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.
So what are the key tools and questions we can use to deliver relevant-and better-participation? For me, there are four key questions we need to ask and a couple of models I’m finding helpful.
1. What level of participation do we want or need? (TASK)
2. Who do we want to participate? (TARGETING)
3. Why will they want to participate with this idea? (MOTIVATION)
4. Have we made it as easy as possible for them to participate? (USER EXPERIENCE)
1. What level of participation do we want?
Is our objective depth or scale? Do we want long term, repeat involvement or a short, shallower burst? (A digital “fling” as Saneel Radia puts it) Do we have time to activate evangelists and use them as our broadcast channel or do we need to reach a mass of people relatively quickly? Will we be happy with a “like” or do we want a “follow”? Is a “follow” enough or do we want a collaboration?
This will directly impact on question 2:
2. Who do we want to participate?
Are we targeting super fans or those with more passive levels of involvement? The highly digitally literate or more casual users? To borrow Forrester’s segmentation, do we need to engage creators, conversationalists or joiners?
3. Why will they want to participate?
What is our target’s intrinsic motivation to participate? Status, self-expression, altruism? How can we build additional extrinsic reasons to believe, through real or virtual incentives? There are a number of core motivations here-inspired by Mike Arauz and Bud Caddell’s awesome Web Video Thunderdome presentation and informed by the CNN Pownar survey.
Interestingly, some of the most powerful examples of collaborative creativity combine seemingly distinct motivations. Both Aaron Koblin’s awesome “Johnny Cash Project” and Len Kendall’s inspiring 3six5 project combine the desire for self-expression with the desire to be part of something bigger and better than one could achieve alone. Similarly, the rise of collaborative consumption marries the selfish desire to get more for less with the altruistic desire to benefit the community as a whole. Powerful motivations, powerfully combined.
4. Have we made it as easy as possible for them to participate?
As Clay Shirky so memorably puts it. “Behaviour is motivation filtered by opportunity”. The final link in building participation, then, is designing user experiences that maximize simple, frictionless opportunities to participate. That means using familiar mechanics (tagging, liking, changing avatars) and maximizing social integration. Another simple framework for thinking about what level of complexity the user experience will tolerate is mapping effort versus reward. Creators, fans and evangelists will tolerate high effort in exchange for high reward (often intrinsic reward). There’s a sweet spot to be found leveraging social identities to deliver low effort, high reward experience such as the MySpace fan videos or a personal favourite of mine, the twitter followers parade. However, here’s clearly a dark and scary space where high effort meets low reward-here be dragons, or to reference Tim’s post again, that way customised cereal lies. Where do your plans sit?