Why agencies should focus on reciprocity rather than engagement

Will CollinThe nature of communications planning has changed dramatically in recent years, Naked Communications cofounder, Will Collin argues that agencies need to focus on reciprocity rather than engagement if they are to win the fight to capture consumer attention. 

Communications planning, or connections planning, or whatever you call it, is a discipline in crisis. I say that as someone closely involved in its development, with no small amount of my professional life spent promoting its cause to clients and industry alike.

So it gives me no pleasure to condemn it.

On the other hand, the good news is that the very forces that wrought such change on the industry and so caused the crisis in communications planning have at the same time created the opportunity for the discipline to assume a more important role than ever, and move to the very heart of campaign strategy.

More of that later. First I would like to explain why comms planning is in a state of crisis.

Let’s begin by revisiting why this discipline emerged in the first place. Until the 1990s, the accepted paradigm for deciding how to deploy communications budgets was the discipline we now think of as traditional media planning. The task was one of maximising the number of impacts delivered for a given budget: the classic ‘more bang for your buck’ challenge.

In this paradigm the process of communications was one of brand transmitting and consumer receiving; the currency was reach and frequency.

But by 2000 the rising tide of media fragmentation could no longer be ignored. The range of options within existing media had expanded (e.g. multi-channel TV), while entire new channels had appeared (most notably of course the internet).

Not to mention the many non-media touchpoints that exist between brands and consumers which were routinely ignored in the traditional media planning process.

The problem for traditional media planning was twofold. Firstly, media fragmentation meant that consumers’ attention could no longer be taken for granted, which undermined the reach and frequency model. Secondly, the traditional planning process struggled to consider (and plan) non-paid touchpoints like live brand experiences or customer service, meaning that media plans represented only part of the brand’s ‘voice’.

Cometh the hour, cometh comms planning. A new discipline founded on the central premise that ‘everything communicates’. Instead of building campaign plans by calculating the most cost effective combination of media to maximise the number of impacts on the consumer’s eyeballs, this new approach took as its starting point the consumer’s journey towards purchase and beyond.

It planned layered combinations of communications channels to help move people from one step of the journey to the next, allowing each channel to play to its strengths rather than treating them all as mere sources of reach and impacts. And it recognised the potential value of all touchpoints, not just paid media.

Ultimately, the promise of communications planning was that it would deliver ‘engagement’ with the brand’s communications, not just exposure; meaningful encounters rather than just passive opportunities to see.

Starting life as little more than a fringe heresy, comms planning rapidly gained acceptance until within the space of a decade it was the accepted orthodoxy across the industry. Which is more or less where it is today.

But during that same decade while communications planning was establishing itself as best practice, the wider world was hit with the full force of the digital revolution. In particular, the mass adoption of services that create networks by connecting people.

We’ve moved from a world where we had to accept what we were told, and make the best of the limited knowledge and information we had, to one in which we can now find out for ourselves, share our knowledge and opinions, and collaborate to bring about change. Let’s call this the connected era.

One immediate consequence of the mass proliferation of instantaneous connections between previously disparate individuals is an acceleration in the rate of propagation of information, ideas and popular culture. Memes, virals, internet crazes, yes – but also eyewitness news reporting, self-organising political protests and grassroots charity fundraising. The world is a frothier place, for good and ill.

With increased speed comes increased unpredictability. In the words of Joi Ito, director of MIT’s Media Lab:

“Before the internet, life was simple. Things were Euclidian, Newtonian: somewhat predictable. People actually tried to predict the future – even the economists. Then the internet happened and the world became extremely complex, extremely low cost, extremely fast; and those Newtonian laws that we so dearly cherished turned out to be just local ordinances.”

This unpredictability stems from volatility in the process of how ideas can emerge, build an audience and go on to reach mainstream acceptance.

Previously this process was slow, steady and largely under the control of well-resourced institutions or brands with the power to access large audiences. But in the connected era, established scale is no longer a prerequisite for taking an idea into the mainstream. A massively connected network trumps a massiveadspend any day of the week.

What is influential and commands public attention might emerge from leftfield without warning, potentially dwarfing a brand’s efforts despite its months of careful planning and preparation.

This unpredictability is the first of the two reasons why I believe the communications planning discipline is in crisis. Unpredictability is toxic for comms planning. It disturbs the carefully stage-managed unveiling of a brand’s story through successive layers of complementary encounters with the campaign.

It messes up the simplicity of a sequential customer journey. And fundamentally it displaces the brand from its central, controlling position of orchestrating how its story is told. In such an unpredictable world, what in all honesty is the value of all those beautiful campaign architectures, when the clarity and controllability they promise is an illusion?

The second reason why comms planning is in crisis is that its pursuit of ‘engagement’ has pushed the industry towards creating communications that demand too much of the audience while offering too little value in return.

The value exchange in today’s campaigns is getting out of balance. Marketing communications has always involved an exchange of value between the brand and the audience.

