Planning in High Heels

For good or ill, most campaigns today want consumers to participate with them in some way-even if that participative act is as a simple as a like, a share or a vote.

We may well debate the commercial merits of the participative approach as a solution to every problem. Martin Weigel makes an excellent point in his post “The Participation Paradox” about our preoccupation with fandom versus the realities of a market where a majority of consumers purchase infrequently and disloyally, and a majority of brands grow by increasing penetration, not frequency.

It’s an excellent-and timely-point but for me it means we need to think about our consumers less as fans (with the relatively passive admiration that implies) and more as actors: collaborators, salesforces, promoters and co-creators.

Likewise, the demands some participative campaigns can make on the consumer are beyond all sense or reason, as Brian, the “target demographic” reminds us.

Taking these excellent points on board, however, the fact is that more and more of us are participating with content in some way – social media, and Facebook in particular-has disrupted the traditional 1: 9: 90 rule beloved of those observing participation inequalities towards a model where more and more of us are commenting, liking and sharing.  Some 33% of consumers fall into Forrester’s “Conversationalists” segment-those who regularly update social media profiles. Recent research from the BBC further bears this out, identifying 77% of consumers as participating online in some way.

The Participation Choice, from the BBC Online Briefing for 2012, by Holly Goodier

Moreover, more and more of the content we consume is content that has been filtered by our friends’ participation. According to Trendstream’s Global Web Index, 28.8% of users have viewed an on-line video on the basis of a friend’s recommendation, while 17% have read a news article on that basis. These numbers are only likely to grow-so if we want our content to be visible at all through what Eli Pariser calls the “filter bubble” we’re going to need some level of participation.

Most importantly, however, participation disrupts business models. The ability of millions of our customers to share, promote, surface, create and sell has disrupted industries at the most profound level. Participation has disrupted supply models (think Air BNB), pricing models (think Lucky Counter or Pay with a tweet) and distribution models (think ASOS marketplace, Kiosked or Shopinterest).  Our task is to ensure participation disrupts our clients’ businesses in the right way.

So how do we get better at briefing for participation? (Remember Brian….)

I believe there are three key ways in which our briefs need to change:

 1.A business problem is a behavioural change in disguise

2. Think about network insights, not (only) consumer insights

3. Move from “the single thing we want to say” to “the single thing we’re going to make or do”

1. A business  problem is a behavioural change in disguise:

 In the old world, a number of outside forces impacted on consumer behaviour-among them product, promotion, price and distribution. Creating increased demand could only impact a brand’s fortunes so far. Today, the effect of the social web is that this dynamic can be reversed. By changing consumer behaviour, enabled by technology, we can not only increase demand, we can increase supply, increase the number of distribution points a brand has, increase its salesforce or its capacity to deal with customer service queries. This transforms the potential role of agencies from impacting a relatively small lever within the mix (the best poster in the world can only really make more people buy the same product, at the same price, in the same place) to fundamentally impacting on our clients’ business. If the core problem is distribution, product relevance, pricing models or ability to surface relevant inventory we can address all these issues in a way advertising alone cannot.

Changes to consumer behaviour can now impact our clients’ businesses in more diverse ways than ever before

To do that though, we need a clear, simple, granular articulation of their businesses problems:

-We need 1m light users to buy one more pack of butter a year

-Our rate of sale is spectacular but poor distribution is impacting our ability to grow

-Delivery costs are stripping the margin from our business

Then we need to understand the kind of participation we need to tackle those problems:

-We need each of our light users to take part in one more baking occasion a year

-We need our fans to become our distribution channel

-We need to incentivise users to pool their delivery slots

Fundamentally, we need to move from “nice” participation-share your story, share your pictures, share your videos-to what Clay Shirky describes as “jackhammer sharing”-sharing that breaks things.

So question 1 when briefing for participation would read: What do we need people to do (to break things)?

2. Think about network insights, not (only) consumer insights

I’ve written about this extensively before so I won’t labour the point, but: in a world where so much of the content we consume is consumed via our networks, treating our consumers as autonomous individuals exclusive of social context feels increasingly redundant. Of course we still need to know who we are targeting and how they feel about our brand or category, but equally importantly we need to know what kinds of networks they are in, what the dynamics of those networks are, what their motivations are to share, what and where they share. We need to understand what drives participation among their networks of choice-is it about the symmetry of the relationship or about the size of their audience?

