The Participation Choice


Rightly or wrongly, participation is often the solution to many a brief. 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".

Last year Holly Goodier, Head of Planning at BBC Future Media, published an interesting video presenting the findings of research conducted on how the UK's population participates online. By digital participation, the BBC has defined it as:

Creating and contributing online so that others can see

I think it is important to note that 'others' refers to everyone. From sharing a tweet with the whole world or sharing a link with your best mate via email to 'creating and contributing' to a Facebook 'like'. From writing a book on Amazon or selling your old BBQ with an online ad on Gumtree to uploading photos and creating and maintaining a blog.

Within the post, Holly highlights six themes that emerged from the research. I want to comment on one in particular:

6. 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 - that will determine to what extent you participate online. There are no demographic twists and there are no early adopters or stragglers. In addition to this, there are no shortcuts. The tools are in fact accessible to everyone and it has never been easier for 'participation'.

What confuses me is knowing that this is the constant bombardment from marketing agencies to prospective clients - how will they enable potential and existing customers to 'take part'/ 'join in'/ 'engage' with a brand when 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? Sure, you may come to the conclusion after some thorough network analysis that an appropriate strategy is to broadcast a message through those who do participate in order to reach those who don't 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. The point being is that their own attitude to digital technology informs their belief on how marketing should now work.

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 of the population at large is wrong. Most people simply aren't as narcissistic to participate in the same way the digital marketing community is.

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

Tim Whirledge, Strategic Planner