Simplistically it often went like this: ‘Here are 30 seconds of entertainment; please give a moment of your attention to our brand message’. The result was an equitable trade that satisfied both parties.

Screen Shot 2014-10-13 at 11.11.34 amBut in the connected era, when technology allows people to be so much more than passive viewers of communication, brands routinely ask for rather more than just attention.

In their quest for engagement they want people to participate and get involved. So they ask for Likes, followers, votes, shares; even co-creation and user generation.

Screen Shot 2014-10-13 at 11.13.23 amA couple of the more notorious instances of this excessive demand for participation are the 2013 Andrex ‘scrunch or fold?’ campaign which asked people to vote on their preferred toilet routine, and the 2009 Kingsmill campaign which invited consumers to share their confessions about sliced bread.Screen Shot 2014-10-13 at 11.14.05 am

Screen Shot 2014-10-13 at 11.15.09 amComms planning’s drive for greater engagement has translated into placing increasing demands on the audience – just as people’s benign acquiescence towards marketing is being undermined by the total transparency and default cynicism of the connected era.

In summary, communications planning is in a double bind: operating within an intrinsically unpredictable environment, and driven by its pursuit of engagement to unbalance the value exchange inherent within the communication process.

What is the way out of this crisis? What is the future for communications planning?

I believe the answer will emerge from a deeper understanding of the nature of this value exchange.

Early 20th various Melanesian communities, e.g. in Papua New Guinea. One such ritual, known as the ‘kula ring’, involves community members travelling up to hundreds of miles by canoe to exchange valuable objects such as necklaces – not as a commercial trade based on monetary value, but solely for the symbolic value of bestowing precious gifts. Social bonds and hierarchies within and between communities were created and maintained by this sequence of exchanges.

Such tales of derring-do in canoes seem very remote from 21st communications. But the point is that the obscure ritual of the kula ring is a rare tangible manifestation of a universal ingredient of human relationship-building: reciprocity.

Reciprocity can be defined as ‘one good turn deserves another’. It is an ever-present norm governing human social behaviour.

In their study of how this principle can be applied to contemporary online social relationships, social scientists Pelaprat and Brown describe the underlying mechanism:

“To have [a positive action] directed at you produces and enacts an obligation of a specific kind: the obligation to respond to a person who is offering a gesture of respect and admiration in order to have it given in return.”

Viewed through the lens of reciprocity, traditional advertising sought to elicit admiration for the brand by offering people the gift of a nugget of entertaining content. But if brands now want more from people, they first need to give more.

That is why I believe that reciprocity – not engagement – should be the goal of communications planning in future.

It all boils down to this. Marketing campaigns place demands on people. So when planning communications, we must ask ourselves how the brand can offer value to the audience in each and every encounter with the campaign.

Value that is equal to whatever we hope to receive in return. In fact since this is brand marketing rather than real life (and so subject to greater scepticism) we should aim to over-deliver: “Give more than you take”, as planner Martin Weigel puts it.

It’s interesting that in recent years a number of new communication approaches have emerged, such as experiential marketing, branded content, branded utility and gamification.

Each came along, claimed to overturn the marketing world as we knew it, then – once the initial hype had subsided – turned out not to be the promised panacea but just one more lever in our toolkit.

I suggest that we can view these new approaches as evidence of how the industry has been making repeated attempts to achieve reciprocity, but without recognising this was the problem that needed solving.

These new techniques aren’t misconceived, they’re just incomplete solutions to a bigger problem.

The industry has not been ignorant to the changes taking place in the communications landscape, but it has to an extent been reaching around in the dark for ‘the new model’ to fit the new world.

In fact the old model remains as valid as ever: successful campaigns deliver value equal to or greater than the demands they place on their audience. It’s just the demands have increased and therefore so must the value delivered.

So the future of communications planning will not be to find which combination of media delivers the most impacts from a given budget, nor to architect layers of channels to engage the audience and so ease them through each stage of a decision journey.

It will be to identify those communications activities that create enough value for the consumer to inspire the behaviours we seek.

The sources of that value could be many and various: the persuasive entertainment of good old-fashioned advertising, of course; or one of many other techniques such as creating social currency, providing utility, offering opportunities to rally around a cause, or to connect with people who matter.

By planning for reciprocity, not engagement, we will safeguard our strategies as far as is possible against the unpredictability of today’s frothy media environment.

Given that your campaign will inevitably be caught in a blizzard of distractions, providing real value is a more defensible position than relying on people having nothing better to look at.

In conclusion, I’m advocating a clean break from the time when comms planning was often seen as synonymous with channel planning.

This new communications planning will sit at the heart of campaign strategy since the challenge of delivering value to the audience cuts right across both the conception of the creative idea and the design of the communications plan.

If we can re-orient ourselves towards creating value for people, rather than preying on their time, then ours is an industry with a positive future.

Will Collin is a cofounder of the global operation of Naked Communications 


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