We need to go beyond “they like Farmville and texting” to genuine insights-from the what to the why. If, for example, we know that teenage girls upload 21 photos each a month and that they account for 6% of Facebook’s UK audience but 44% of all page “likes” it tells us something about the importance of image, their need for validation, their willingness to use brands in the on-line space to construct their identity. And it tells us that if, as a brand, we asked them to show off their latest purchases to friends in exchange for a discount or for a role as a brand ambassador we might be pushing on an open door*.

These networks insights help us move from understanding what we need users to do, to answering the second fundamental question:

Why would they do it-what are their network motivations?

3. From the single thing we want to say to the single thing we’re going to make or do

So we know what we want people to do and we know something about why they might do it. The question then is what piece of stimulus will the brand provide to prompt them into action?

Typically, this is where the proposition or “the single thing we want to say” comes in.  However, we’ve established that:

  • Participation disrupts business models
  • Consumers’ ability to partcipate has the power to impact our client’s businesses in more profound ways than ever before
  • The solution to a much more diverse range of business problems than ever before lies in changes to consumer behaviour

So if we want to change behaviour,  talking at consumers probably won’t have the desired effect. To put it another way, as Clay Shirky says:

“Behaviour is motivation filtered by opportunity”

We know the behaviour we need to change-what we need people to do. We know what their motivations are. So what opportunity are we going to provide them with?

  • What new distribution channels are we going to open up?
  • What new services are we going to create?
  • What new pricing models are we going to develop?

“Behaviour is motivation filtered by opportunity” Clay Shirky

For me, that’s when our briefs become incredibly exciting and our work doesn’t have to plead for users to participate with it, or generate lots of participation but limited sales effect. That’s when participation lies at the heart of business performance. So, in summary, the three key questions at the heart of the modern brief are for me:

  • What do we need people to do?
  • Why would they do it?
  • What are we going to make or do that will enable them to do it? 

(*With thanks to Nimi and Zanya for knowing a *lot* about teenage girls and digital behaviours.)








Marketing is probably one of the most devalued and derided words of our time. So much so that it’s seldom seen in the blogosphere without some kind of expletive attached. Ranting aside, you’ll consistently see some of the best and most interesting thinkers in the digital space declaring that they aren’t interested in, or “don’t do” marketing.

It’s a statement that shows the steady devaluation of a term that once meant much more.

Once upon a time, marketing was about the fabled “4 Ps”:  Product, Price, Place and Promotion. People have introduced new “Ps” as time has gone on-people, processes, pleasure to name a few but the original four are a good place to start. Marketing was the science of assessing a marketplace and understanding which combination of these levers could most compellingly drive a brand or product forward.

The trouble is that marketing became preoccupied-and defined-by the fourth and perhaps least exciting P-Promotion. One of the most exciting aspects of the digital world  is that for by taking the cost and infrastructure implications out of changing product, place and price it gives marketers back the opportunity to influence businesses in a much more profound and exciting way. It’s an opportunity for marketers to transform businesses and for businesses to experiment again with genuinely radical thinking.

With that in mind, it’s truly extraordinary that anyone still thinks the most interesting use of digital is as another place to put promotional messages. And it’s no coincidence that the most exciting digital initiatives are coming from smart people thinking about how they can change product, price and place then use promotion to, as the always excellent John Willshire puts it, tell the stories of the things they’ve done.

Think about how you can impact product, price and place-then promote the things you've done

Read the rest of this entry »

Contemplating the extraordinary wealth of ideas and inspiration coming out of this year’s South by South West Interactive, it struck me that while they initially seemed disparate (visualizing music libraries, social media and revolution, the path to better crowdsourcing), many of the panels and ideas that excited me most had certain key themes in common.

Fundamentally, they all addressed the emerging challenge of our time-how to successfully navigate the age of abundance-an age where there is more information, more content and more connectivity that we could possibly have imagined even a decade ago.

