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The Age of Participation

Alistair Duncan
The Age of Participation Alistair Duncan

"The more in control we are, the more out of touch we become. But the more willing we are to let go a little, the more we're finding we get in touch with consumers."

So says AJ Lafley, CEO of Procter and Gamble, whose company has invested significantly in advertising to consumers since the industry began.  So what’s changed this advertiser’s mind about how to treat consumers?

On the one hand, the answer lies in understanding the increasingly complicated life of the media planner, who has to decide how much (or little) money is invested in each of the proliferating channels available to today’s marketer. For context, it’s worth mentioning the 285 UK radio stations, 14 national and 90 regional daily newspapers, countless posters (over 82,000 sites on the London Underground alone), the 6,300 business magazines published every month and of course the six (yes six) hours worth of new content posted to Youtube every hour.
On the other hand, it’s all down to the consumer, who cares little in giving freely the attention formerly lavished on Benson and Hedges extravaganza commercials. Indeed, we as an industry have focused on the term ‘engagement’ to force ourselves to create marketing communications that actually ‘engage’ the consumer. It remains astounding to me that anyone would claim to have created a campaign that didn’t.

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. It’s true that we live in a world where getting consumers’ attention is harder than ever. Not only can they watch more channels, listen to more radio stations, read more blogs and get more text alerts on any subject under the sun, but they increasingly switch off from the hundreds of thousands of advertising messages confronting them everyday.

If you were trained in marketing by Procter and Gamble, it is very likely that you would have had the classical mix of product, price, place and promotion drummed into you from day one. And this will have stood you in good stead for many years. Those responsible for brand survival today, however, need to introduce a fifth P to the mix. This stands for ‘participation’. Only consumer participation provides a strategic answer to brands seeking a model to bring more consumers into the brand’s world, under their own terms.

This works at a level of persuading consumers to become involved in the brand in the first instance, and where consumer expectations for self service overrides all forms of previous customer management. The enormous advances of communication technologies and their widespread adoption make all this rather interesting and maddening too, as the opportunities for participation proliferate in the marketing armoury, far more than could have been dreamed possible at the time the book The Persuaders was written.

It’s not as if it’s simple though. It helps if the brand stands for something. Nike, irritatingly for those not working on it, springs to mind. Or has a strategy to become something that consumers can believe in. General Electric’s http://www.imaginationcubed.com/ is a pleasant example of a brand recognising it needs to allow the consumer help shape what it says.  Or, indeed, is simply sponsoring inventiveness. http://www.fingerskilz.tv/ is a example where HP promoted a new virtual football sport to celebrate the fact that “it’s more important than that”, as Bill Shankly pointed out. Even brands that have sat in the ‘difficult’ box can benefit from participation marketing, as witnessed by the quite hilarious “if Microsoft had invented the ipod” virals, commissioned by Microsoft itself.

These brands have recognised that giving the consumer freedom, and in some instances, carte blanche to create opinion about the brand, allows the collective affinity principle to take effect. And this can be measured, and make a significant difference. All of which, in my humble opinion, makes this the most exciting time to be in marketing ever.


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