The Bad Kind of Attention

Reading Time: 4 minutes


It feels like attention has become a currency of its own right in our digital economy. Where the eyeballs go, the wallets follow.

Naturally, we all want a slice of that attention pie. We all want an audience, be it readers, followers, customers, or supporters. And we want their attention.

We would do a lot to get it.

And quite reliably, this makes us do things that ultimately sabotage our efforts.

Today, let’s discuss the pitfalls of gaining attention on social media the wrong way.

Experience this article as a podcast, a YouTube show, or as a newsletter:


Many strategies can grab people’s attention, but not all are effective for long-term engagement. The kinds of things we can do to ramp up a lot of short-term visibility end up working against our long-term goals: they don’t foster sustainable connections with your followers.

Chasing virality is one of the most common attention mirages: we try coming up with the funniest and most quotable phrases, hoping for thousands of likes and retweets. Many Twitter users have seen quite an influx of new followers after “striking gold” with a viral tweet.

And then, their followers all turn their backs on them over the next few days and weeks. Audience growth is a net negative. The reason why people followed you was an outlier, a lucky guess at what grabbed their attention. They came for more but got something else: a few more feeble attempts at recreating that one lucky tweet.

The people that follow you for a viral tweet are very different from those who follow you for the sustained efforts you put into building and empowering a community around you. A viral tweet attracts short-term gain-seekers. A public history of having shown up every day for months and months attracts long-term thinkers. And those are the ones that will stick with you — they are the ones that will introduce new opportunities into your journey.

Transaction Complete

And those opportunities tend to be delayed. Trusting someone enough to share a new product or service with your friends takes a while. Trust is slowly built and quickly lost.

One common mistake that audience-builders make is relying on transactional attention. Here, people interact with you expecting a return interaction—quid pro quo.

And there’s nothing wrong with transacting with people online. Some degree of transactionality exists in all human relationships—like buying something from a store— but it shouldn’t dominate your interactions online. We’re not limited to short time windows where we want our customers to fill their carts to the brim with our wares. We don’t need people to buy as much as possible while in our store. Our store is the whole internet. And people don’t just spend five minutes there. They’ll be back.

What matters more than average cart size is people coming back for more. More insights, more help, and, one day, more purchases.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t sell things. A successful connection combines transactional aspects with relationship-building efforts. You must provide something valuable to create loyal customers who recommend your brand and contribute to its growth over time. But you don’t need to shove it down their throats. That’s not a trust-building exercise. In fact, it erodes all sense of you wanting to actually build a connection.

Many founders and creators fall into the trap of focusing on immediate gains due to their measurability. This leads Twitter audience-builders to run giveaways every week. And they seem to work: they attract a lot of attention. But it’s —yet again— attention of a poisonous kind: giveaway participants tend to be interested only in potential winnings rather than genuinely interested in your brand or products. They come for the free MacBook, not your personal brand.

Just because it’s easy to track conversions doesn’t make it a long-term strategy that fosters relations beyond the sale.

Another pitfall is offering things for free too often. Just like making things cheaper, throwing your work out here for free attracts followers who believe to deserve valuable items without cost. It shouldn’t be surprising that these people rarely convert into paying customers down the line.

When you’re followed by people who only want “free,” they will invite more people who think that way. And, more importantly, they will voice their expectations. They will resent having to pay money whenever you talk about compensation, and their dissent will be widely noticeable.

This is not the kind of reply you want to invite into the activity feeds of your followers.

Tonal Differences

Generally, you need to be careful about curating the conversational tone in your feed.

What goes around, comes around. Or, as we Germans say, “Wie man in den Wald hineinruft, so schallt es heraus” — whatever you yell into the forest will be reflected back at you.

Avoid negative sentiment attention.

That’s surprisingly easy: don’t be negative. Polarizing opinions invite negativity or vitriol onto your feed. This tends to attract people who are inclined toward argumentative exchanges.

You know who I’m talking about: trolls.

And even worse, this can repel potential positive-minded followers. I personally mute people who are “too edgy” and constantly stir up controversy in their feeds. I just don’t want that stuff crossing my path.

Do you know what I like to read? Stories of struggle, overcoming the odds, empowerment, and kindness. That’s the stuff I want to see and will interact with. And by doing that, I surround myself with people who think the same way.

Aim for relational attention focused on long-term relationship building. Be kind, be inviting, and seek value-based attention that recognizes the worth of what you offer. Look for positive conversations that project hopefulness and kindness around your personal brand.

Remember that everything you say or do influences how social media algorithms show content to users and, ultimately, whether they choose to follow or engage with you over time. Building lasting relationships lies at the heart of audience development efforts. Understanding what kind of attention surrounds your personal brand becomes crucial. You have control over what you say and whom you attract.

So do that intentionally.

It turns out that most of the “wrong” kind of attention comes from a misalignment between your long-term goals and people’s short-term interest. Keep that in mind when you talk about yourself and your work on social media.

Be the person you want your followers to be.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.