One of the most over used, dangerous and misunderstood words in the communications business today.
A concept that has seduced and bludgeoned us with its elixir.
I believe participation has been infected by the hubris of social media. Its intoxication is sapping the positive power that participation can invoke.
The curious thing is the absence of participation in a lot of work we see in advertising and marketing. It is summoned as inspiration, but rarely seen in action proper.
Some are drunk on it and others are addicted to its superficiality. And most have stopped at the first base of participation and neglected to pursue anything else.
I believe participation, as an enabling concept for brands to connect with consumers, needs a reset.
It needs to purge itself of the impurities of misrepresentation, misuse and misalignment.
But, what is participation exactly?
In the world of advertising and marketing we have reduced the definition and invocation of participation to a small transactional part in a larger play.
But participation is actually a bigger concept covering everything from ownership, philosophy, decision-making and economics. It actually means:
The action of taking part in something
The state of being related to a larger whole
Taking part and being related to a larger whole has changed. It may sound the same, but feels markedly different.
The old models and old values of participation have shifted.
Participation is a source ingredient for what Harvard Business Review calls ‘New Power’:
New power operates differently, like a current. It is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It uploads, and it distributes. Like water or electricity, it’s most forceful when it surges. The goal with new power is not to hoard it but to channel it.
They argue that participation is an active force that is shaping new kinds of consumption:
What's clear is that most brands are at 'Sharing' and 'Shaping' stages of participation.
We have seen participation in full colour in culture recently: from the Scottish referendum, to ice bucket challenges and Je Suis Charlie.
The act of participation is both intimate and public. It is a moment where you act on a spectrum from frivolity to activism. Making your expression count can be both profoundly colourful and quietly ordinary.
The paradox of participation is abundantly clear for brands:
“The people least likely to engage deeply are the most important for growth”
People don't like brands. We rarely think about them. When we buy them we do it unconsciously. We don't have relationships with brands. And we certainly don't think about participating with them. If we do it is with clear goals in mind.
So is brand participation worth it?
I believe the answer is yes, but the way in which brands are participating is limiting and falls short of the potential of where meaningful brand participation can take you.
The problem with planning for participation is that it places demands on the audience. It asks them to do shit for you. The participation offer needs to be attractive for it to work. It needs be bound up in shared interests and a genuine value exchange. It needs to be bigger than the ‘act’ of participation itself.
Done right modern brand participation can succeed by adopting 'New Power' values and models.
I believe there are six key drivers for brands to consider when navigating this new power compass: purpose, culture, experience, innovation, economics and creativity.
Those brands adopting the values and models of 'New Power' are moving to the 'crowd' as the modern business dynamic.
1. Adopt your brand participation archetype. Every brand archetype has corresponding brand participation behaviours. From Carer, to Champion to Magician - each brand has a different identity. Find, exhibit and channel the brands natural participatory role as vibrantly as possible.
2. Find a role in culture. The superficiality of 'social media marketing' plays to a particular kind of ‘transactional’ participation. One that is binary and obvious in its intention. One way for brands to drive more meaningful influence is to participate more in culture - through partnerships, properties and perspectives. They can surface their point of view within the texture of what people are interested in, rather than expecting interest.
3. Make memorable experiences. Participation behaviour used to be thought of as ladder and pyramid metaphors. Power laws that users migrate through as they participated. Participation moves more like clusters, spontaneously combusting and jumping across networks. Participation is experiential in nature. Brands need to recognise the nuances and new patterns of 21st century participation behaviours and make experiences that register with impact and meaning.
4. Be useful. Capitalise on the brands passionate purpose as the compass for finding new ways to collaborate and innovate to appeal to a new participatory and 'unreasonable consumer' mindset. One that needs to overcome a fickle and distracted bias. Brands need to search for relevant 'spaces in-between' where the brand can solve problems, make lives easier or unlock new ideas for users to explore.
5. Make participation count. The economics of participation starts with sharing and ends with ownership. Designing higher dimension participation strategies isn’t easy. And in some ways counter intuitive to default 20th century economics. The collaboration economy can only get more popular, seamless and disruptive. Brands need to operate in these new models to realise the commercial value of participation.
6. Express creativity as provocation. Participation has got dull. The ‘interactive’ promise of digital has got lost. The web has created too much noise and very few opportunities where you feel truly connected to a cause. How we can bring the energy and tension of interactive theatre to brand experiences? Or create the feeling that you are part of something much bigger. Movements capture people. Brands need to find creative ways to sustain what they stand for and why they care.
I believe we (citizens, consumers, people) have binged on the elixir of participation and now are retreating slightly. We are more aware of cheap participation tricks. More guarded about our involvement.
But given the right invitation we will engage.
And when we do we reward those invitations handsomely.
To respect the offer of brand participation with consumers, brands will need to renew their contract. They need to bring new currency to a tired, but incredibly powerful, strategy for brand growth.
Without it, brands risk reverting to participation as transaction.
It is time for participation to be rehabilitated and reset.
