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Twitter And (Not) Monetizing The Attention Economy

Posted by: Jon Fine on March 31, 2009

I’ve been playing with the following notion for days now. By posting it here I hope to get it out of my head, and also enlist all of you to help me make sense of it.

Twitter is ushering in the purest and truest of all economies for media, if “truest” means “most like high school”: on Twitter, attention—-your following—is the only currency available for those that produce its content. (Content: an ugly word I strive to avoid. But, what, you think “tweets” is better?)

Attention, for makers of media, was once measured in circulation or ratings, back when attention was measured by meaty metrics that were immediately translatable into dollars. You’re a daily newspaper and you beat your competition bad enough to spike your circulation—well, that’s more cash in your pocket immediately. (And you can start charging higher ad rates to your advertisers.) You’re a TV station or a radio station or a cable station and your ratings go up; you can get more from your advertisers to reach your bigger audience.

The value of attention began eroding once web traffic entered into it, since the monetization of attention—audience—is so much harder online. Just ask your local newspaper, if you still have one, or the new York Times. So you have a steady slide downward in what people who produce what we call “content” can get from attention; a TV ratings point or circulation bump is worth way more than a web traffic bump. (This is especially true if the only monetization tools you have are the generic options, like Google AdSense or signing up with the ad networks that are broadly depressing the prices of online ad inventory.)

Which brings us to Twitter, the endpoint of the decline in the value of attention.

Twitter equals pure attention for the people who “succeed” on it—that is, draw in a huge coterie of followers. (It’s also extremely personal, which is why it’s so seductive. It's certainly sucking up a chunk of my attention, at least for the time being.) But there are no direct dollars in it for those who score zillions of followers, and no way to see how they can make any dough from Twitter. In-tweet ads? If Google and YouTube can’t figure out how to make in-video ads work on YouTube—an ad form that people have been consuming since birth—how will anyone make an ad embedded within an IM work?

Yes, there are bloggers who blog for the love of it, not the dollars of it. But even they can throw up an adsense link and get something at the end of the month, even if it’s literally just a few bucks.

Yes, there were some people who translated “famous on MySpace" into something financially tangible in the real world. The ever-noxious and muskrat-like Tila Tequila leveraged a talent for wearing scanty outfits into a gazillion myspace friends into a recording deal with A & M and an actual, god help us all, TV show. Twitter is a textbased service. Stars rise like Tequila won’t rise on it. (For this, we can be thankful.)

Yes, Twitter, for its users, is best conceived as a new promotional thingie to drive someone somewhere else/build awareness of a personal brand, etc. But I actually believe Twitter will find a way to make some coin off its service—in the barest, basest and crudest form, all they gotta do is slap a text ad or two on its pages The thing is, though, that there’s no reason to share any of that with the users who are generating Twitter’s content. It is a MySpace/Facebook model of generating content—that is, something people will do for free.

Thus, the perfect attention economy. Because attention is the only payment Twitter can offer its users. The ones who produce that which keeps people coming back to it.

Reader Comments

Allan Hoving

March 31, 2009 10:16 PM

Tweets are the raw material, the beginning not the end of the process. There will be filters and aggregators and other ways of adding value on top of these global conversations. And they will be monetized by advertising or subscription or sales of other goods and services or (as in my user-centric model at a combination thereof.

wasima wali

April 1, 2009 8:50 AM

Twitter sure is the ultimate Gobalization!!

Melanie Notkin

April 1, 2009 11:35 AM

I have two ways to monetize Twitter for the member-base.

#1 The value in Twitter is listening. CEOs and CMOs can leverage their natural curiosity about their consumers and people in general to listen, learn and innovate. Innovation in turn creates better products and services, which increases sales.

#2 Or you could be fortunate like I was and be offered an opportunity to have a sponsored conversation with your Twitter Followers. Disney invited me to host a conversation last month for the launch of their Pinocchio Blu-ray and DVD. It was incredibly successful and was lauded in the press. You can find the articles here
Or do a for #DisneySA, the tag used for all my sponsored Tweets. To learn more about how this works, I also blogged about the initiative here:


Bob Stewart

April 1, 2009 11:57 AM

I'll try to help you make sense of your "notion" from a different perspective. I've been engaged in Twitter over the past few months just trying to understand it. My first reaction was "Why the heck would anyone do this? I'm not interested in what Jon Fine had for breakfast."

I disagree with your "attention is the only payment" argument.

Each morning I read my Google Reader news aggregation. I read Slate for its summary of the major newspaper stories. Slate typically leads me to the New York Times. I read my mediabistro email(where I found your article). Sometimes I check my RSS reader to read blogs to which I subscribe. I ALWAYS scan Twitter.

