The Attention Economy in EFL

My goals for this site going into 2020 were twofold: I said to myself at the start of the year I’d add a load more content and I’d start promoting on social media.

It took a while to get going, but I can say in truth that I’ve done both of those things. The site now has double the amount of content it had at the start of the year, and I’ve been a lot more proactive on Facebook. The stats for 2020 aren’t bad either: almost 4500 hits, up from under 1000 two years ago.

I just didn’t anticipate how much of a difficult uphill climb it would be.

The page views just haven’t translated into engagement on the site. Of the hundreds of comments on the site this year, all but one were spam. The follower count has grown (and thank you, followers, for that; it’s a great encouragement!) but there doesn’t seem to be a sustainable ‘buzz’ around the site yet. I write a lesson; I promote it; the view count briefly goes up then slides back to two or three visitors per day.

The purpose of this post is not to complain at the unfairness of the world. If 2020 has shown me the extent of the challenges for an EFL* site, it’s also taught me what I can or should do to surmount those challenges.

(*English as a Foreign Language, also known as ELT: English Language Teaching and a whole load of other acronyms).

What follows is definitely not intended as a rant. It’s not a criticism of the industry. It’s an honest assessment of how things look from where I am right now.

Here is what I’m seeing: EFL is now an attention economy. And I’d need to do a heck of a lot of self-promotion and build up a personal brand in order for this site to ‘go big’. I’d need to take time every day to curate the brand. The alternative would be to pay someone to do some of this work or indeed to invest in advertising. I can see the size of the task ahead, should I choose to focus on it for 2021. 

And I don’t think I want to. I’ll explain why, a bit later.

The Attention Economy

But let’s backtrack to this term. What is an attention economy, and why is it relevant to TEFL?

An attention economy is one where the producers compete for consumers’ time and attention, instead of their money.

Although the term was first used by forward-thinking economist Herbert Simon in 1971, it’s clearly applicable most of all to the internet age, especially to the rise of social media since the ‘00s.

Even since 2010 a lot has changed: back then you could ignore a lot of the ‘stuff’, by not clicking on ads, deleting spam, choosing who to follow on Facebook. That’s all changed. Apps and sites are getting ever bolder with unskippable video ads. Instagram and Facebook are ‘curating’ social feeds with algorithmically selected adverts. Influencers on Tiktok and Snapchat are blurring the line between self-promotion and advertising products. 

The Washington Post goes one step further for potential readers based in Europe, offering two levels of paid subscription, one with personalised ads and one without:

In other words, even if you pay for a subscription, you’ll still be advertised to unless you get the premium option. Pay in attention and money, or pay more in money.

As a wannabe producer of content, I’m now seeing things from the other side. To find the people who might become regulars on this site – teachers and learners of English – I need to get their attention, and hold onto it. But I have to do this while they’re being bombarded by a massive information overload, including a mass of competing EFL sites and resources.

Since Covid has forced a lot of TEFLers online, there’s likely a bigger potential readership for this site than there was even a year ago. The thing is, I’m not the only one who’s noticed this! It’s natural (if hard to prove) that there would be more ‘teacher-preneurs’ than ever before.

That means I have to promote tirelessly on social media. I have to keep up-to-date with content and get to grips with design. For the best results, I need to learn the intricate arts of search engine optimisation.

I might not. But more on that later.

The Paradox of Social Media Promotion

So far I’ve been active on Facebook and to a lesser extent on Linkedin. There are a load of English-teaching related groups and pages on each, and these seem like the perfect place to advertise. While the most active groups can have tens of posts per day, with resources, articles and videos, and potentially hundreds of views of each, it’s rarer to find complete lessons. A site with free lessons ought to get lots of interest, right?

Yet this is a very competitive environment. The more popular groups naturally get more posts every day, and new ones quickly get buried. Sometimes within a day of my post appearing, there’ll be one or two more lessons promoted by other writers (booooo!) Sometimes, they’re really good (double booooo!!). There’ll be a lot of flashcards and games too, for sure, and often a selection of training videos and webinars all clamouring for attention.

Furthermore, groups are maintained by moderators, who choose whether to approve or delete posts. Often these moderators are also maintaining websites and blogs – and it’s not unreasonable if they give priority to expanding their own online presence, by limiting how many posts they approve per day or by sticking their own resources to the top of the group to ensure their site gets more eyeballs than the competition!

I could, of course, start my own group – but then, how to get followers? Try advertising on existing groups and poach people away? Somehow this doesn’t feel right… I’d fully expect to get kicked out of groups and lose potential followers for that type of ruthless behaviour. Nobody likes a shameless self-promoter, and rightly so.

And yet self-promotion is all over the web! EFL is no different; after all, teachers are used to talking, giving advice, expounding theories and so on. I have the same habit: particular during these last few months I’ve spent more time expanding my own site than visiting and learning from others in a similar field. And the natural next stage of that is to want to engage with an audience. I’m just not quite sure of the rules. Should I add more colourful resources? Downloadable things? Be more daring in promoting? Or be less overt in case it seems like desperation?

Maybe being sneaky and getting a friend to promote on my behalf would help (“I found this fabulous free resource site online!”)? Or it could backfire quite a lot. I don’t really know. I haven’t cracked it yet. And I’m considering not trying to crack it in 2021.