The power of conversation

Unsurprisingly, Clay Shirky was first up to tackle this theme, with a characteristically barnstorming take on social media and revolution.  His start point was that abundance is a profoundly powerful and disruptive political force-the power of abundance to disrupt is a recurring Shirky preoccupation. Abundant media, in this case, escapes the control of regimes. (And organizations. And more prosaically, brands). As he demonstrated, there is no history of a regime becoming more authoritative post internet access and a strong correlation between internet access and democratization.

Correlating internet access and democracy by Jacob Groshek

His over-arching point however was around the power of conversation and the idea that freedom of information is much less important than freedom of conversation. It is through conversation that individuals synchronise opinions and co-ordinate action. As Shirky more eloquently put it:

“We systematically overestimate the value of access to information & underestimate the value of access to each other.”

So, to extrapolate a little, conversation (or social context) is a powerful tool in helping us navigate a world of abundance.

Discovery through visualization

There are other tools of course too. Paul Lamere posed the fantastic question of how data visualization can enable discovery in a world of infinite abundance. Apparently 65% of the tracks users own are never listened to, suggesting we’re not able to adequately surface and discover the music we already own, never mind find more artists we might like. He showcased beautiful, hand-drawn visualizations from the jazz era and demo-ed extraordinary new approaches to surfacing and showcasing playlists, from artists’ connections to his own mind-blowing system based on acoustic similarity.

Music discovery through visualisation, from the jazz age to the present

Of course, most of us don’t have the coding skills to create breathtaking new interfaces. And these interfaces are unlikely (yet) to respond in real time to the vast quantities of new content generated every day. So conversation will remain, for many, a key method of discovery.

But how do we know who we’re talking to, and who we can trust? In his excellent summary of the themes of the festival, Edward Boches references another visualisation showing the dispersal of social influence. As Edward puts it

“The image compared sources of content (influence) from the Iran green movement in 2009 with the recent uprising in Eqypt.

In Iran there were four or five central nodes of influence: key people whose content was read, re-tweeted and then spread.  But a look at the same chart regarding Eqypt shows a proliferation in nodes of influence, suggesting that today, there are many more individuals whose content is followed and that large communities are comprised not just of individuals but of sub-communities”

The visualisation below is a different pass at the same data, but you get the overall idea, particularly when compared to these Iran visualisations.

The dispersal of influence-"Egypt Influence Network" by Kovas Boguta

The Reputation Economy

This is where the question of reputation comes in. This was, for me, the dominant theme of the conference. I’ve been mulling the question of reputation over since I came across this Fast Company article on the rise of generosity. It really caught fire in my imagination though in conversation with the remarkable (and generous) John Winsor, CEO of Victor and Spoils. Read the rest of this entry »

One of the most powerful and disruptive aspects of the web is its ability to facilitate low effort, large scale sharing. In the beginning the primary disruption came from our new-found ability to share information. This is a force that has transformed the communications landscape forever, as well as radically altering the fortunes of the music, film and news industries.  It may, however, be only the beginning. The power of the web to enable sharing started with shared information but it isn’t stopping there.

Marketers remain primarily concerned with this pesky information sharing problem. In the beginning (let’s call it the viral video era) marketers embraced this as a wonder of our time. We could get people to watch our TV ads without having to spend money on media-nirvana was here! The assumption was that a broadcast model would endure, with consumers acting as millions of convenient distribution points for our content.

Then of course, we realized that people could not only spread the messages we wanted them to, but a host of other, far less favourable ones. People were saying mean things about our brands on the internets! We may call it the “United Breaks Guitars” era or “The Rise of Buzz Monitoring”. Now we live in age when savvy brands are all too aware that they do not control the dialogue and that, as a result they need to get ever better at listening, monitoring and responding to that dialogue. To understand just how seriously some brands are taking this challenge, just take a look at Gatorade’s or Dell’s buzz monitoring war rooms-this is no minor investment.

So, yes, the free and easy sharing of information has changed the way we communicate forever. Far more disruptive, however, is the potential the web opens up for the sharing of goods and services.

