The problem with participation

Now that’s a swisssh. Image courtesy of ..Emma..

The participation band wagon rolls on in adland with agencies and clients seeming content to sacrifice effective communications for a couple of the clinically insane and the entire staff of the PR agency uploading some old tat to a website in the name of ‘doing something on facebook’.

We are all aware of the howlers like the much ridiculed Kingsmill Confessions and my personal favourite, Pantene’s upload your swish. Despite Cat Deeley reassuring us that everyone is doing it (that’s uploading their swisssh) I can find proof that only 1,925 women have actually bothered. And when they can drum up a following, how many participatory campaigns are actually working as pieces of effective communication? Its true that McCain have managed to bribe 11,000 people to like their ‘guilty secret’ facebook page (good knows why but lets assume it’s the freebie trip to New York that is the primary motivator) however research by Wavemetrix suggests that few people are getting the basic idea that McCain rustic oven chips are a healthier option, which surely is the reason the Client is paying good money for this activity.
So how do you get it right? Well there have been some excellent posts on planning for participation recently with few more helpful than this from the excellent Patricia MacDonald at Planning in high heels. She identifies the need to understand who you really want to participate and to what degree and critically what their motivation fpr doing this will be. Not to mention the need to understand the trade off between effort and reward which clearly seems to escape anyone using the word ‘upload’ in their current campaign. And of course there is the great Clay Shirkey matra about people needing the means, motive and opportunity to take part which works for me.
However, while all of this is helpful I think there are two issues that continue to dog participatory campaigns. The after thought issue and the performing monkey issue.
The after thought issue is based on my personal view that if you leave participation to the end of the planning and creative development process you are doomed, you have to plan for participation right from the start. But this isn’t about re-engineering the agency process, inter-discipline collaboration, briefing the creative technologist at the same time as the teams, putting communications planning (or whatever we are calling it this week) at the start of the journey or any of that noble stuff that seems to get people excited. Planning for participation is about building brands and communications that invite and inspire participation from the outset.
You cannot hope to involve people in a campaign unless the brand is up to something interesting. And you cannot hope to involve people in the life of a brand unless the brand seems to care about something or things that real human beings care about, rather than endlessly repeating the brand’s obsessions to them. And that’s about as complex as it gets, they are if you like three sequential steps to participation heaven.
1. Start by making sure your brand cares about something that people care about, that it has a point of view on or a contribution to make to the lives that they lead. I’d call out Good Food Deserves Lurpak as a damn good example of a brand that’s aligned itself with the values of food lovers across Britain. For my money this is the planner’s responsibility.
2. Then do something interesting with this. I know this sounds incredibly obvious but I’m going to bang on about brands being interesting and doing interesting until more of them do (like any of them are listening). Being interesting is the social currency of our age and the only currency we have to work with as the value of paid for conversations declines. The success of the T-Mobile campaign has had a lot to do with giving it a brand purpose in Life’s for Sharing but it’s the way that the brand has done interesting stuff with that idea that has driven extremely high levels of participation with the brand.
3. Then and only then do you deserve to ask the question. How are we going to enable people to join in and play? If anyone is playing with Old Spice and they do appear to be don’t they, then its not just because of the genius of Ian Tait, manifest though it is, it’s because the brand strategy is inspiring and the ads are fucking brilliant.
And as for the performing monkey issue? Well that’s for the next post ladies and gentlemen.

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