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.
6 ways brands can reset participation for new times
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.