In Clay Shirky’s truly excellent speech at South by SouthWest last year (nicely summarised here), he outlined three types of sharing. Sharing of information, sharing of services and sharing of goods. Drawing on Michael Tomasello’s primates research, he explained that we are evolutionarily hard-wired not just to share our information but to enjoy sharing it.  This is in part, he explained, because sharing information costs us very little, whereas sharing goods and services costs time and potentially assets-something we’re mostly hardwired (through loss aversion) to avoid.  The music industry was transformed forever, Shirky pointed out, when sharing music became not a question of shared goods (tapes and CDs) but of shared information (digital files).  So we have an inherent willingness to share information-what the web has done is transform our ability to share.

The web transformed our ability to share information

It was a inspiring and exceptionally intelligent talk. Just a year on though, I believe we’re moving towards a scenario where the ease with which we share information has created both an infratructure and a cultural climate where we are ever more comfortable with the notion of sharing goods and services as well. Or perhaps one where that distinction is less and less relevant.  The power of a maturing social web has increased both our ability to share goods and services and our willingness to share.  Read the rest of this entry »

There are seven words that make my heart sink these days more than any others. No, they’re not “high heels are bad for you: fact”, or “there is no chocolate left for you”, but: “then people can upload their own versions”.

Of course they can. But why on earth would they?

The assumption-without careful consideration of motivation, incentive and user experience-that users are desperate to upload their own content is the new “let’s do a viral”. Yes, some great pieces of film are much parodied, painstakingly re-edited and lovingly mocked-the Downfall parodies series, for example, is a gift that just keeps on giving. But these examples are few and far between, requiring a depth of involvement, from a committed and talented fanbase, that few brands can command. We used to believe that if we built it, they would come. Now, all too often, we believe that if we build it, they will build another one….

There have been some excellent provocations recently about lazy (or over ambitious) participation. Agent provocateur Tim Malbon penned an inimitable rant about “the pointless participatory experience”. My erstwhile partner in crime Mel Exon wrote an excellent and characteristically nuanced piece about “The Power and Perils of Participation” and my esteemed colleague Mr Oliver Egan took it all on the chin, and promised to do better.

So, as ever when putting pen to…screen…I ask myself: what do I have to add?  My perspective is simply this: that, as Oliver points out, when it comes to designing participative experiences, we don’t actually have a choice. No-one on the planet needs any more evidence that the brand monologue is over and that communications that fail to deliver real utility or real entertainment are doomed. Yes, in the immediate term, there are still some occasions where we can let the consumer sit it out. Chrysler’s Superbowl ode to Detroit, for example, seemed to work pretty hard as a solo. But their days are numbered, even if we only want users to participate so far as to share a piece of brand content. (As this excellent Trendstream report notes, almost 30% of video consumed is recommended by friends).

If our choices, then, are participation or irrelevance, then we had better, collectively, get better at designing for participation. Perhaps we had better turn what is at best an art and at worst an afterthought into something approaching a science. Okay, it’s (still) nothing like a science…but perhaps we can apply a little more rigour. Read the rest of this entry »

Why it’s time to stop thinking about the consumer and start thinking about the network.

Two things happened this week that made me realise just how redundant it is today to think about a single, individual consumer.

First, I had a briefing on a new project. Some lovely (and smart) people had done some thinking on the consumer-the classic pen portrait. They’d thought hard about it and they’d done their research but I found myself thinking that it didn’t tell me what I really wanted to know. While they were telling me about the individuals, I was thinking about the network. Asking myself:

  • What content are these people sharing?
  • Why do they share it?
  • How do they share it-active endorsement versus more passive sharing (ie via social plug-ins)?
  • Where do they share it?

The brilliant Griffin Farley has already touched on some of these questions in his excellent thinking on propagation planning. As he so pithily puts it, “plan(ning) not for the people you reach, but for the people that they reach”. If you haven’t checked out his excellent presentation, I strongly urge you to do so. It’s one of the most useful pieces of thinking I’ve come across on influence and social spread.

So what do I have to bring to the propagation party? Well, while influencers are undoubtedly important, I think peer to peer networks may be even more so. Or perhaps the point is that everyone is an influencer today-albeit to varying degrees. There is no-one we talk to today (hermits and Trappist monks excepted) who doesn’t exist within a network-and the shape, structure and dynamic of that network may just be the most important thing for marketers to know about them. More important, perhaps, than demographics, attitudes or psychographics. As Mike Arauz puts it, in another wonderful presentation, “The effectiveness of our work is dependent on our ability to engage and empower networks of people connected by shared interests”.

