Pull down the posters, cancel the caterer, and unplug the hype machine: The heralded “Age Of Participation” has been postponed due to a lack of, well, participation.
That’s according to the findings of a recently released report by research group J. Walter Thompson, entitled “Participation: beyond the hype,” which surveyed 5,600 people across seven countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including China, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Australia, and New Zealand.
The report highlights what we already suspected to be true: People aren’t as interested in participating with brands as the brands are in participating with them.
Some 58% of respondents said they were more likely to engage with brands online only if “it’s really easy and asks nothing of me.” In addition, 48% of respondents said they’d prefer brands to simply entertain them rather than ask them to do anything at all.
More disturbingly still for attention-hungry brand managers, the report also found that respondents “resent doing anything that appears to benefit the brand more than it benefits them.”
So what’s a lonely brand to do? And how did expectations get so high?
One reason has to do with an industry smitten with the prospect of interacting with consumers under a new online model, said Angela Morris, executive planning director at J. Walter Thompson Australia.
“Against a background of the old interruption model, which was becoming increasingly expensive and difficult to win, the promise of a lean-in consumer, who was interested in a two-way dialogue with brands and willing to spread content by sharing with their network, was a very seductive one for marketers,” she told CMO.com.
However, the continuing evolution in technology has yet to equate to the level of brand participation for which marketers had hoped.
“Initially, the Internet was a new toy that people got excited about, so they willingly participated in many brand-oriented initiatives,” said Laura Ries, president of marketing consulting firm Ries & Ries and author of “Visual Hammer” (2012). “But, today, reality has set in. Consumers are saturated with opportunities to make friends with brands. It’s getting more and more difficult to capture their attention and interest via the Web.”
While getting buddy-buddy with consumers is still an essential goal for any brand, marketers would be wise to view these latest findings as an opportunity to regroup and explore different avenues for reaching consumers, while remaining cautious of overdoing it.
“The higher the effort, the lower people’s interests are in participating with the brand,” Ries said. “This lays out a daunting prospect for branding and marketing teams. Where do they go to find the magical middle ground?”
Content Still Rules
According to the J. Walter Thompson report, content is the “game changer” that will spark a connection with consumers–as long as the underlying strategy is both user-focused and purposeful.
“When brands put content out there that is focused on what matters to the audience, making it interesting, entertaining, rewarding, and compelling, then [consumers] will willingly opt in to our marketing activity,” Morris said. “It’s all about the value exchange. If we make the exchange for their attention a fair one, then they will happily come and play.”
So what game-changing content strategies should marketers pursue to get consumers onto the playground? Ries said that businesses often experience a positioning problem when they are trying to get noticed. The fix? They need to focus less on being better and more on differentiating themselves from the pack.
“When you focus on being different, your message is interesting to consumers who constantly look for what’s new and different,” Ries said. “For the handful of companies that have something new and different, the opportunities for consumer participation are greatly improved.”
The report advises marketers to “create for people, not brands,” citing Nutri-Grain’s “Unstoppable” campaign and Levis’ series of commuter jeans spots as examples of compelling content because they both paint people, not the product, as the hero.
“The ability of online video to compel people to lean into content is not in dispute, and it should be no surprise that it delivers handsomely for brands,” the report said.
What Is ‘Participation’ Anyway?
While all agreed that good content is more essential than ever to distinguish a brand from the noise, the report called shares and likes on social media “shallow and meaningless.” In fact, the industry has been looking at participation all wrong, the report stated.
“For years the marketing community has been focused on how to generate the maximum number of shares, likes, and retweets,” said Alistair Leathwood, executive director of market researchers and consultants TNS, which conducted the study, in a statement released with the report. “But we need to ask ourselves what this participation is delivering: true brand advocacy and preference, or just a weak form of awareness?”
Mark Chamberlain, managing director, Indonesia, of research-based consultancy Millward Brown, offered a prime example. “I observed a teenage consumer at the airport recently on her smartphone,” he said. “The speed with which she was scrolling through her social media thread ‘liking’ things made me realise that you simply can’t assume that likes equate to participation–or indeed any form of deeper engagement.”
Some, such as Jonathan Rees, executive director and digital leader at Deloitte Southeast Asia, said that participation is best-defined as an ongoing process within an evolving relationship between consumer and brand.
“We naturally correlate participation with intent to purchase,” Rees told CMO.com. “But there is also an immense opportunity to use the data and information gained through participation to co-create and innovate with customers, to respond and react to feedback and directly improve the product or service, and to influence and make an impact.”
Click here to download the full report, “Participation: beyond the hype.”