The attention economy is alive. Interruption marketing is dead. But are we getting permission marketing?

Tony Fish (the Mobile 2.0 man) and I debated the impact of mobile technologies on the attention economy at last week’s Mashup Event. We are particularly intrigued, although not entirely convinced, by the Blyk business model. Having been started by the former president of Nokia, Blyk could not have much better credentials for a new UK mobile phone service, but what are its prospects beyond the initial novelty value?

The concept of the attention economy is that human attention is a scarce commodity and therefore the approach to getting information in front of them is subject to economic theory. This scarcity is amplified by the increasing control we have over the media we consume. For example, simply interrupting the transmission of TV and radio programming with advertising is increasingly frustrated by the features designed in to consumer electronics allowing us to skip the ads.

The cure for this apoplexy of the advertising industry has consisted of product placement, procured content and permission marketing - a term defined by Seth Godin in his 1999 book of the same name. In simple terms, permission marketing seeks the target’s permission to advertise to them. Obviously, the advert has to have real value to the recipient for them to give their permission.


So back to Blyk. The idea… give free SIM cards to 16-24 year olds with which they can make free calls. In return, the Blyk customer must complete a personal profile questionnaire which is used to determine exactly what products and services he or she might like to know about. Blyk then sells this channel to advertisers and forwards the adverts to their customers’ phones.

Is this permission marketing? Godin talks about developing a relationship with customers, “turning strangers into friends, and friends into customers”. To me, Blyk is not primarily about adding value through the content and information, but fundamentally about buying airtime. It may not be paying cash, choosing instead to make a payment-in-kind, but ultimately it is just buying a new kind of media space. I’m into digital photography, but with the day I’ve just had if you sent me an ad for the latest camera it would simply have got in my way.

Advertisers must ask themselves whether this is simply hyper-targeted advertising (of no insignificant value of course), or permission marketing. Isn’t it just simply that young adults want free calls? That’s where the primary value lies, not in the ads.

Interestingly, Blyk may have some big competition soon. Whilst Google has not publicly disclosed any intention to launch a mobile phone service, the fact that their job boards advertise for mobile engineers might betray their ambitions. Could a GPhone follow the same business model?