What is participation marketing (and why is it so important for brands)?

A headshot of David Garnder.

by David Gardner

Cartoon illustration of a front-facing hand with a red heart in the centre of its palm.

In this five part series, we explore the fundamentals of participation marketing, co-creation, and making the customer experience more participatory and engaging. 

Richard Wagner, the celebrated theatre director and composer, is famous for two things: opera and getting people to shut up.

From ancient Greek theatre all the way through to Shakespeare’s time, viewers were a rowdy crowd, and they didn’t hesitate to make their pleasure (or displeasure) known. Once theatre turned into a wealthy pastime, it became a place for the upper crust to dress up and mingle.

This frustrated Wagner. Attendees cared more about socializing than watching the show, so Wagner did something no one had done before.

He dimmed the lights.

People couldn’t see each other, so their only source of entertainment was the action on stage.

Old-school photo of a famous composer writing with a feathered pen.
Old-school photo of a performance.
Old-school photo of an audience of people wearing glasses.

In essence, he transformed the crowd into an audience.

This model of the quiet, passive audience dominated for over a century and spilled into the twenty-first. But nowadays viewers are no longer content to sit still and shut up.

Today, if a movie bores a viewer that viewer doesn’t worry about the sunk cost of a movie ticket - because they never bought one. They can flip over to another flick on their Netflix subscription, watch homemade videos on YouTube, or live tweet their boredom in much the same way a medieval theatregoer would jeer at the actors.

That unhappy viewer may even decide they can do better with fewer resources and create a short film using any number of budget-friendly cameras and video editing software. Clearly, audiences have rediscovered their power as participants, and they’re ready to use it.

A similar pattern exists in marketing

Humans started with simple trade where buying and selling products they had created themselves was a participatory event. Guilds of merchants and craftspeople emerged during medieval times to guarantee standards of quality among the goods produced by a small group of creators. The “mark” (or brand) of a top-notch guild was sought out in marketplaces. With the Industrial Revolution came mass production and the need to convince people to buy the sudden surplus of goods through advertising.

Then came regional and global competition, forcing corporate producers to differentiate themselves further via brand marketing that communicated more than just product functionality and quality. Once shopping stopped being about basic necessities, businesses moved to make their goods and services desirable through storytelling. And since society was struggling to make sense of a marketplace flooded with so many “things,” they let marketers explain.  

It’s a different story now.

Today’s consumers have been consuming for a while. They’ve built lifestyles around brand experiences, and they’re opinionated about them. It’s no longer enough to say a product is great. It’s not even enough to tell a good story about it. Today’s consumers wish to be participants in the development and promotion of the goods and services they consume, as well as the content created to tell such stories. Brands who are willing to embrace this new consumer relationship can use this shift to their advantage.

This is known as participation marketing.

Participation marketing is the process of engaging customers and employees to roll up their sleeves and co-create goods, services, brands, and promotions  

It’s the current stage in the evolution of marketing. We witnessed a transition from a marketer’s monologue (TV spots, magazine ads) to a marketer-customer dialogue (social media, content marketing) to what’s now a marketer-customer collaboration (participation marketing).

What makes participation marketing so important for brands?

In theory, everyone wants a say in the design of the products they use. In practice, this has been a challenge. Consumers simply didn’t have the resources of large R&D divisions, global distribution networks, and major advertising budgets. They also didn’t have the time. Sure, individual hobbyists, tinkerers, and inventors produced their own creations and retooled existing products for personal use, but even they couldn’t innovate efficiently without the vast proprietary knowledge and production capabilities held by corporations.

Significant improvements in communication and information technology loosened industry’s grip. Specifically, it undermined industry’s control over product development and marketing in three big ways:

  1. Technology advancements made it easier for people to start businesses and develop, promote, and distribute products on their own.
  2. The internet made it easier for consumers to find niche products, as well as share and access product reviews.
  3. Improvements in communication and connectivity allowed upstarts to leverage the power of the crowd to more easily find fans, ideas, funding, talent, solutions to problems, and consumers - and pose a real threat to established businesses.

In the next part of our Customer Participation series, we explore the key steps that any company, big or small, can take to become a successful participatory brand.  

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