6 degrees of participation

Regular readers (thank you, mum) will know that I get frustrated by the current obsession with getting consumers to ‘participate’ with brands. My concerns are twofold.

Firstly, we do this without asking our audience whether they want to get involved or not.  Thus we risk swapping one flawed model (one-way communication) for another (forced participation).  My analogy is that we’ve stopped boring people at the dinner party but we’re now dragging them up to dance, whether they want to or not.

My second concern is that we treat all categories, brands and audiences alike.  Even if we accept that some of us will sometimes want to interact with some brands, it’s patent nonsense to suggest that we’ll all be participating equally, with all companies, all of the time.

Anyway, after moaning about this for a while, I’ve come up with a simple model which might help a bit.

In a nutshell, I think it might be useful to think of Participation in terms of a 6 point spectrum (see, I told you it was simplistic).

At the extreme end of the scale, we have those rare occasions when people are genuinely interested in the product itself.  The iPhone 5 would be a recent example of this: there had been feverish speculation about the minutiae of the handset before, during and after launch.  In cases like this, brands can ask a lot of their audience because they are highly invested and actively want to participate.  For instance, when Dare launched the game ‘APB:  All Points Bulletin’ for EA Games, we asked fans to vote on the creation of a real-world, ‘human avatar’, resulting in a volunteer being tattooed, shaved and pierced at the whim of the crowd.

The mutilation of other human beings isn’t for every audience though…so maybe the next point on the spectrum is where consumers are very interested in the brand, just not in the detail of the product.  This might be the case, for instance, in the prestige car market.  Yes, I know there are some real petrolheads who will be as obsessive about the engine as the iPhone geeks are about the screen resolution.  But there will probably be more who are interested in the marque itself.  Therefore, the most appropriate way to engage them will be via the badge: exclusive drivers’ clubs, events, partnership marketing etc.

Unfortunately, not all of us have fascinating brands either.  And much though we may be frustrated by this, there’s no point in taking our frustration out on the consumer.  So perhaps the next point on the continuum should be to find a broader category that people are interested in.  I think Pampers does this really well, for instance.  P&G realises that mums aren’t particularly interested in the product spec of a nappy or the heritage of the brand.  But they are really interested in the broader category of being a parent.  So instead of forcing people to participate with them on a narrow point, the brand has created a forum which millions of mums actually want to visit.

Now, what if your audience isn’t interested in your product, brand or category?  Well, maybe the next question is whether they might be interested in a generic benefit that the brand has appropriated.  For example, young blokes aren’t too fussed about the technical aspects of anti-perspirants, the Lynx brand, or the wider male-grooming category.  But they are interested in getting laid!  So that strategic platform provides a place for them to come of their own accord (possibly literally, in this case).

In some markets, of course, discrete positionings are hard to carve out and it’s all about brand salience.  An example might be Compare the Market.  Frankly, consumers are not interested in the product, the brand, the category or the positioning.  But the creative idea has caught the imagination.  Hence millions of people have got themselves a cuddly meerkat in what has hitherto been viewed as a very functional marketplace.

Finally, there are some brands that people are really reluctant to participate with, no matter what you do.  I worked on HM Revenue & Customs for 10 years and that would be one!  Our brand strategy was simply to make things easier for people, under the banner that ‘Tax doesn’t have to be taxing’.  It would have been tempting, and in vogue, to make this fully participative (e.g. to gamify the experience, taking you through levels that would reveal just how easy the process is nowadays).  However, this would just have got in the way.  So instead, we focused on our own actions (simplifying the forms, the online registration process, repayment etc) rather than asking any more of taxpayers.

As I say, this model isn’t perfect.  I can see how some of the points on the spectrum blend into each other; how some brands may need to engage different audiences in different ways; how my list of options isn’t exhaustive and so on.

But hopefully it might make us think about participation rather than simply pursue it unquestioningly, as ‘the thing to do these days’.  In particular, it might help us to consider the issue from the consumer’s point-of-view (what are they interested in: the product, the brand, the category, the positioning, the creative idea or none of the above?) rather than forcing them to ‘engage’ on our terms.

Anyway, it’s a work in progress so I’d love to hear what you think.  But only if you want to tell me, of course…

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