To take this a step further then, perhaps we should stop producing pen portraits of individuals and start providing a portrait of a network:

  • How big is the network?
  • How loose (or tight) are the connections?
  • Are those connections symmetric or asymmetric?
  • What fuels those connections-friendship, a shared cause, shared interests, altruism, personal gain?

From consumer insights to network insights

The second thing that happened is that, having developed a campaign recently around the principles of social spread, a client, not unreasonably, asked how we could be confident that it would scale.

We had a high degree of confidence, no question. We were targeting a highly creative, motivated community-and each member of that community had his or her own fanbase. The core community-and their fanbases-would be actively incentivized to spread the word as far as possible within their personal networks. With luck, it’ll be awesome….

Yet, perhaps inevitably, it’s hard to predict exactly how the campaign will spread. Of course there are some norms we can apply around the number of connections in the average social network and around users’ propensity to interact with content shared by friends or by brands in social channels.  We can use the most robust and predictive data we have. However, we still lack quantitative planning tools that truly reflect the networked consumer. We have vast quantities of data that will tell us what the average 18-20 year old guy is watching or reading but not nearly as much data on what they’re sharing, spreading, using or participating with. We have isolated incidences, greatest hits and occasional case studies of course.

We have very limited data on how sharing varies across different kinds of networks-asymmetric vs symmetric, loose ties versus strong ties- although what we have is fascinating-this presentation from Luke Wroblewski is a must-read for my money. Interesting data is also emerging on why users share content and how this varies across the globe.

However, we still lack a consistent, robust and continuous data stream we can use for forward planning. So perhaps the next generation of planning tools-tools for both account and media planners (if that distinction remains in 5 years time) need to reflect the next generation of planning-planning for the networked consumer. Whoever captures, owns, understands and uses that data will have an extraordinarily powerful tool at their disposal.

It doesn’t seem so long ago that gaming mechanics were the hottest thing on the web.  The advent of Foursquare and the juggernaut that is Farmville alerted the world to the potential of simple, social gaming mechanics. We marveled at how hard users were prepared to work for virtual currency and how powerful an incentive points, levels and badges seemed to be in driving participation, sharing and retention. Game theory and user experience design collided with the newly sexy field of Behavioural Economics to offer a panacea for all the world’s social and commercial ills.

Over the last six months, it’s often seemed that there’s literally no field of human endeavour (or suffering) that hasn’t had gaming mechanics applied to it. We can now get points and badges for reading articles, or for watching television. (I remember when you had to at least be able to swim 25 metres or tie a knot.) On a more altruistic level, we Brits can earn points for participating in the “Big Society” . On a more alarming level, US citizens can earn points for voting.


There's a badge for everything these days Photo credit: rocket ship/ Creative Commons

Then came the inevitable backlash. Zynga CEO Mark PIncus caused something of a stir by freely admitting “I did every horrible thing in the book to, just to get revenues right away”.  Ian Bogost developed the Cow Clicker game partly as a satire on the social gaming industry, together with an intelligent and considered articulation of his concerns around the industry.  Ironically, people then played Cow Clicker…and seemed to enjoy it.

Much of the backlash has come from “real” gamers; lovers of console games and MMOs who frown on social games as somehow lower on the evolutionary scale. Interestingly, that’s not Bogost’s problem. Nor mine. Full disclosure-Playstation holds no allure for me, nor have I ever impersonated an Orc. Not on purpose, anyway…. So why do I care?

We’re killing the golden goose (cow)

Applying gaming theory to UX design (still) has real and rich potential. There are inspiring case studies about the impact of gaming mechanics in healthcare for example-take this game designed to encourage children with cancer to follow their treatment regimes or some of the examples cited in this excellent post from the folks at Big Spaceship. We know more every day about how to design an online experience rooted in the psychology of the user that will bring about behavioural change. It’s an extraordinary opportunity for an industry which-at its best-has always been about finding the right prompts to change behaviour in our brands’ favour. Read the rest of this entry »