For me Twitter is news, research, information. A rich, live stream of news, research, information. Yes, there are the self-indulgent ("my cat is stuck up the tree") and self-serving tweets("link to my website for fun & profit"), but I either ignore or eventually unfollow those people. But I have to admit that sometimes even the self-serving, self-indulgent tweets can be entertaining.

You need a tool like TweetDeck to filter and organize the constant stream; otherwise, you're dealing with an amorphous information blob.
But once you define what you're trying to learn from the stream, Twitter becomes an addictive, daily news and information source.

I followed the link to your Twitter profile and scanned your messages. From politics to the state of the media industry to your resemblance to Elvis Costello, you offer some insightful, interesting, and yes, even sometimes self-indulgent comments. Don't be frightened in a stalker-sort-of-way but I'll probably start to follow you.

You have 1531 followers and you're following twenty-six. You've made 334 updates. You've embedded shortened URLs to preserve the allotted 140 characters. Scattered through your tweets are some @replies but not too many. I didn't notice any retweets in which you pass along someone else's message.

Here's the perspective. There's no right way to use twitter but you're on the other side of the user spectrum from me. I've spent most my time listening. You've spent most your time talking. I've started to send more tweets and engage in the conversation. I'm trying to do my fair share and contribute more. To see your "attention" argument from a different perspective I'd recommend that you follow more people, listen to what they have to say, and react to their ideas.

Twitter or something like Twitter will figure out how to best monetize microblogging as will some users. And, yes, there will be a small tier of users for whom the main payment will be "attention". But even though I haven't come close to truly understanding the impact of Twitter and microblogging, the one big click I've had about Twitter and social media is that it isn't a "thing" or a "tool", it's more an underlying philosophy about how we communicate and exchange information and ideas. Not just the 140 character limit but more the underlying concept of openly sharing and collaborating. Not to go off a Zen-like deep-end, but that represent a far different payment for most users than just attention.

I'll stop here as it appears I got carried away on a heavy roll. Good thing I wasn't limited to 140 characters.


April 1, 2009 2:13 PM

I think you're right on in the sense that Twitter is in both situations encouraging Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame at the same time devaluing what fame through content even means.

For years I pitched book ideas, but I've long since given up trying to communicate my ideas through long-form books. The money just isn't there for non-fiction writing compared to the amount of effort involved. Communicating this information has been devalued.

In many cases I've spoken to superuser Twits who twatted way back when and consider the attention they get from tweeting to have some larger value than simple networking and blogging and the kind of "fame" that one can get from those pursuits. I personally feel that they're fooling themselves, building a knowledge economy bubble no different than Friendster. Twitter is fine, but it doesn't have enough functionality to change the game.

Alisa Cromer

April 1, 2009 6:36 PM

I don't buy any of it. The reason Twitter is not monetizing is because it continues to raise huge rounds of money wihtout monetizing. When the money runs out in the next bubble produced by this madness, believe me, they will monetize.

Remember the last bubble? CitySearch's director of acquisitions told me thta it would be a bad idea for city search to purchase chains of weekly newspapers to bolster its content and ticketmaster sales because real revenues would LOWER its share valuations. Yes that's right. about two years later the market crashed.

I can list ten way to monetize Twitter next week and so can you.


April 1, 2009 11:58 PM

Most of these comments are completely missing the point.

Twitter will find ways of monetizing their service, but the functionality and medium makes content (like social networks) unmonetizable. Like the author points out, it is likely that any revenue generated from twitter content will come from promotion and subsequent purchase of another good, content, or service.

But who would want to make money from twitter posts? It's like getting paid to socialize in the town square, although that analogy might be a bit off.

Janet Goldstein

April 2, 2009 1:07 AM

Great post and comments.

1. RE: "...users who are generating Twitter’s content. It is a MySpace/Facebook model of generating content—that is, something people will do for free."

Most of the "content" on Twitter is not generated there. It's a giant curator, really, but not were the ideas are mapped and laid out. So even if Twitter is monetized, it's for a huge amount of content coming from elsewhere--monetizing clicks?

2. Twitter connections give immediate permission to connect with the likes of you! Small "d" Democracy. It's a model of natural gate-keeping where we all moderate ourselves (or with the aid of background helpers...but we can tell!).

-- from a thriving survivor of legacy trade book publishing (now straddling the old and new worlds)

April 2, 2009 1:37 AM

The reason ads don't work well on Social Networking sites including Twitter is that none of these Social Media sites are packaging the content in an easy to access form.

When they figure out how to offer what their users can really use then ads very carefully tailored to match niche interests WILL work and whichever Social Networking site does this first will compete with the success of Google AdWords.

I have posted about this in more detail and explained how that would work and what it would look like in my blog. Anyone who wishes to read it can use the search box to search for the word monetization.

