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The Participation Choice

9 August, 2012

It’s interesting isn’t it, participation?

As Patricia McDonald over at Planning for High Heels points out, participation is a bit of a marketing preoccupation.

It’s often the solution to many a brief. Rightly or wrongly.

Because we’re told,”we all do it. The behaviour is growing. It’s mainstream. It’s easy. All demographics are at it. It’s the rule, not the exception”.

So take a look at this video from Holly Goodier, head of planning at BBC Future Media, presenting some research conducted by her team on how the UK’s population participates online. By digital participation, the BBC have defined it as:

Creating and contributing online so that others can see

(Unpacking that slightly – ‘others’being – everyone from sharing a tweet with the whole world to sharing a link with your best mate via email and ‘creating and contributing’ –  from a Facebook ‘like’, writing a book on Amazon, to flogging your old BBQ with an online ad on Gumtree or uploading photos and creating and maintaining a blog).

The analysis seems to suggest that there are a lot more people ‘participating’ than the previously mooted 10% the 1-9-90 rule had perhaps allowed for.

(For the record, I wasn’t involved in the research and I have no idea if the figures reported are claimed/ observed behaviours).

In the post, Holly highlights six themes. I want to comment on one:

Digital participation now is best characterised through the lens of choice. These are the decisions we take about whether, when, with whom and around what, we will participate. Because participation is now much more about who we are, than what we have, or our digital skill.

In other words, it is your character – your attitudes, beliefs and interests which will determine to what extent you participate (if at all) online. There are no demographic skews, there are no early adopters or laggards. There are no shortcuts. The tools are accessible to all and it has never been easier to ‘participate’.

So we’ve hit a UK saturation point in the internet’s evolution. We can. But still, not all, do.

What I find bemusing knowing this is the constant bombardment from marketing agencies to prospective clients on how they will enable potential and existing customers to ‘take part’/ ‘join in’/ ‘engage’ with a brand when clearly not everyone is motivated to do so. Moreover, what chance does an ad campaign have when they barely participate with those they already have a relationship with (remember Brian). Sure, you may come to the conclusion after some thorough network analysis that an appropriate strategy is to propagate a message through those that do participate to reach those that don’t (thereby jumping on the Facebook gravy train and also the lazy, post rationalised answer for selling an agency’s ‘social media services’) but again, we shouldn’t start with the solution.

Perhaps this is brought about by considering the beliefs, attitudes and interests of someone who works in advertising and particularly those who take to digital media to espouse how the world of communication is changing. More likely than not, they sit within the 17% ‘intense’ online participants – show me a digital agency and I’ll show you their team’s online exhaust. The point being their own attitude to digital technology informs their belief on how marketing should now work.

But as Holly’s research demonstrates, not everyone has the same attitudes to online participation. To suggest that your agency’s social media team is representative for the population at large is wrong. Most people simply aren’t as narcissistic (nor perhaps incentivised) to participate in the same way the digital marketing community are.

So perhaps, a return to basics is in order to start to ask better questions. If 77% of the online population are participating in some way, what motivates them to do so? And if your audience sit within the 23% who don’t participate, how should you be presenting your message to them? Because, the answer shouldn’t start with getting them to participate.


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