Briefing for Participation

Changes to consumer behaviour can now impact our clients’ businesses in more diverse ways than ever before

For good or ill, most campaigns today want consumers to participate with them in some way-even if that participative act is as a simple as a like, a share or a vote.

We may well debate the commercial merits of the participative approach as a solution to every problem. Martin Weigel makes an excellent point in his post “The Participation Paradox” about our preoccupation with fandom versus the realities of a market where a majority of consumers purchase infrequently and disloyally, and a majority of brands grow by increasing penetration, not frequency.

It’s an excellent-and timely-point but for me it means we need to think about our consumers less as fans (with the relatively passive admiration that implies) and more as actors: collaborators, salesforces, promoters and co-creators.

Likewise, the demands some participative campaigns can make on the consumer are beyond all sense or reason, as Brian, the “target demographic” reminds us.

Taking these excellent points on board, however, the fact is that more and more of us are participating with content in some way – social media, and Facebook in particular-has disrupted the traditional 1: 9: 90 rule beloved of those observing participation inequalities towards a model where more and more of us are commenting, liking and sharing.  Some 33% of consumers fall into Forrester’s “Conversationalists” segment-those who regularly update social media profiles. Recent research from the BBC further bears this out, identifying 77% of consumers as participating online in some way.

The Participation Choice, from the BBC Online Briefing for 2012, by Holly Goodier

Moreover, more and more of the content we consume is content that has been filtered by our friends’ participation. According to Trendstream’s Global Web Index, 28.8% of users have viewed an on-line video on the basis of a friend’s recommendation, while 17% have read a news article on that basis. These numbers are only likely to grow-so if we want our content to be visible at all through what Eli Pariser calls the “filter bubble” we’re going to need some level of participation.

Most importantly, however, participation disrupts business models. The ability of millions of our customers to share, promote, surface, create and sell has disrupted industries at the most profound level. Participation has disrupted supply models (think Air BNB), pricing models (think Lucky Counter or Pay with a tweet) and distribution models (think ASOS marketplace, Kiosked or Shopinterest).  Our task is to ensure participation disrupts our clients’ businesses in the right way.

So how do we get better at briefing for participation? (Remember Brian….)

I believe there are three key ways in which our briefs need to change:

 1.A business problem is a behavioural change in disguise

2. Think about network insights, not (only) consumer insights

3. Move from “the single thing we want to say” to “the single thing we’re going to make or do”

1. A business  problem is a behavioural change in disguise:

 In the old world, a number of outside forces impacted on consumer behaviour-among them product, promotion, price and distribution. Creating increased demand could only impact a brand’s fortunes so far. Today, the effect of the social web is that this dynamic can be reversed. By changing consumer behaviour, enabled by technology, we can not only increase demand, we can increase supply, increase the number of distribution points a brand has, increase its salesforce or its capacity to deal with customer service queries. This transforms the potential role of agencies from impacting a relatively small lever within the mix (the best poster in the world can only really make more people buy the same product, at the same price, in the same place) to fundamentally impacting on our clients’ business. If the core problem is distribution, product relevance, pricing models or ability to surface relevant inventory we can address all these issues in a way advertising alone cannot.

Changes to consumer behaviour can now impact our clients’ businesses in more diverse ways than ever before

To do that though, we need a clear, simple, granular articulation of their businesses problems:

-We need 1m light users to buy one more pack of butter a year

-Our rate of sale is spectacular but poor distribution is impacting our ability to grow

-Delivery costs are stripping the margin from our business

Then we need to understand the kind of participation we need to tackle those problems:

-We need each of our light users to take part in one more baking occasion a year

-We need our fans to become our distribution channel

-We need to incentivise users to pool their delivery slots

Fundamentally, we need to move from “nice” participation-share your story, share your pictures, share your videos-to what Clay Shirky describes as “jackhammer sharing”-sharing that breaks things.

So question 1 when briefing for participation would read: What do we need people to do (to break things)?

2. Think about network insights, not (only) consumer insights

I’ve written about this extensively before so I won’t labour the point, but: in a world where so much of the content we consume is consumed via our networks, treating our consumers as autonomous individuals exclusive of social context feels increasingly redundant. Of course we still need to know who we are targeting and how they feel about our brand or category, but equally importantly we need to know what kinds of networks they are in, what the dynamics of those networks are, what their motivations are to share, what and where they share. We need to understand what drives participation among their networks of choice-is it about the symmetry of the relationship or about the size of their audience?

We need to go beyond “they like Farmville and texting” to genuine insights-from the what to the why. If, for example, we know that teenage girls upload 21 photos each a month and that they account for 6% of Facebook’s UK audience but 44% of all page “likes” it tells us something about the importance of image, their need for validation, their willingness to use brands in the on-line space to construct their identity. And it tells us that if, as a brand, we asked them to show off their latest purchases to friends in exchange for a discount or for a role as a brand ambassador we might be pushing on an open door*.

These networks insights help us move from understanding what we need users to do, to answering the second fundamental question:

Why would they do it-what are their network motivations?

3. From the single thing we want to say to the single thing we’re going to make or do

So we know what we want people to do and we know something about why they might do it. The question then is what piece of stimulus will the brand provide to prompt them into action?

Typically, this is where the proposition or “the single thing we want to say” comes in.  However, we’ve established that:

  • Participation disrupts business models
  • Consumers’ ability to partcipate has the power to impact our client’s businesses in more profound ways than ever before
  • The solution to a much more diverse range of business problems than ever before lies in changes to consumer behaviour

So if we want to change behaviour,  talking at consumers probably won’t have the desired effect. To put it another way, as Clay Shirky says:

“Behaviour is motivation filtered by opportunity”

We know the behaviour we need to change-what we need people to do. We know what their motivations are. So what opportunity are we going to provide them with?

  • What new distribution channels are we going to open up?
  • What new services are we going to create?
  • What new pricing models are we going to develop?
“Behaviour is motivation filtered by opportunity” Clay Shirky

For me, that’s when our briefs become incredibly exciting and our work doesn’t have to plead for users to participate with it, or generate lots of participation but limited sales effect. That’s when participation lies at the heart of business performance. So, in summary, the three key questions at the heart of the modern brief are for me:

  • What do we need people to do?
  • Why would they do it?
  • What are we going to make or do that will enable them to do it? 

(*With thanks to Nimi and Zanya for knowing a *lot* about teenage girls and digital behaviours.)








5 thoughts on “Briefing for Participation

  1. Loved this presentation A LOT, especially aiming for behavioural change and network insights. However, really got to question the assertion that participation is a way of life:
    First, even if it is, it doesn’t mean that it’s right for brands to muscle in.
    Secondly, the BBC data, as presented, is at best flaky. Is this claimed behaviour? Observed? What was the question they answered? Just as most people claim they are not affected by ‘advertising’ when, of course, they are, I wonder if the truth of people ‘participating’ is as unreliable?
    Just saying

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