Mixing metaphors: The attention economy and the experience economy

More reasons why the metaverse is worth our attention

In the last column, we looked at the metaverse with respect mainly to what is called the attention economy, which is a metaphor that recognizes people’s attention as a finite, precious resource. This resource mined by, among other entities, the major social media platforms, and the metaverse broadly defined is the next logical phase or extension of the gaming of our attention by these platforms. 

Much of what Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and their ilk do, after all, is designed to capture and control attention, then sub-lease at least a part of that captive attention to third parties, or advertisers. Mass media sell surfaces for advertising; social media companies sell their spaces.

What does this have to do with home furnishings? Everything. 

We know that physical stores still beat online shopping in 2021. Online retailing grew 14 percent in 2021, while purchases of food, cars, furniture, and electronics in real-world stores increased by 18 percent compared with the year prior, according to US Department of Commerce numbers. 

E-commerce lost ground. 

But, let’s take a closer look at “the year prior,” which was 2020, that most idiosyncratic of years because of Covid. Lockdowns, product shortages, price gouging and pervasive uncertainty combined to alter a great number of our norms and patterns. 

And one year’s numbers don’t provide enough longitudinal data to determine longer-term trends or to meaningfully understand which pandemic-caused trends will continue afterwards. In some cases, pandemic accelerated trends already in place, like telemedicine, declines in church attendance, and remote work, to name just a few. 

The fact that online showed a double-digit increase in 2021 perhaps speaks to e-commerce’s strength, because in 2020, during pandemic, e-commerce surged. Stay-at-home shopping and buying grew more in 2020-21 than during any other two-year span since 2006, or when e-commerce normalized after the dot-com boom-and-bust of the early 2000s.

Follow the soap bubbles

To these fundamentals we add the promise of the metaverse, which is a term asked to do a bit too much. Depending on the context, it might refer to virtual reality, augmented reality, sensorial technology, spatial computing, blockchains and gaming environments. The ads running right now for Meta’s metaverse, which is to point out that there are competing visions of and for what we might call “the” metaverse, people strap on their Oculuses to spectate the ancient Greeks in debate, to practice open heart surgery, and to make what look like elaborate soap bubbles adhere in the middle of a university lecture hall. Now, if sticky, three-dimensional soap bubbles don’t get you excited about the metaverse, I get it, but bad advertising isn’t the point here. What is apparent in this odd jumble of virtual “experiences” is Meta’s strategy of moving its next chess pieces in its game to take the king, which is our attention.  

One of the more significant takeaways, at least for me, isn’t so much the degree to which the “virtual” or “not-quite-real” is encroaching on and colonizing the “real,” but rather it is the degree to which the distinctions between virtual and actual mean less and less to people, especially younger people. Among the many implications of this is that we are seeing the end of a civilization built and sustained by paper. 

When was the last time you used cash to make a purchase of any kind? My students regard paper money as “free!” Play money! Real money that in this VR-metaverse switch becomes something akin to tokens at the arcade. The old joke, “Do you take cash?” now is a legitimate question, and the answer increasingly is, “No. Tap here.” Gone is the age when, if you ran out of money, you just didn’t do any more things. Remember writing checks to yourself or to “Cash” to get money from the bank during the three hours it was open? 

I can’t think of a better example of this blurring and blending of distinctions than the virtual dating and social scene, a world about which my knowledge could neatly fit into a thimble. 

Before I take you on a brief ride through that thimble (this is a digital space; we can do, virtually, anything we want!), could I point out that all communication apparatuses began as responses to crises and the need to communicate in crisis, but over time inevitably became social tools? The telephone, for example: “Watson, come here. I want to see you,” were the first words ever uttered via a telephone. But, “Madge, you’ll never guess who I just ran into at the post office,” came soon after. The Internet and, in particular, its World Wide Web began in the defense industry as a way of linking physically disparate sites and personnel for rapid response. But, Friendster and MySpace were right around the corner. 

Hooking up, meta-style

To return to Meta’s ham-fisted advertising, it is no surprise that many of its Metaverse and Oculus headset applications are envisioned as noble, problem-solving activities, but a through line by implication are the many social settings and collaborative possibilities. Virtual dating and socializing would seem to be “virtually” inevitable. 

Witness the flood of applications, services and “worlds” devoted to that most ancient of desires:

  • Nevermet, a virtual reality dating service matching VR enthusiasts and enabling metaverse meetups
  • Flirtual, for “safe, magical dates in VR”
  • Single Town from the Match Group, which owns Match, Tinder, OkCupid and Hinge
  • Second Life’s Lonely Hearts Dating Agency
  • VR Chat’s Serenity Cove for meetings on the beach by virtual sunset

I am not here to sell pixelated rendezvous, but I am pointing out that with this much development money being plowed into re-configuring human behavior and creating apps for the metaverse, these spaces are worthy of our attention, because attention is ultimately what they intend to claim. They are worthy of our attention because of the many ways they will seek to translate that share of VR attention into action and transaction in the “real” world. Meta and Google are dedicating considerable sums and resources to VR development. 

For furniture as with gender and sex, VR offers a safe space for experimentation. VR ramped up during pandemic as so many found themselves stuck at home looking for escape, but escape without real-world risk. 

The experience economy

To this attention economy metaphor, I would like now to mix in another metaphor, which is something called the “experience economy,” which, while relatively new in terms of its elaboration, is a major part of many retail chains’ larger strategies to nurture loyal customer bases. The metaverse is ideally suited for this experience economy.

For example, the arts and crafts chain Michaels leveraged its experience offering art classes in its stores to create basically a social media platform to scale up the program and to make it easier for its teachers, employees and customers to self-organize. With an estimated 20,000 local art teachers and roughly a million people taking these classes, the platform makes it possible for customers to “experience” the Michaels brand in this empowering way. Oh, and by the way, these million or so students can get all of their art supplies via the platform. 

To pull this off, Michaels looked to Any Road, which describes itself as an “experience management” company. 

AirBnB has a similar approach to transforming a home rental into themed “experiences,” with collections that include “world travel,” “team-building,” “family fun,” and others organized under “Online Experiences.”  Launched in 2016, the program promises “transformative virtual experiences” that include meditating with a Buddhist monk, a visit with the dogs of Chernobyl and cooking lessons with a Moroccan family.

“Pretty much every company that’s thriving is becoming an experiential business,” Jonathan Yaffe, founder and CEO of Any Road, told MIT’s Sloan School. “We are transforming from a ‘things economy’ into an ‘experience economy.’” 

Home furnishings companies will want to better engage customers and potential customers in ways they can influence the consumer journey via multiple digital touchpoints. We’ll look at this and the rich troves of data these efforts can produce for the companies that succeed in a future column. 

Until then, meet me at Serenity Cove? The virtual piña coladas are on me!

Brian Carroll

Brian Carroll covered the international home furnishings industry for 15 years as a reporter, editor and photographer. He chairs the Department of Communication at Berry College in Northwest Georgia, where he has been a professor since 2003.

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One thought on “Mixing metaphors: The attention economy and the experience economy

  1. This is so interesting to review in 2023. The metaverse is gaining momentum and we 100% live in the attention economy. Experiential marketing sounds similar to ‘experience economy’ which is now a balancing act between traditional marketing, the metaverse and digital marketing as we’ve know it.

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