Just this week, I received Trendwatching.com's latest update on Crowd Clout. They pointed me to some outstanding musings about a move from "Attention Economy" (in which producers vie for the increasingly scarce and fragmented attention of consumers) to the "Intention Economy" (in which consumers declare their intent to make a purchase and producers vie for their business). Omnipresent advertising is the coin of the former, while trusted relationship and shrewd negotiation is the coin of the latter.
We put this kind of thinking into practice when we purchased our van about 5 years ago. Tammy did all the necessary research to figure out what make, model, and features she wanted; then she emailed/faxed the dealerships within a hour's drive, saying "this is what we want, make us an offer" -- significantly reduces the haggling, the time wasting, and the hassle of buying a car.
John Hegel, however, sees that there is a realm that is untouched here -- the realm of "discovery". Consumers may not be aware of all the great options out there (for instance, how can I discover a great new writer who has something of a Faulkner style with Tolkein themes); on the other hand, producers are frustrated by diminishing capacity to capture consumer attention. The solution: trusted advisors (or vendors, or experts). As Hegel says, "The real winners in The Attention Economy will be those who can help expand our horizons by sorting through the growing array of options and introducing us to resources that matter based on a deep understanding of our interests and needs, rather than narrowly fulfilling our current intentions. Think of trusted advisors rather than transaction facilitators."
In other words -- Hegel suggests that the market will drive us back to something that has been dying -- the niche store filled with experts. The local bookstore where you could receive advice about what books are worth reading has been replaced by the megachain staffed by slightly surly people interested in selling coffee (This by the way was the theme of the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan comedy You've Got Mail). This seems to go right in line with my previous post about LifeLogging -- the overload of choice has left us with a dearth of wisdom. The real value in the information/experience economy will be provided by those who can tell us what is worth doing.
The force of this idea struck me as I spoke with a friend who is a personal trainer. His whole philosophy is to provide the service of personal transformation. "Advertising is a waste of money" he says. Rather, he provides great service by being the expert on health for his clients. He educates them about diet and exercise and helps them develop a plan that works for them. How does he market? Through his education efforts. He takes his clients on grocery store trips and shows them how to read labels and make smart food choices -- invariably, other people out there take notice and they ask for his card -- and the business grows and grows. He doesn't have to go out and demand attention, he's helping people with their pressing need and they're flocking to him.
This is both the great opportunity and the great danger for the church. The church needs to reclaim its role as an incubator of wisdom. Rather than shuffling zombie like behind the fads of the day ("duude --the new Left Behind video game is awesome -- it's like Tomb Raider -- only for Christians"), we can be the experts in helping people navigate the cacophony of voices and demands for attention and time. Perhaps we need to immerse ourselves in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job for a few seasons so that we can re-discover that just because something can be done, it doesn't mean it's worth doing.
I suggest that we need to sharpen our instincts in this arena. In a prior era, it was sufficient to say: "Christians don't watch movies; Christians don't wear makeup; Christians don't hang out with those kinds of people". No longer are such statements satisfactory. I suggest that we move away from sin management to sacramental living. Not to say that we stop teaching about sin and holiness -- only to say that we spend our best energies on holding forth the compelling positives -- how we ought to live. For it is only in the context of our compelling positives that any prohibitions make sense.
With such an emphasis on wisdom, we can stop turning on our beds in anxiety over how to sell the church. We can relinquish our need to be cool while vieing for attention in the "marketplace of ideas". Is it possible that we can be known by the caliber of our people rather than by the quality of our coffee?
Soli Deo Gloria