The Powers and Perils of Participation

By CarolinebosherPosted September 5, 2010

This is a guest post by Mel Exon, co-founder of BBH Labs:
Ulysses & The Sirens by Herbert Draper

Don’t get me wrong. Like a lot of us, I’ve argued long and hard in favour of brands embracing new behaviours if they’re to drive real cultural and commercial impact. To invite participation; to get out there and allow their customers in. And in terms of audience appetite for this, we’ve even gone as far as to question whether Jakob Nielsen’s 90:9:1 rule – that states the vast majority of visitors to any website are only there to lurk – will hold water for much longer in this post last year.

We’re going to continue arguing the case for new behaviour, not against. Nonetheless, there have been a couple of instances that have given us pause for thought recently.

First up, back in August this year, there was that letter from a guy named Brian, begging the marketing industry to stop pestering him to participate. Was it a spoof? Maybe. But we all shuddered and shared it, presumably because a small splinter of truth ran through it. Closer to home and on a related theme, it reminded us of Tim Geoghegan’s (@timogeo) 2009 tragi-comic ’360 degree campaign’ wheel, which manages to point out both the excesses and the futility of what – in the wrong hands – becomes a circular box-ticking exercise (still) for too many agencies and clients (as per the image above.)

Putting even gentle cynicism aside, in short I’ve been feeling uncomfortable, nudged into thinking harder about participation in particular.

Why? Primarily, I think, because we all sense the marketing community at large appears to have reached a tipping point. The social web is still comparatively young, but in the face of eroding value elsewhere, marketers are flocking to it as if it’s the promised land.  As more and more brands pour onto Facebook, Twitter, knock-up a quick social game or crowdsource their next commercial, how many are *really* adding sustainable value?  To paraphrase 37 signalshow many are boosting the signal, not just increasing the noise?

Just because a ’launch and leave’ approach is increasingly ineffective, doesn’t mean the opposite is immediately true of social or participative ideas. Being on Facebook doesn’t automatically mean it’s good. As more and more brands join an ’always on’ world, we owe it to our audiences to think pretty hard about what we do, when and how.

Here’s a round-up of some of the things we’re learning at BBH:

1. As we’re very fond of saying: Be entertaining or be useful. Or be ignored. It’s a simple premise: if a brand only talks about itself in a social space and doesn’t stop to check you have something people want to listen to and get involved with… well, we doubt an audience will cause a big fuss and leave overnight. Unfortunately, it won’t be that dramatic. A gradual exodus is more likely.

2. 365 is still a better number than 360. Better to concentrate on the eco-system of your idea, the relationship between activity on different platforms and also how it plays out over time in daily conversation, than worrying if it lives in every single channel, ticks every box.

3. Be yourself. It’s nigh impossible to maintain a Potemkin Village-style facade if a brand is always on. Better to work out what you stand for and what you believe in, then find ways to reach communities you can exchange value with. It’s near heretical to say it, but I’d argue a clearly defined set of values or beliefs are more essential to a brand than an organising thought or idea.

4. Short time-frame communications events are the ’new’ campaigns. Think Burberry 3D globally integrated, social shows once a season and of course Old Spice: 186 videos produced in a 48 hour awesome binge of a Response campaign, then a gracious bowing out. Ditto Ben & Jerry’s 100 fair trades. By definition you can’t continuously maintain a ’spike’ when activity is this intense. Nowadays it’s about having an ongoing bedrock of conversational and transactional marketing in owned and earned media, with timely new releases that play a vital role in fuelling and broadening that interaction.

5. Look where you can provide difference. Nothing new here: if you offer exactly what everyone else offers in the same places, why would someone choose your brand? If you’re getting stuck, look outside for external sources of inspiration. “Do interesting things, and interesting things happen to you” as our own John Hegarty says.

6. Don’t declare the death of anything, unless it really doesn’t have a pulse. I’m mindful of the recent upwards blip in discussions about display advertising’s future, not least inCalle’s post here. (As an aside, my favourite title for a post ever is “The Tragic Death of Practically Everything“, hat tip Nick Bilton).

7. Look hard at the implications for organisational behaviour. A massive topic in its own right, but in short there really is no-where to hide. Managing conversations and producing digital outputs pushes *everyone* to face outwards; organisations to be open vs closed; to work in ways that are iterative and responsive; to understand speed is a competitive advantage. And finally, to leave our egos at the door and understand the need for excellent curation alongside creative and commercial vision.

Whilst this post may be about drawing breath for a second and deliberately evaluating the ’here and now’, I’m not thinking for a moment that there’s any chance of turning back or slowing down. I’m also sure these thoughts are just a start. What do you think? What’s there to add?

Mel Exon is co-founder and Managing Partner of BBH Labs, Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s global innovation unit. BBH is an independently owned, global creative ad agency with six regional hubs worldwide. BBH Labs is the agency’s outwardly-focused technology-driven innovation arm, focused on ensuring the company is as smart as possible when it comes to change and the embracing of emerging platforms, processes and partners. Read the BBH Labs blog and follow her on Twitter