4 big steps to engagement marketing and becoming a participatory brand

A headshot of David Garnder.

by David Gardner

Abstract image of a blue ladder with colourful lightbulbs hanging from above and colourful hands reaching from the side.

In part two of our customer participation series, we reveal how brands can become more participatory, leveraging engagement marketing and co-creation to energize the customer experience.

Participation is embraced today by brands around the world, and it certainly isn’t a passing fad or gimmick.

Marketing in the transparent internet era must be trust-based and user-driven. It’s why brands first embraced influencer marketing with fervor. But as the influencer endorsement model confronts the legitimacy issues that broadcast infomercials and ads faced before it, companies must find a new method of authentic customer engagement.  

Co-creation is that method. Unlike influencer marketing, successful co-creation is impossible without trust, transparency, and sincere consideration of customer input. Participation brands (brands that embrace participation marketing) include customers from conception to production.

We’ll talk more about how brands work together with customers in future articles in this series. For now, let’s focus on the steps brands must take to move towards participation brand status.

Shifting the brand mentality towards a participation paradigm

Brands should no longer think of the customer’s relationship with the brand. The customer’s relationship is the brand. As world-renowned designer Yves Béhar put it, “Participation is the new brand loyalty.”

Consumers don’t want brand preachers. They want teachers. And they want those teachers to take them into the brand’s “workshop” and show them the ropes.

To move from regular brand to participation brand, organizations must take four big steps:

  1. Identify the most engaged consumers or “brand superfans”.
  2. Introduce the concept of co-creation to the company and illustrate its long-term value.
  3. Understand the needs of both customers and employees, so that the co-creation process meets their material and emotional needs.
  4. Create a platform where customers can participate in meaningful ways; where co-creation programs take place within a community.

All four of these steps are vitally important for becoming a company that not only brings its customers into the fold, but builds a sustainable innovation asset as well.

Identifying your most engaged consumers or “brand superfans”

Every brand has its superfans. Superfans are the customers who are experts on your product. They own every iteration of it, they revel in finding new uses for it, they seek out other product superfans, and they know exactly what they’d like to change.

As Eddie Yoon discovered, superfans make up about 10 percent of your customer base, and they can account for over 50 percent of your profits5. But they’re more than just “heavy product users.” And they’re more than what Eric von Hippel termed “lead users”, those customers using your products in ways the general public will demand tomorrow.

Superfans are heavy AND lead users who also have a heightened emotional connection with your brand and product. Bringing these passionate individuals behind the scenes to co-create with your organization:

A) Fosters a sense of community and feeds their enthusiasm

B) Offers a clearer understanding of the future of a product

C) Builds a collective of market ambassadors for a product

Introducing the concept of co-creation to the company and illustrating its long-term value

If you want to be a successful participation brand, you have to get employees on board. One of the key differences between crowdsourcing and co-creation is that crowdsourcing focuses on the resources outside of the organization while co-creation uses the resources both within and without the organization to produce something that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

This can’t happen unless employees get it. Later, we’ll dive into detail about the benefits of co-creation for everyone involved. For now, it’s enough to know that co-creation:

  • Identifies market opportunities by collaborating with engaged employees and consumers
  • Mitigates the risk of developing a product or promotional concept that won’t have enough market interest
  • Turns a company’s most passionate customers into co-collaborators and brand advocates
  • Speeds up the new product development process and delivers an engaged group of co-creator consumers who are primed to purchase and evangelize immediately at product launch
  • Improves customer loyalty and lifetime value by bringing customers directly into the product innovation and/or marketing process
  • Retains a company’s talent by giving them the freedom to roll up their sleeves and innovate, often beyond their current job description

Understanding the emotional needs customers and employees satisfy with co-creation

Everybody gets something different out of co-creation, and understanding which needs are being met is essential. Throwing a cash prize at someone with a full-time job and a decent salary is nice, but that alone may not be enough motivation over the long term, especially if they’re participating in poorly designed and repetitive experiences.

For customers, the non-monetary rewards of co-creating with a participation brand include:

  • Feeling a sense of community working with like-minded people
  • Validation from a brand that recognizes their superfan status and respects input
  • Creative satisfaction of seeing a personal idea come to life in public
  • Material satisfaction from improving a beloved product
  • Professional status and credit for co-producing a winning idea
  • Community status from appearing in a promotional campaign about the new product

For employees, the emotional benefits are similar. Proactive, talented, and driven employees are frustrated by bureaucracy and office politics, especially when it hinders creativity.

Recognizing and unleashing the innovative spirit of your company’s best people encourages them to stay and respects their capabilities. It sends the message: “Our company wants to help you do work you can be proud of” instead of pushing them into the arms of another company.

Creating a platform where customers and employees can co-create in a meaningful way

A stack of surveys or a flurry of polls won’t give you much to fuel engagement and innovation. It sounds like paperwork as opposed to creative work. Traditional market research makes it nearly impossible to ensure people provide meaningful answers, consistently interact with your requests for feedback, and leave the interaction with a positive taste in their mouth.

Think about the last time you completed a survey. You likely viewed it as a chore, if you did it at all. That is not how you want your co-creators to feel.

Weaving your engagement tools into a cohesive co-creation experience is important. Instead of soliciting feedback from high-value customers via a one-time survey or a sporadic feedback panel, consider building an online community for persistent insights and ideas gathering. 

If you’re trying to figure out where you stand in the move from a traditional brand to a participation brand, consider Airbnb. Airbnb is not yet a full participation brand, but it’s getting there. Like other leading service providers in the sharing economy, it’s an excellent example of crowdsourcing “excess capacity.”

But as we’ve discussed, a brand is not participatory by virtue of using crowdsourcing. That said, some signs indicate that the star lodging rental site is moving in that direction by encouraging hosts to join conversations about improving the travel experience from the Airbnb perspective.

In July 2017, local Airbnb hosts met with Rotterdam Partners (the economic development group for the city) to discuss how Rotterdam could better promote itself and provide information to its visitors. Hosts participated in several interactive sessions to share the local gems they suggest to Airbnb guests and explain how Rotterdam Partners could support them in their role as informal city ambassadors. Airbnb arranged and promoted this collaborative session between Rotterdam Partners and Airbnb hosts in Rotterdam, not between hosts and the company.

Additionally, Airbnb has already identified potential “superfans” by designating certain hosts as superhosts. These are people who have high response rates, several bookings in a year, rare cancellations, and stellar reviews. Evidently, these hosts take tremendous pride and joy in hosting in addition to earning a side income.

Airbnb already has an active community, and it has identified its most passionate members. It has begun to tap these participants to design local tourism “Experiences” through an online submission process. These unique non-lodging offerings may include insider/backstage visits to local attractions or opportunities to participate in non-profit organization activities.  

If Airbnb manages to embrace co-creation and establish an ongoing collaborative process to make the best use of this community of superfans, it’s poised to introduce an even greater experience for its hosts and guests.

Stay tuned for part three of our Customer Participation series where we'll explore creating a corporate culture that embraces Brand Participation.

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