Participocalypse: why we can't be bothered to join in

Too many participation campaigns do not live up to their name - they are essentially bribes with scant interest for consumers, Tom Morton writes.

Tom Morton
Tom Morton

Adland's opinions move in waves. One of the most surprising groundswells has come from the industry's champions of interactive advertising lining up to take a pop at participation campaigns.

Adliterate.com calls them a bandwagon, propped up by the clinically insane and the staff of the brand's PR department. Dare's Nick Emmel has started to collect what he labels "over-participation campaigns" on his blog.

And after seeing a Customise Your Breakfast Cereal website, the social media agency Made By Many coined the term Participocalypse.

The critics have many targets. Campaigns invite people to swish their hair for Pantene, confess to stealing bread for Kingsmill, contort into a playground impersonation of an Asian for Amoy, or speed-eat a biscuit for Oreo.

Commercial breaks and Facebook are beginning to feel like episodes of Why Don't You?.

The backlash goes deeper than a personal peeve about individual campaigns. It goes to the heart of why people upload, share and join things online.

When brands misunderstand or misuse participation, they don't only make poor work.

They give a bad name to what should be a powerful way of connecting with the public.

Let's start with the sheer pointlessness of many participation campaigns.

Brands are asking people to do things with little connection to buying or using the brand, or even to what makes the brand interesting.

A few thousand people uploading a video in the hope of winning a prize from a low-interest brand isn't an engagement, it's a bribe. It's hard to see what brand equity is being built here.

As a result, participation campaigns don't even generate a lot of participation. Fewer than 2,000 people have uploaded their hair swish for Pantene.

The most popular film of the Oreo Lick Race had just 99 views on YouTube at time of writing.

Mass-market brands need big audiences that some participation ideas just can't deliver.

Bad participation campaigns seem to forget why people like to participate in things.

We share stuff that matters to us.

We connect with friends or with like-minded people.

We put in effort roughly in proportion with what we hope to get out. CHI & Partners' Patricia McDonald gives some great illustrations of this here: http://bit.ly/patsmc. Participation campaigns tend to fail when they forget that ratio.

Unless a brand has a genuine fan base, as Wispa did, or does something people care about, such as Depaul UK's iHobo app or Smirnoff's Nightlife Exchange, it shouldn't ask people to make more than a token effort.

Participation campaigns need rescuing before they become what Russell Davies called "games of whack-a-mole with the brand mascot". This doesn't need a new framework of thinking. It just needs the same good sense that makes all the best campaigns.

Start with the commercial objectives for the activity: what the brand is trying to achieve, what quantity and type of participation it needs.

Most brands might need a little interaction from a lot of people - a heads-up on Facebook rather than a film-school assignment.

Go back to what motivates the audience.

Find what people need or care about enough to give their time to a campaign.

It's more likely to be a shared interest than a desire to serve the brand. Ask whether the campaign is interesting or useful enough to spend time with.

Participation campaigns are earned media, and earning someone's time takes a dose of humility.

The engagement is very much on the audience's terms. Remember that individuals behave a lot like celebrity endorsers: they will only put their name to something that reflects well on them.

It takes a particularly interesting or generous or entertaining brand to make even a small call on a person's time. Brands need to work out where they have a right to sit on the sliding scale of participation. If a biscuit asks you to stage a filmed time trial when you eat it, you know that something has fallen far off the scale.

Tom Morton is the outgoing chief strategy officer at Publicis UK.