Renew its place as a modern dynamic between people, brands and culture.
It is time to value participation once again.
The short answer has got to be no. Right?
Social marketing as a discipline has lost its halo and is struggling to come to terms with itself in a post digital world.
Excuses have been given and countless studies have been published, but the nagging doubt of performance remains. Yes, of course ‘paid social’ works – it is a very effective and efficient buy. But social as a channel, as a thing, as an approach, as a marketing investment remains in doubt.
Last year we saw the notions of brand community, organic social and brand inspired amplification seriously challenged as credible strategies. Making impact even more elusive to come by.
But what is impact really? And can social deliver in a way that stands up?
According to IPSOS 80% of most marketers are still tied to soft metrics like engagement and according to Forbes only 15% cited they have been able to prove impact quantitatively with hard business metrics. Sound familiar?
Admittedly social gets a tough assessment in the funnel. It can and does act as a powerful ‘assist’ to lots of decision points in the buying journey, but is rarely afforded its fair share due to the way performance is attributed by most marketers.
Commentators are revelling in this post adolescent angst of social.
Brands are looking to digital innovations, such as Google Cardboard, to tie their Christmas marketing in with a meaningful shopping experience as competition intensifies for consumer attention.
This Christmas may be the most challenging yet for the UK's retailers, with consumer attention split into megabits not just by rivals, but tempting distractions like Netflix, YouTube, smartphones and Facebook.
That means marketers must get their festive campaigns and the customer journey pitch perfect during the most important shopping season of the year - it is no good winning consumer attention with a beautifully shot ad, only to throw it away with a poor online experience.
To that end, some of the UK's biggest brands are experimenting more ambitiously with technology to stay ahead and keep consumers tuned in.
As per last year, John Lewis has extended the storyline of its Christmas star, Monty the penguin, to digital. Children can download a Monty storybook app on iOS or Android, and create their own Monty card. That’s much the same as last year, where children could download an app featuring John Lewis' bear and the hare.
Two things happened last week...
Firstly, I did one of my first lectures at the University of East London on 'planning advertising' as part of my role as Visiting Fellow to the School of Arts & Digital Industries. I was asked what makes a good planner.
Secondly, I had a chat with one of the best planners I have worked with who talked recently about planning as an apprenticeship and admitting he was still an apprentice - despite 20 years in the business. With the canon of planning being the master.
It struck me that there is a base operating system for any planner. And that the upgrades we add over time is the apprenticeship in action - inspired by peers and the lives we lead. Each update adds more to the kernel of planning - adopting new learnings, techniques and new insights.
So to capture this...I give you, and in no particular order, the 6 pillars of a planning apprenticeship....
The skills, behaviours and attitude that any planner needs to develop over time.
I spent a great afternoon at the annual APG Big Thinking fest this week musing on the state of strategy.
Thought I might add a mere mortal perspective on the big thinking shared on the day.
But first a quick recap on my previous strategy meanderings...
My ode to Walt in Breaking Bad: vital lessons in strategic planning picks up on many of the themes talked about this week. Particularly the point about Product Managers being the real strategy rock stars. Let's face it Walt was THE killer product manager...
I'm also a history nerd with a soft spot for the broad strokes of Grand Strategy and how it plays out on the world stage and in war. I pondered 10 Musings on Strategy on what it is in the 21st century.
Strategy is such a seductive topic.
As someone who spends his day thinking 'he does strategy' it can be both a love in and a tortured inquest. That's why the APG talks were so good - the speakers kind of called half time on strategy and each speaker gave their own pep talk on what the next play should be. Allowing agonised planners everywhere a chance to take stock and chew on some big perspectives.
Here are my brief takeouts from the day:
Here is a script from a talk I did for the ISBA members team dinner last September.
When I was asked to talk about real time marketing I thought I might just wing it.
Rock up, unprepared and make it up on the fly.
Maybe riff on today’s latest headline. Be responsive. Be hyper relevant. Be current. Be now.
But as we know being totally prepared is half the victory. The science of winning is being insanely prepared. So you will be pleased to know I have a few things prepared…
Good evening everyone. My name is David McNamara, Digital Strategy Director at iris worldwide. I am part of the planning team at iris and I help our clients navigate trends in digital strategy.
I am going to talk tonight about one trend that we have all seen develop over the last few years: real time marketing.
What is it exactly? How is it being used today? Where is it headed next? And where might it go in the future?
Marketing is at its best when it’s reflecting and shaping culture.
The speed of modern culture is something we are all familiar with. But are you familiar with The Truth Teller?
The Truth Teller is a real time digital political fact checking service that crawls You Tube videos to debunk and assess the claims made by politicians.
Made by The Washington Post last year it uses algorithms and crowdsourcing to call out political claims in real time.
Hacking politics for the truth.
Using the power of a real time feedback loop to disrupt power at the point of influence.
Imagine all live news and interviews with a live fact checking feed that has a truthful glow. How might services like this change the way politics is conducted?
A world with no lies perhaps?