it is time to retire designation of whether or not an activity is “digital.”

Your attention is worth $816 dollars per day

We often struggle to calculate our worth. We compare ourselves to our peers and managers. We assess our salary and wages in the context of those around us. But the market value of your attention is determined by what someone is willing to pay for it — and the advertising industrial complex is willing to pay plenty. In 2021, a total of $270 billion dollars was spent on traditional and digital advertising. That $270 billion was spend capturing a total of 262 billion minutes spend with media. This equates to a $1.03 value of a minute of your attention. In the same year, the Average American spend 792 minutes consuming media. Some fast math helps us quantify what you are worth. Here is some perspective: $815 per day, $5,705 per week, $24,449 per month, $297,465 per year. And a whopping $2.5M over the past 10 years.

What is even more shocking is that the this is forecasted to increased by 20% in the next 2 years. By 2023 you individually will be worth $350,361 per year to advertisers and $1,048,027 over the next 3 years.

Final Thoughts

In researching this topic it has become as scary as it is interesting. You can interpret what is written here in any way you’d like, but know that this article is not a clarion call to change your ways, or a warning against a life dominated by media. What you choose to do with that attention is entirely up to you. But know that your time and attention has real quantifiable value and its value is increasing every day.

Sources for this article include: eMarketer, American Time Use Survey, American Psychology Association

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Chris Marshall

Media, creative, and data expert. I am a product developer and integrator of things. I am a dad, former founder, and generally curious ab all things innovation.