Close-Up: Why participation marketing must be handled with care

Get an engagement strategy wrong and run the risk of alienating a legion of potential brand advocates forever, Tony Quinn cautions.

Let's cut straight to the chase. Participation marketing is not all it's cracked up to be. For many, it marks a new era in brand building, the way back after a painful period of eroding trust. It's the second coming, the saviour. Pave the roads in palms, hallelujah, hallelujah. For many, it's the be-all and end-all.

Well, it's not. It's a tactic, a tactic in the same way as sponsorship is a tactic; the same as direct mail is a tactic. Granted, it's a potentially very powerful tactic, a potential "shock and awe" weapon in the battle for audience engagement. Granted, it also adheres to the rules of modern brand engagement, rules regarding dialogue, openness and humanity. But if and when it is employed without respect for the grander business and brand vision, then it comes a cropper. Only the brands that do it well recognise this.

In the context of the growing number of exotic and complex new flavours entering the market, the success of Walkers' "Do us a flavour" should serve as inspiration to us all. Further afield, I thought Jones Soda cleverly cut a swathe through the crowded US soft drinks market by putting photos of its fans on its packaging. Likewise, Threadless, the US T-shirt company, which handed over its designs to any budding Henry Hollands and rewarded the best accordingly. And I couldn't credibly write a piece on participation marketing without referring to Chalkbot. Participation marketing is a wonderful means by which to rally people around a social cause and Nike, in my humble opinion, nailed it with Chalkbot.

In each case, participation is an expression of longer-term strategy and, as a result, appears seamless and engaging. I love them all, I "participated" in most of them and, as a result, they're my kind of brand: warm, human, modern and open. As Louis Walsh would say: "A million per cent yes."

Now, let's consider, for example, Kingsmill. "Have you got a con- fession? Tell us at kingsmill-" Do I have a confession? Funny you ask that because yes I do and here it is: I have no idea what you're talking about. I have no idea why you'd expect me to do that. Furthermore, if once I was kind of ambivalent about my choice of bread brand, now I couldn't be clearer - anything but Kingsmill.

And BT, Adam and Jane? Now, I'm pretty certain its agency will defend its work on the basis of the 160 trillion hits it received on its website. Is she pregnant? Isn't she pregnant? However, I suspect there were one or two, like me, looking to log a very different ending. Alas, "She leaves the dithering dweeb and runs off with Les Dennis, never to be seen again" wasn't an option.

In both these cases, it feels like the brief began with participation and, as a result, it all feels forced, somewhat disconnected and without a true and proper purpose; communications contrivances rather than part of long-term brand-building strategies. I have no idea why I'd want to participate and, rather than strengthen my relationship, it undermines it.

And that's what it kind of boils down to: an understanding of relationships. Those that mobilise participation marketing well are those that seem to truly understand the dynamics of building strong, enduring, deep relationships. They recognise that relationships are built over time, that they are complex in their very nature, that they are "give and take" and that sometimes it is good to seek participation, to talk, to listen, to share; but, equally, that other times it's good to surprise - that sometimes it's good to reassure and that, from time to time, it's no bad thing to do something that takes the others' breath away. Ultimately, they recognise relationships are built on trust and mutual respect, fostered and nurtured through insight and understanding, and not grand, sweeping one-off gestures.

- Tony Quinn is the head of planning at JWT.


Brand: Walkers

Project: "Do us a flavour"

Agency: Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

Media agency: OMD UK

In late 2008, Walkers asked consumers to come up with a new flavour of crisps. More than 1.2 million ideas were submitted and a shortlist of six variants were chosen to be sold in shops. People were then asked to vote for their favourite of the six, with the inventor of the winning flavour being awarded a £50,000 prize plus 1 per cent of future revenue from sales of the product. More than one million votes were cast and "Builder's Breakfast", devised by Emma Rushin from Derbyshire, got the nod. The product was discontinued in May, but not before it captured the minds of the public and industry alike - it won the Media Campaign of the Year and Best Total Communications Programme at last year's Campaign Media Awards.