Attention spanLot of talk this week about who owns the digital marketing customer. Brands and ad agencies claim they own the customer’s data. More than a few panelists at Thursday’s Digiday sessions said that if the customer is paying a network or site for interaction privileges at that moment, then that site owns the customer. To all those who say they can own the customer, here’s a newsflash: no one owns the customer.

Nor does anyone rent the customer or loan a customer. Any company that thinks they can own the customer, or the customer’s data, or the customer’s digital experience, has a weird type of business neuroticism. That neurosis might be best cured through a little reality therapy. The reality is, customers may pay you time, attention, and revenue, but they give you no more than that. The goal of internet marketing is to create the opportunities for that attention and revenue.

Recent news stories are best seen in this harsh light. Google may assign and attract all the data and phone numbers it wants, but it still owns only that data. Making it work requires engagement, and we also learned this week from Forrester that engagement breaks down to time and attention. Nowhere in Forrester’s engagement report, or the Econsultancy/cScape engagement report, does it say that the customer is owned as a result of engagement.

Take a look at some of the more respected brands and their internet strategies and you’ll see a bargain is struck for attention and engagement. Even diapers (Luvs from Kimberly Clark, Pampers from P&G) have websites that give away information in return for the currency of attention. So much information is given away in today’s media marketplace, that the payment system has been whittled down to attention units, not monetary units. The deal is “I’ll give you information, if you pay me some attention.”

But at no time does a brand own a customer. That chain is cut loose too easily. Brands that approach the online marketing space for customer ownership will be disappointed. Come looking for that precious bit of attention, and marketers get paid in full.