Advertising has changed a lot, but one thing has not changed. Advertising has always been about attention, and this remains an incredibly valuable commodity.

The value of our collective attention has helped fund all types of media. In fact, without an advertising subsidy, the internet as it currently exists would be unsustainable. However, there is a fundamental problem with this “attention economy”. While the number of people who can vie for your attention is practically limitless, the attention they’re vying for is fundamentally limited.

Due to the ubiquity of the media model, nearly any time you spend in front of a screen you will be exposed to ads. Instead of spending hours a day looking at all these ads, people are just learning to ignore them. According to HubSpot, you are more likely to attend MIT or complete Navy Seal training than click a banner ad.

The scarcity of consumer attention in an increasingly crowded marketplace has driven the demand for new ways of capturing people’s attention.

The new attention economy
Businesses can no longer simply buy their customers’ attention, but instead they have to earn it.

Many organizations are learning that in this new environment the way to win is to be generous. Instead of subsidizing existing content creators just for the privilege of competing with their content, why not just create your own?

It used to be that interruption was simply cheaper and more effective, but the economics of attention have changed and the reverse is now true. When free is the de facto price on the web, value can only be measured in metrics having to do with attention. As Wired founder Kevin Kelly remarked in 2008, in such a saturated environment the truly valuable thing is “being found”. The only way to be found is to create something – products, stories, content – worth looking for.

Are you worth discovering?
It used to be that a brand’s story was created through advertising, but traditional advertisements are a woefully inadequate storytelling medium. The ability to build a brand around 30-second messages that are ignored 90% of the time requires far too many ads for most budgets. Traditional advertising still has a place in the new attention economy. It has just gone from the end of the funnel to the beginning.

Ads may help customers find you, but they will no longer make customers like you. The only way to win customers in the attention economy is to make something worth paying attention to. People don’t respond to facts about how your product will fill a practical need, they respond to stories about how it will fulfill a personal desire.

What Intel did
And this new strategy applies to everyone. Take Intel as a prime example of how this new marketing is done. Their ambitious Creator’s Project is an interesting case study of a company redirecting traditional ad dollars towards creation of content worth paying attention to. To market a relatively boring commodity to a younger audience, Intel partnered with Vice Magazine to create a story about their products that focused not on technical specifications, but also on the artistic possibilities that technology could unlock.

Since launching in 2010, the Creator’s Project has interviewed hundreds of artists and given viewers an inside look at their creative process (which often involves state-of-the-art technology). The project has been a major success since Intel respected its customer’s limited attention by delivering a message that they actually wanted to hear. Intel decided to create something of real value and ended up starting a movement with their name at the centre.

The new attention economy demands this kind of generosity and thoughtfulness. While traditional advertising may be expensive, it’s also relatively easy. What requires real investment is taking the time and energy to invest in creating content that matters.

Take the lead from Intel and understand the unique story your brand can tell, the meaningful perspective you can offer and the real value you can give. In the new attention economy, the only way to get noticed is to create something worth noticing.

Author: Brian Honigman is a marketing consultant, speaker and a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter and Google+

Image: A man walks through a street in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district March 8, 2012. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao