Posts tagged participation

Fantastic video from IDEO setting out their thoughts on the future of books. Apart from the concepts themselves being excellent, I also love the way they’ve brought them to life - so often, exciting ideas like these can get lost in dull video.

When Participation Goes Bad

A few weeks ago I wrote a post in response to Brian, a disgruntled “consumer” who had written an ‘open letter to all of marketing and advertising’ objecting to brands’ attempts to stimulate consumer participation. I offered apologies to Brian, arguing that done right, participative campaigns can provide genuine value to consumers and promised to try harder in future.


…And then Kellogg’s goes and unleashes Pop It Forward, an idea so bad it makes me want to cry. The name, echoing charitable Pay it forward-type initiatives made me think that this was cause-related; that Kellogg’s are assuaging their guilt for encouraging mothers to feed their children chocolate desserts for breakfast. But this is not the case. Pop it Forward is in fact a competition which asks young people to submit their ‘Big Ideas’ as to what they would do with 1 million Pop Tarts. The people who have the best ideas (as voted by fans of the Pop Tarts Facebook page) receive a bulk delivery of ‘toaster pastries’ together with a film crew to capture for posterity their idea as they put it into action.



To help would-be participants along the way, the Facebook page includes an utterly baffling ‘Idea Generator’ which, when clicked, provides insightful suggestions like ‘Gifted’ ‘Wish’ ‘Kitten’ (me neither). And to whet our appetites, they have posted a series of ‘Inspiration Videos’ on their YouTube Channel which provide example ‘Big Ideas’. My personal favorite is ‘Inspirational Video Baseball Game’ where Krysta shares her plan. If she could get her hands on 1000 Pop Tarts she would ‘give them out to anyone I could’ and proceeds to hand out Pop Tarts at a baseball game.



So have Kellogg’s been deluged by people desperate to share their ‘big ideas’ and get their hands on the goodies? When I originally checked the campaign’s Facebook page (which I had to ‘like’ to access doing untold damage to my carefully-managed social network persona) they said they would be sharing ideas on September 20th. But when I checked back on 20th, no ideas had appeared. Competition entries have since begun to filter through with the main themes being ‘I would eat a load and then give the rest away’ with ‘the homeless’, ‘the elderly’ and ‘the lactose intolerant’ the most likely recipients. Despite over 2 million people ‘liking’ Pop Tarts on Facebook, very few ideas have been submitted and the vast majority of these ideas have received no votes.

So why am I singling out this campaign from all the other misguided attempts to stimulate participation which upset Brian and make our industry look stupid? The reason that this campaign is so bad is that it benefits nobody – it is completely pointless. For participatory campaigns to work they must be mutually beneficial: something consumers choose to engage with because they find doing so in some way rewarding (they receive a prize, they look cool in front of their friends etc). And the brand should also benefit because by choosing to participate, those consumers perceive something compelling about it (whether something specific like that it has a new product or more general about its unique outlook on the world) that they would not have understood had they not taken the time to do so.

Uniqlo’s Lucky Counter is a case in point. The initiative asks consumers to tweet about a selection of the brand’s products in return for a discount on them. The brand benefits because potential customers are exposed to a range of its products and share those products with other potential customers via Twitter on the brand’s behalf. Those participants benefit because by sharing said products, they receive a discount on them. A simple, mutually-beneficial transaction.  


I may be missing something but as far as I can see, no one benefits from Pop it Forward. I’m assuming that Kellogg’s aren’t suggesting Pop Tarts as a solution to feeding the homeless meaning that the only thing that this initiative communicates is that they have lots of Pop Tarts and that they want people to eat them (not an obvious reason to invest millions of dollars in a marketing campaign). They are not asking their fans to help them choose a new flavor or package design or even using this initiative as a platform to launch an inspiring new brand idea. If it were a TV ad, it would be a Kellogg’s executive appearing on screen saying ‘buy Pop Tarts’ without offering any reason why anyone would ever want to.

And the lack of any sort of idea guiding the initiative makes it very hard for conumers to engage with. Of course, the real prize on offer is not the Pop Tarts themselves but (in Henrik Werdelin’s words) the ‘opportunity to look awesome in front of their friends’ as they demonstrate their creativity through the activation of their ‘big idea’ on film. But since they are being given no tangible inspiration, it is unsurprising that the ideas they are contributing are so equally uninspiring. For the consumer, this initiative is neither useful or entertaining. It is, however, eminently ignorable.

So what do we learn from this? Nothing new or startling: brands must stand for things beyond the things they hope to sell. It is only by finding ways to engage people that we can hope to get their attention, win their affection and encourage them to consider us. This was as true for traditional approaches to marketing (TV ads needed to entertain or touch or shock… so that the audience would be paying attention when the sales pitch happened) and it is also true for more participatory approaches – participation isn’t an idea (this is the trap Kellogg’s has fallen into), it is an outcome: the result of an engaging initiative that benefits both the brand and the consumer.  

Want to create participation? Help them to help you

Last week I wrote a piece arguing that if the objective of our campaigns is to stimulate consumer participation (and amplification of our message via social media), the effort that we ask of them must be proportionate to the reward we offer in return. The key question is, how can brands get consumers working on their behalf in a way that also works on their behalf?


Image by David Mejias 

The easiest answer to this question is: would I be prepared to participate in the scheme we’re dreaming up or would I be worried about looking like a dick in front of my friends? This may sound blindingly obvious but think about it next time you’re in a brainstorm dreaming up new ways in which consumers will help you spread the word about your socks, light-bulbs, detergent (I certainly wish I’d had it written on my hand in a few).

Key to this is understanding how and why people use social networks in the first place. In many instances, social networks are about providing people with a platform to ‘sell’ themselves. An opportunity to reveal their wit, taste, knowledge, ahead-of-the-curve-ness… via their status updates, comments and wall-posts; the things they ‘like’ or tweet, the places they check-in, the photos and videos they share. In doing so, they are creating value, ‘selling’ themselves to existing and potential friends and followers, augmenting (or even creating) real-world relationships.

As a recent SDSU study finds, 57% of young people believe their generation uses social networking sites for “self-promotion, narcissism and attention seeking”. And they have enough on their plates with self-promotion without having to worry about promotion brands as well.

Henrik Werdelin argues that ‘virality is about making your users look awesome in front of their friends’ and suggests that we should be asking ourselves: “How will the message I want spread make my audience look cool or clever?” providing a series of examples:

1. Make them show they are early adopters. Make users feel important by giving them something to say about themselves, e.g. I am a user of this new cool software – it’s still in closed beta – but I can try to get you an invite.

 2. Make them seem funny or interesting. When adding a  ‘tell/invite a friend’ into your sign-up flow be sure to spend extra time making your invite email interesting. You are essentially the ghost-writer for your users. Make them sound funny or interesting – they will want to share your story with more people.

3. Allow people to add their personal touch to your story. Users are more likely to spread stories that have their own personal touch. So leave room for them to add their fingerprint to your narrative easily. I guess my best example is to always allow for a bit of space when you do tweets – so people can add their own comment to your narrative. By doing that, you allow your audience to become co-senders. If that fails, then piggyback your message on to something entertaining, as a last resort, in case there is no other way to make the message itself cool to communicate. Just think of how OfficeMax have made you

4. Make people better storytellers by giving them templates of ‘guide them’. Facebook’s initial status update did this delicately by adding the ‘Henrik is…’ to each update. This forced users to write a certain type of update and allowed them to be more creative by working within the template of the ‘Henrik is…’ template. A new trend is to give people personal information about themselves to share via Behaviour Generated Content generation.

Whilst marketers may be tempted to employ old-media tactics to broadcast to the huge audiences engaged in social networks, it is only by understanding the reason that these people are so engaged and adding value to their experience that we can harness these huge numbers.


The other option of course is to buy their dignity by offering a reward so great that they will happily sell-out their hard-earned reputations. Ben Southall, now the recipient of the best job in the world waged a social media campaign that his friends must have got bored of quicker than a Farmville addiction in order to secure it.  

Still, there may be hope for him. In an interview last week, Eric Schmidt called for people to be given the opportunity to change their names in order to escape their embarrassing social media pasts (in what Colbert brilliantly referred to as Ctrl-Self-Delete). In addition to people fleeing from videos of them rapping or photos of them downing shots, this may also provide them relief from the damage that ‘liking’ a butter brand or changing their profile picture for a bank in a moment of rashness did to their carefully-constructed reputations.

The power of participative marketing to engage and enrage

Where once we simply looked to fill ad space, today we spend more and more of our time looking to drive consumer participation with brands. The thinking, as eloquently expressed by my colleague DB, is that consumers (helped by PVRs, music streaming services like Pandora etc etc) are creating ‘personal firewalls’ allowing them to lead blissfully advertising-free lives and enabling them to engage with brands only when they choose to.


Once our objective was damage limitation: we intruded on our captive audience’s TV viewing or magazine reading and hoped that we could win them round with funny / catchy / emotive / silly advertising so that they might remember us next time they were in the supermarket / car showroom / online… But today this captive audience has all-but disappeared, meaning that brand engagement must be a more positive choice – when you aren’t compelled to engage with a brand, why would you when there are so many more interesting things to do? Our new task, as argued by Gareth Kay is to create ideas that give people something in return for their attention: ideas that actually do something rather than just talking up our new toothpaste, car, perfume, cat-food. Citing examples like Nike+ and Fiat Eco Drive, he calls for us to ‘get into the business of creating communication products and out of the business of simply communicating products.’

Though this ‘give and take’ relationship with consumers entails more work and exposes brands to greater risks (Skittles anyone?), the rewards for getting participation right are significant. Thanks to their ability to spread brand messages far and wide via social media, engaged individuals represent a larger (in many cases) and significantly more persuasive channel than any TV or poster campaign we may have bought in the past, meaning that if we can create a sufficiently compelling ‘communication product’, they will work on our behalf to popularize it.

Where once the brief may have been ‘do me a 1984 or a Sony Balls’, it is increasingly ‘do me an Old Spice / VW Fun Theory / (insert flavor of the month here)’. But for every brilliantly conceived, so-simple-an-idea-you-wished-you’d-had-it, even-your-mum’s-talking-about-it, participation-driving-social-media-phenomenon, there are numerous others which fail to hit the mark. And of course, in our super-connected world, antagonizing consumers is the last thing we want to do: participation has more power to engage than traditional marketing approaches but it also has more power to piss people off.


In an open letter to ‘all of advertising and marketing’ (which has gone viral, striking a chord with consumers bombarded with ill-conceived invitations to participate) that objects to a campaign for a sausage brand, Brian (he doesn’t give his surname) writes “I don’t want to make a film, or draw a picture, or nominate a friend. Or compose a sound-track, or re-edit your advert.” He continues “I know it must be very tempting to sit in your nice, comfy offices and dream up schemes where normal people like me forget our everyday cares and participate in your marketing. But…please, please, PLEASE…Leave me alone.”

I have a suspicion that Brian may be from within our industry and this may be a hoax but whatever the truth, he raises a valid question: are there some categories and some brands where attempting to drive participation is inappropriate?

It is certainly true to say that the campaigns that often stimulate the most participation are from categories and brands (like the ‘Why so serious’ alternative reality game which launched ‘The Dark Knight’ or ‘The Best Job in the World’ which showcased one of the most beautiful places on earth) that people genuinely care about. But in these cases, consumers were not participating with the film or the Great Barrier Reef, they were participating with an idea (a communications product) inspired by them. The Barrier Reef has existed for many millions of years and the Batman franchise for 70 without a huge amount of social media buzz. It was the creation of compelling ‘communications products’ around them which got people participating.

The same goes for more mundane brands and categories. Given all the other distractions available to them, for consumers to spend time thinking about (participating with) blenders or soda would be and odd choice. But this is exactly what they do thanks to ‘Will it blend?’ and ‘The refresh project’, compelling ‘communications products’ that have been created around Blendtec and Pepsi and have successfully driven participation.

In his letter, Brian says ‘If you’d like to tell me what’s good about your product, fine. I may buy it. I may not.’ This is a perfectly logical approach and one that often used to work. That is in the days when Brian had little option other than to listen to what brands had to say. But now I fear that he has put up his personal firewall and is blanking out marketing messages meaning we have little option other than to attempt to communicate what it is that’s good about the product via more participative means.

So rather than condemn the sausage brand in question for attempting to stimulate participation, we should question the ‘mode of participation’ they sought. Finding itself in a low interest category, Blendtec doesn’t make big demands of its audience. It simply asks that people endorse its brand in the form of sharing links to, ‘liking’ and ‘tweeting’ the videos that it creates. I would argue that the mystery sausage brand’s mistake was to blindly seek participation without considering what its audience wants / needs and how a communication product could provide them with genuine value.

imageIdentifying the appropriate ‘mode of participation’ is as important as the idea at the heart of the brand.

Given our changed brandscape (and despite Brian’s protestations), I believe that creating participation around brands will be absolutely key to their future success. And that even the most mundane products and brands, by understanding the role they play (or could play) in consumer’s lives have the opportunity to create compelling, value-adding communications products. But for these communications products to be successful, the demands they make on consumers must be proportionate to the reward they offer in return. Where traditional campaigns were about getting the message right, participative campaigns demand that we also get the ‘mode of participation’ right.

Given the miniscule readership of my blog, I’m unable to apologize on behalf of ‘all of advertising and marketing’. But on behalf of me and others who believe that done well, participative marketing is the future; sorry, we’ll do better next time. 

How should planners organize their time?

I’ve spent a certain amount of time over the last few months thinking about the skills required for planners as our industry evolves – hereherehere & here.


Clock Clock by Humans since 1982

This is an exciting time for planning. Disciplines are converging meaning that we’re no longer restricted to (brand, media, digital, data etc.) silos while increasingly sophisticated and participatory campaigns call for us to play a far more active and creative role in the development of work (vs. handing over a brief and twiddling our thumbs while we wait for the tracking results). Today we are less the strategy department doing the thinking so that creatives can concentrate on crafting TV scripts and headlines and more a part of a broader team of creators, working together towards creative solutions to our clients’ business problems. But feeling excited about the possibilities of our evolving discipline is different to having time to actually realize them (whatever they say about our cognitive surplus).

Just before moving to New York, I attended an APG (British Account Planning Group) ‘group mentoring’ event hoping to discuss the weighty issues of the day and learn at the feet of that evening’s assigned mentor. Except that we didn’t get past the first point on the agenda “what’s on your mind?” The session was completely dominated by planners moaning about how little time they have. Lack of thinking time, lack of time to interrogate problems, lack of time to spend with creatives coaxing out ideas – like the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, we were in terror of time ticking away. 


Whilst planners can be delicate souls who enjoy a bit of a moan and a naval-gaze (Carroll described the white rabbit as ‘wearing spectacles…his voice quaver, and his knees quiver, and his whole air suggest a total inability to say ‘Boo’ to a goose!” which could equally be applied to our kind), I was startled by the unanimity of the sentiment and the depth of feeling. Particularly when industry trends suggest that this ‘speed-up’ of the way we work will only continue to gather pace. Our clients are having to engage in ever more ‘real-time’ interactions with consumers calling for less theorizing and more doing. This means that our work is increasingly ‘in beta’ as we look to hone and refine, test and learn, iterate and optimize. The ability to continually track consumer sentiment and engage with them whenever and whenever they are is a blessing but it can also be a curse (just ask my wife). The notion of a campaign going ‘out the door’ is something we may never fully experience again.

So how is a planner to reconcile the growing demands on our time?

For me, our jobs can be divided into 3 parts – Inspiration, Creation and Administration – our key challenge: finding the correct balance between them. 



Both inspiring ourselves through our reading, research and conversations with others and providing inspiration to our colleagues and clients – creating the right conditions for great work.

This activity demands that we be connected. The growth of social media has brought unprecedented opportunities for planners to share data and access sources of insight previously out of reach. We are no longer held back by lack of information (Blogs, articles distributed via Tweets, presentations on Slideshare mean that we can find almost whatever we desire), our obstacle is our ability to organize it into something useful. We are lucky to do jobs where browsing the net counts as homework but to consider this activity a luxury is a mistake. The gathering of intelligence and insight is a vital activity and not one that we should put on hold when we’re pushed for time.


Having gathered our inspiration, we put it to work during the process of creation. Whether working alone or as part of a team, the objective is to come up with the creative solutions that will engage consumers and solve our client’s problems.

Our abundance of information and inspiration is a wonderful thing but it can also be overwhelming. There must come a point where we switch off and direct our energies towards creation – a process I find easier when disconnected. Nicholas Carr argues in ‘The Shallows’ that the internet has altered the chemistry of our brains, making us less able to concentrate on complexity and more prone to flitting from one ting to the next. Though the debate rages, I notice this trend in my own behavior and find that I’m most productive on long flights ie. when there are no distractions (I dread the introduction of WiFi to the 14 hour-er to Seoul on my way to Samsung where I do much of my best work). Without distractions, I’m able to focus on a problem and work thorough its intricacies without the temptation of taking a Facebook break if it gets complicated. This week I will be experimenting with the freedom app which locks you out of email and the internet for a pre-determined amount of time to allow for proper concentration on the task at hand.


Emailing, organizing… all the boring stuff that gets the bills paid. Though important and not particularly taxing, this activity saps time and is a favorite of procrastinators. We must put a time limit on it and get it done to enable us to do something more useful.

So how should planners manage their time. By connecting with others and gathering sufficient inspiration to allow them to shed new light on a problem, by allowing adequate time and space for creation and by getting administration done as quickly and efficiently as possible. I’ll check in soon to let you know how I’m doing.

This year’s Cannes Lions mark a shift from the age of celebrated creatives to one of collective creators


With the exception of the wonderfully written and realized Old Spice campaign which picked up the Film Grand Prix, one could easily view this year’s (and last year’s for that matter) Cannes victors as marking a definitive shift in the DNA of great communications.


If the last 50 years of our industry has been beholden to the talents of great individuals (epitomized by Don Draper who magics award-winning ideas out of the bottom of glasses of scotch), campaigns such as AMV’s ‘Choose a different ending’, DDB Stockholm’s ‘Fun Theory’ or Crispin Porter’s ‘Twelpforce’ are characterized by the collective labors of broader teams of creators.


W+K have shown with the Old Spice and Nike ‘Write The Future’ campaigns that the ability to agonize over a 60 second film, to hone and craft every frame and make every split second a delight remains an important skill. But at the same time, such opportunities are increasingly thin on the ground. Spending this much time and effort is only worthwhile if we can ensure that the content will be consumed in a set form; but as we know this is increasingly not the case with consumers assuming control. Just as brands are becoming used to consumers interacting with them on their own terms, so too must agencies.

And this is creating a different approach to idea generation. Where advertising was judged on the basis of its visual and verbal execution, this year’s Cannes winners stand out thanks to the quality of their core ideas, applied to our changing media landscape. A chalk-toting robot which allows consumers to participate in the Tour De France, a platform which enables us to get tech support more efficiently, an experience that gives us an understanding of the causes and consequences of knife violence rather than simply telling us that it’s a bad idea. All of these ideas were the work of creative minds though not the excusive preserve of a conventional creative department. Indeed, without the up-front input of broader teams of creators: media specialists, technologists and industrial designers, none of these inspiring campaigns would ever have seen the light of day.