Again, I’ll explain later.

First, a question… 

Hasn’t EFL always been this way?


Here’s a theory. The EFL industry used to consist of two parts. Institutional and commercial.

Institutional EFL was (and is) International House, the British Council, the Cambridge exams, publishers like Oxford and Pearson, CELTA providers, and IATEFL. There are localised versions; public education systems, government-run adult colleges and so on, but for the international industry the gold standard is represented by the organisations I list here. From what I’ve seen, institutional EFL:

  • is ostensibly committed to quality.
  • focuses a lot on teacher development.
  • likes theories, structures, acronyms.
  • is mad about conferences and journals.
  • has a career structure which goes teacher – Director of Studies – teacher trainer – published author – trainer of teacher trainers – academia or publishing or both. (I reckon the highest accolade in this branch of EFL would be to present a paper at a conference for people who train teacher trainers. Who gets to do that? Scott Thornbury?).

The commercial side includes some big language-school chains and a load of small organisations. Commercial EFL:

  • is very variable in terms of quality.
  • tends to treat teacher development as a means to an end.
  • likes student retention.
  • has more of a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude to conferences and journals.
  • has three possible career structures: teacher – DOS, teacher – owner, or owner’s child – owner.

Naturally this is an over-simplification, and plenty of organisations combine aspects of both sides. I’ll also say that I don’t mean to knock commercial EFL. Most or all of my teaching has been through organisations on this side of the divide, and I’m glad of it.

The online presence of EFL traditionally divided quite neatly too.

There were (and are) blogs which full of nuggets about IATEFL, conferences, research, teacher training and suchlike. A good example of an informative and regularly updated one is Sandy Millin’s. A couple of others in the genre are ELT Rants, Reviews and Reflections, which takes a more controversial line, and the more classroom-focused Clare’s ELT Compendium.

Expressly commercial TEFL sites abound too. There are schools that post resources online as a way to introduce what they offer: this Taiwanese site is a good example. There are also individuals who have carved out an online niche in order to advertise lessons, like the writer of this marvellously informative Cambridge CAE resource site.

No doubt there are a lot of online-only EFL businesses that were already well established long before 2020. I’m sure they got to where they are by self-promoting, by building up a presence and selling their services to followers.

But I’d suggest that what we’re seeing now is different from anything before. It’s the Wild West. It’s Silicon Valley in 2000. It’s an explosion of online teaching platforms, resource sites, webinars, teacher-preneurs, gurus. Some of them might have started before Covid but this is their big opportunity to expand.

On my Facebook groups feed for this evening, for instance, I’m getting posts advertising:

a subscription-based lesson planning platform

a free resource site (which looks great, actually)

another resource site, not free

a blog and resource site from an online teaching company

a blog by an author

There are also a few ‘traditional’ institutions like Macmillan and a CELTA/ DELTA teacher-training school offering free webinars but the majority of the promotions are from individuals or small companies.

Also weakening the grip of institutional EFL are the freelance training providers who, in place of the traditional route of CELTA followed by DELTA, offer help in setting up as a ‘passionate online course creator’ or advice to ‘leverage the skills you have’.

Meanwhile if you want to write resources online but not to have your own website, there’s a place for that.

And there’s even a course to help students on the CELTA course to plan lessons while already doing the CELTA course! So basically any niche can be monetised and promoted.

This is the world we live in – and do EFL in – now. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is hard to judge yet. I’m certainly not sorry to see some innovative challengers to the old, comfortable, perhaps complacent power-brokers of institutional EFL. The way that commercial EFL has shifted online, meanwhile, makes it more accessible: it’s got a lot easier to set up a viable business with nothing more than a laptop. You don’t need an office. You don’t even need trousers. You just need whatever it takes to get and keep customers.

I’m just not that keen to compete.

OK, so this is the personal bit I’ve been hinting at all the way through this article.

I’d better say right now, this isn’t sour grapes. I’m not offended by the lack of engagement on this site. Of course people have other things to do than sit and write comments here, or like posts, or keep checking back for new stuff. Why should they? Why would they, when there are so many other options.

I’m thinking of taking a step back from promoting in 2021. I expect I’ll still write here, and might share posts with groups of people that I’m sure will be interested. But I’m considering opting out of the competition for eyeballs. This is for various reasons:

  • I just don’t enjoy promotional activities.
  • I don’t like running the risk of annoying people with repeated self-promotion.
  • I’d rather spend the time doing fun stuff like writing.
  • I’d like to feel able to connect with other teachers and students on social media without feeling the need to ‘sell’ a product or to push people on here for my own benefit.
  • There are people who depend on their website to find students, sell e-books etc. It’s their job. I’ve been teaching a pretty full schedule through a language school, so I can’t possibly compete in terms of effort or time.
  • There’s a lot of temptation from Facebook to invest cash into adverts, from WordPress to invest cash into redesigns or plugins, etc. I’m already paying for the site hosting and don’t want to get sucked into more investment for what is after all a free site!

Of course, 2021 could still be a breakthrough year, and I’ll welcome it if so! Is 10,000 site hits achievable? It might be. But I’d rather do it without feeling pressure or stress.

Cover Photo by Pressmaster from Pexels

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