Kevin B. Gilnack

April 2, 2009 2:14 AM

I think the monetary value one can get out of Twitter is similar to most inbound marketing techniques: generating qualified leads. Bringing people who are interested in what you to to your site with something useful so that they can then discover your expertise, product, causes, etc.

Then it's a matter of how effective your website, or other next point of contact, is at converting them to customers.

You can use your website's analytics that can show you what visitors came from Twitter referrals, their bouncerates, navigation patterns, conversion rates, etc. You can also track how many email or phone conversations result from conversations started on Twitter.

Twitter also has the value of creating a positive company image and raising brand awareness, both of which help with customer retention and marketing to new customers.

Finding a way to calculate the ROI of providing quality, public customer service or other efforts to increase brand awareness through Twitter is something of constant discussion, and frankly I don't know enough about business to understand how one calculates it for other various marketing efforts (print, tv, radio, sponsorships, etc.).

But, I feel like this is something we should be able to figure out. Until then that's not a good enough reason to try it out, after doing some research and creating a strategy.

Orange Catholic

April 2, 2009 5:18 AM

Twitter is the hottest thing to talk about since, 2 weeks ago. Question is, can anybody explain why?

We already have had AIM and its forebears for many years. Email is both lengthy and free.

Is it the phone thing? Do people actually use Twitter in conjunction with a phone? And not pay extra for it? (Cuz I pay extra for text messages, thus, I don't receive any.)

I just want to know WHY twitter is a big deal, because, quite frankly, my prepaid T-mobile had free AIM and it didn't have a 140 character limit.

Are you all just dumb or is something new going on here?


April 2, 2009 10:54 AM

Meebo is putting ads inside IM conversations and users actually LOVE it.


April 2, 2009 12:30 PM

Twitter provides users the ability to send mass messages to a wide ranged group or direct messages to individuals in real time, allowing connections to be established fast and conveniently. I believe Twitter has opened another door when it comes to social media.

But with all of these different networks and functions popping up everywhere, how are sites going to maintain a faithful member base when the next social trend kicks in? I suggest checking out how, has revamped social networking with their recently launched site, Integrated rewards possibly the next best thing in the social media sphere?


April 2, 2009 12:30 PM

Twitter provides users the ability to send mass messages to a wide ranged group or direct messages to individuals in real time, allowing connections to be established fast and conveniently. I believe Twitter has opened another door when it comes to social media.

But with all of these different networks and functions popping up everywhere, how are sites going to maintain a faithful member base when the next social trend kicks in? I suggest checking out how, has revamped social networking with their recently launched site, Integrated rewards possibly the next best thing in the social media sphere?

Kevin B. Gilnack

April 2, 2009 2:16 PM

Orange Catholic: Every organization will have a different Social Media strategy. It depends on your goals and your audience.

It sounds like you just want to keep in touch with friends, which AIM is great for.

To meet people you don't know, however, sites like Ning, Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, LinkedIn, etc. open up those doors. It's a place to find people with common interests you otherwise wouldn't have met, and I have found Twitter has the lowest barrier for connecting with strangers.

To close with how I started, it really boils down to what you want to accomplish and where the people are you want to talk to.

Lisa Stephens

April 2, 2009 2:30 PM

I think we, meaning people such as yourself, spend too much time on Twitter in an effort to decide, with firm resolve, just what we think it is currently, rather than working with it, & making it what we need it to be... it's a very effective, real-time marketing strategy right now, today, if used under perfect conditions, & could be made to work as a long-range planning, goal-setting, strategic work environment... it could be a resource for higher-level information placement & organizational reference guidance.. it could be so much more than what it is, but instead, as per usual, we find ways to complain, & tear things apart, rather than make them work in an atmosphere of much-needed preservation... all of these forms of social media can be made to work together, if used to their best advantage, without trying to compete with one another.


April 2, 2009 2:41 PM

An article with "Attention Economy" in its title should never assert attention value has eroded. Attention continues to imbue its value onto the content that attracts the attention. What has changed is how the new economy converts attention value into fungible value.

Mass media made attention fungible by indexing its value to the size of the audience and apportioning the limited resources of production/manufacturing/distribution accordingly. Now that those resources are low-cost and infinite in supply the mass media approach no longer works. We must find a new way to convert attention value.

Twitter is a great attention value experiment. Its founders have discovered a new path between attention and money based on interaction. Interaction is easier to identify, measure, validate, and ultimately sell than audience size. Interestingly, the buyers of interactions are sales groups rather than advertising groups.

Gary Carpenter

April 2, 2009 5:04 PM

Good article, Interesting observations. I found your article thru Twitter on my Blackberry.Think about that. Some of your attention comes from Twitter. No value? The thing Twitter and other social platforms do is give thousands of people the ability to bypass the gatekeepers of publishing and promote straight to people who want to hear the particular "content." The other thing it does, at least for me, is filter the larger media scources and provides contrary views and corrections very quickly.


