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Why Quibi Is Losing the Attention Game

Quibi is off to a rough start and it’s the fault of coronavirus, so says the company. To date, Quibi only has 3.5 million downloads and 1.3 million active users a little over a month after launch, but the problem isn’t coronavirus, it’s how the company is playing the attention game.

The attention game is more crowded than ever by big companies like Netflix, Disney Plus, HBO, YouTube, Fortnite, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. Even though each offer vastly different products, they all compete for our finite leisure attention, as does Quibi.

We see two ways to win the attention game: 1) Fill consumer time that isn’t being filled. 2) Make your content more compelling than everyone else’s.

And the cardinal rule: Once you have the consumer’s attention, keep it.

Fill Unfilled Time

In fairness to Quibi’s management team, the reason they believe coronavirus is to blame for the slow start is that it eliminated many “in-between moments,” which the company built its strategy around. An in-between moment could be standing in line, commuting, walking to the office, etc. It would appear that Quibi thought it could fill some unfulfilled time with seven-minute TV shows; however, I’d argue the problem isn’t that those moments have disappeared, it’s that they were already spoken for.

People may not be able to watch Netflix during an in-between moment, but they can watch Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, etc. A seven-minute in-between moment is just a string of seven-second views of content on social media for many people and, given how much short content is available, particularly social video content, that time is well served. No comment on whether that time is well spent.

If we step back in history briefly, attempting to fill unfulfilled time has been a good strategy when time is truly unfulfilled. The emergence of iPhone and Android let us fill the many bits of downtime in our day — like waiting in line — when we used to have to rely on books or newspapers or just doing nothing. I believe one of the biggest underappreciated reasons for Facebook’s success over the past decade is that it coincided with the proliferation of the smartphone. The smartphone let us fill those in-between moments with bits of social media and, as we got addicted to social media, many moments beyond the in-between. Social media was the original Quibi.

We’ve previously estimated that we spend about 70% of our waking hours engaged somehow with information. Many of us might be engaged closer to 100% of the time with podcasts, audiobooks, and music filling time when we can’t look at a screen. There is very little unfulfilled time now for attention game participants to fill, so they have to rely on making their content more compelling than everyone else’s.

Compelling Content

Given the demands on our time, we pay attention to new things that elicit some emotion. Things that bore us elicit no emotion, and we ignore those things. Things that excite us elicit emotion, and we often share those things.

Modern content creates an emotional response in three ways:

  1. Richness, which is a measure of information density. Video games like Fortnite are richer through their interactivity. Emojis are richer than text. AR lenses are richer than just videos on Snapchat. Epic shows like Game of Thrones or Westworld create richness through vast worlds and depth of story.
  2. Extremity, which is a measure of information intensity. Politics, social media content, news media all use extremity to generate emotion which generates attention.
  3. Relevance, which is a measure of information intimacy. Social media is compelling because it often involves people we know, or it involves influencers who we feel like we know, even if we’ve never met them. Content with a built-in fanbase is also naturally relevant (Star Wars, Marvel, etc.).

As a rule, the bar for what is compelling is always increasing, thus the demand for rich, extreme, and/or relevant content is always increasing.

Quibis may be mildly richer in terms of how they tell stories through smaller components, but it isn’t that much different than chopping up a movie into pieces. Quibi hasn’t really attempted extremity or relevance. While Hollywood stars carry cache with broad audiences, few have the kind of relationships with fans that influencers have with smaller audiences.

Quibi’s content isn’t bad, it’s perfectly fine. It’s just hard to get the attention of a new audience without very compelling content. Platforms like Netflix can get away with fine, at least for a little while, because they already have attention mindshare. To take attention mindshare, content needs to be compelling, and when you do get that attention, you have to keep it.

When You Have Them, Keep Them

Quibi’s final mistake is that even when they do get a share of someone’s attention, they release episodes daily instead of all at once. When an attention game player gets someone’s attention, they should keep it as long as possible to create an attachment between the user and the platform.

An advantage Netflix that exploits over traditional TV is that it releases episodes of original content all at once, and users can binge. When users binge, they build trust in Netflix and come back for some other content to binge again. Episodic releases discourage binging, and platforms that use those types of releases have to hope that users are sufficiently interested in to remember to come back and watch again the next day or week. That model may have worked with traditional TV, but it’s much tougher when that attention time is under constant pressure from every other platform listed above.

Keeping attention means you need to have a rich base of content. Social media platforms get users to create this for them. Streaming platforms need to build a big and broad enough library on their own where, again, Netflix has a large advantage.

We can question the ethics of the necessity of attention hoarding that every attention platform must do, but this post is about winning the attention game, not about whether the game is morally good or not.


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