The gospel of participation is making brands forget about mass reach

Simon LawsonIn this guest post, Simon Lawson argues that brands are becoming obsessed with getting consumers to participate, rather than remembering to deliver mass exposure.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but a lot of brands are wasting significant amounts of time and money on ineffective marketing. Large sums are being put behind tactics which end up being too small to have much chance of influencing total brand preference.  

Let’s start at the beginning. While there remains a lot of debate, I’m a subscriber to the theory that path to purchase at least entails:

  1. See
  2. Want
  3. Buy

Generally speaking, the agency world spends most of its energy on the first two. It is the “want” that most interests me; how do you get a consumer to prefer brand A over brand B?

Anecdotally, it appears the agency gods have deigned “participation” the new gospel when it comes to building brand preference; the “participation” brigade believing that action is more effective than exposure.

What is “participation”?

“Participation” is when a consumer performs any action as part of a campaign. Actions include: Voting to save Louie; sharing a piece of branded content; watching a video; liking a brand on Facebook; even stealing a Banksy. So it’s out with mass exposure by interruption, and in with brand experiences and brand communities.

I’m not here to argue that a 30 second spot on TV is more influential than “participation” in a brand experience, but I am beginning to wonder whether the scale of most “participation” tactics is significant enough to deliver meaningful results for national brands selling to mass markets.

Will the party for 100 influencers in a Melbourne laneway help to sell sunglasses in the Rockhampton OPSM anytime soon? Is it likely that the 700 participants in an online treasure hunt will influence the brand preference of the 100,000+ people intending to buy a small car in 2012? Will the 75 people who responded to a brand’s invitation to “make our ad for us?” become corn chip missionaries, spreading the message from dawn until dusk?

Do we really believe the 2,034 mums who submitted a recipe to flourpower.com will go on to tell 20 of their friends about their recipe, who in turn go on to tell 20 of their friends about their friend’s recipe, who in turn go on to tell 20 of their friends about their friends friends recipe?

chocolate bar

wheel of conceptThings have gone full circle when the industry stops making fun of the Luddites and starts amusing itself with sites like wheelofconcept.com, whatthefuckismysocialstrategy.com and things real people don’t say about advertising.

National brands need scale.

The challenge for agencies is to deliver campaigns that combine the influence of participation with the power of scale. Unfortunately for us, there are few campaigns that actually meet this challenge, and it’s not that unusual to receive requests from colleagues and peers to enter this or like that (to salvage some dignity).

This is what makes red Coke’s current “share a Coke” campaign so impressive. The numbers aren’t publicly available, but the long queues of people waiting in Westfields to get a personalised Coke, comment threads like those on Mumbrella, and friends sharing photos with their can on social networks tell me that this campaign has achieved what few before it could: mass participation.

In 2012, it’s time to think big!

  • Simon Lawson is business director and communications strategist at ZenithOptimedia, Melbourne. He tweets @simonislawson


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