April 2, 2009 10:13 PM

I am going to go out on a limb and say that there is no longer any way to monetize non-videogame attention to the level at which we once had advertiser-supported Newspapers, Magazines, TV and Radio. Nothing can bring that era of content paid for by advertising back to the level it was.

It's already pretty much accepted the era of 3 daily newspapers is over. It's already accepted that the era of the local AM Radio Boss Jocks ruling the hearts and minds of the kids is over. It's already pretty much accepted that "live tv viewing" is over.

If 1969 was the high water mark for network television viewership, if the early 1900s was the equivalent for newspapers and let's guess that 1951 was for network radio then it's been a long downhill slide.

Don't ask how to monetize Twitter any more than you'd ask how to monetize poetry, sheet music sales or fanzines.

Accept that the media business has hit its high water mark as a commercial industry and it's returning to hobbyist or academic roots.


April 3, 2009 9:37 AM

I'll bet on a trend where Twitter "tribe" leaders and other influentials -- foundations and leading donors -- will use Twitter to seed opportunities for followers to help good causes.

Those who earn karma points for good service -- perhaps through a Twitter near-currency such as Twollars -- could gain visibility and reputation with those they are following.

My guess is that followers in many cases would be willing to make some kind of payment to have such opportunities to contribute.

Mark Frazier
Twitter: #openworld

Gerry Gleason

April 4, 2009 8:08 PM

I think Mark or Openworld has it right, a whole new array of currencies are being invented. This article at the P2P Foundation points to the key issues. Markets are secondary to the attention economy, and in fact we need something "thicker" than attention to measure what is important in human exchange. I know Eric and Art, referenced in Michael Bauwen's posts on currencies because we have met and worked on the conceptual designs of "open money" systems, but only in the last few weeks I have "met" Mark and the Twollers founders on Twitter. The "thicker" stuff that flows between us is a deep appreciation for the work each of us is engaged in.

This appreciation is the foundation on which trust and care is built, and as Eric suggests and Michael endorses, markets may come to be on top of these currencies, but these currencies are not created for market primarily. They are created first to acknowledge our wealth. As Eric says, Debt based fiat currencies are not sufficient, and we are designing a system to support the "requisite variety" of currencies needed to play a bigger game. Follow #metacurrency, #metacc, #openmoney on twitter and you will fine a quickly developing global collaboration to fully develop this work into real system.

Gerry Gleason

April 4, 2009 8:43 PM

BTW, I would not define "success" on twitter as having a large following. When I was getting more active on twittter, I'd see lots of references to @guykowasaki as a god on how to use twitter well. If that is you model of success, I would claim that you are badly mistaken. The real juice on twitter is relationships, and you can't have a relationship with 20,000 people.

I would also look more closely at the idea that it is the "text based nature" of twitter that makes it resistance to attention hounds. I would say it is the conversational nature of it, even if it is more like a conversation at a noisy party. You can still find a quiet corner, or meet up on another channel.

Mitch Roberson

April 7, 2009 7:30 PM

I reluctantly joined Facebook and Twitter to see what they were about and to see how they might generate traffic for my blog Furnitude. What I've found is that networking on Twitter is interest-based. If your interest is, say, skateboarding, you'll follow people because of what they say about skateboarding and the links they pass along about skateboarding. That will also largely determine who follows you. Facebook, while one facet of it is interest-based, is more based in geography, personal relationships, school affiliation and business affiliation. Some of those people, between sending you hugs and pieces of flair(?), will be interested in skateboarding but the huge majority will not be. If you have a message to spread about skateboarding, it will be wasted on most of your Facebook friends but prized by your Twitter followers. (@furnitude)

George Snell

April 13, 2009 5:03 PM

Hi Jon:
Think of it this way: Facebook and Twitter's value is what they offer for "free" to customers (clients, users, whatever you want to call them).

What they want to sell - advertising - is less valuable. Take Facebook. If a corporation starts a Page - and collects thousands of fans then the company can insert marketing and sales messages into its updates and status that go directly to those people. People who have opted in.

Why then would the company need to buy advertising on Facebook? The whole point of social media is micro-targeting - getting people who want to follow you to opt in for updates and news. These are the people who care about your product, service, etc.

So they why go against this tide and buy "mass advertising" on Facebook? That's why I think Facebook and Twitter will struggle to find business models that work.

Mike Power

April 19, 2009 1:56 PM

Orange Catholic, don't make the mistake of assuming because YOU don't see the point in something those that do must all be dumb.

And don't expect those of us who do "get" and use Twitter to bother taking the time to explain it to you. Why should we? You keep using your phone and AIM and we all promise not to care less.

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