Marketers Should Want Participation Trophies

Participation trophies – the things kids get for just showing up at soccer games—have become a symbol of American mediocrity.  But not so for marketers, perhaps. Daina Middleton, a search engine marketing pioneer who spent 16 years at Hewlett-Packard, takes the temperature of customers and prescribes stiff medicine for marketers: Not only do you have to get customers to participate in your brand, you also have to connect the participants to other participants. Middleton, now CEO of Performics, spells out the details of the cure in her new book, Marketing in the Participation Age. She took some time to step off the exhibit floor at the Consumer Electronics Show to explain it to us.

Direct Marketing News: You write that marketers in the participation age more closely resemble marketers of 200 years ago. What can we learn from the medicine show man of 1820?

Middleton: Understand what motivates the person who’s interested in your product or service. Look at the personal connection. I’m a horse lover, so say I wanted to sell a horse. I might say, ‘Here’s a friend of mine who I know would be interested in this animal.’ There’s a personal relationship. Over the past 50 or 60 years, marketing became focused on how we wanted to change people’s opinions, not make connections with them as individuals. In those old days it was a relatively small world, with small circles of friends. It’s become that way again today, because we’re so connected.

You write, “Some of the most interesting marketers I know started as mathematicians.” Can you recall one for us? Are we entering an era of the Marketing Renaissance Man and Woman?

 Rishad Tabaccowala, who is the chief innovation officer at VivaKi (a Publicis unit). He started out as a mathematician and is now totally a marketer and embraces what’s evolved in this whole space. I consider myself one of those people who were scared off by math, thinking I didn’t have any capabilities there. Today, that’s not the case. I run an analytical company and that’s a beautiful thing. Wouldn’t you want to use whatever is at your disposal to fine-tune what you’re doing?

Is that where the “Participation Way” formula detailed in your book– Discover + Empower + Connect = Participation– comes into play?

Yes, once you establish that your role as a marketer is no longer to persuade someone to think differently, but to ask them to become part of something. I did not come up with this myself. I did a lot research in sociology and psychology and landed on this theory of intrinsic motivation. I read Freud and C.L. Hull. The most recent experts on what’s called self-determination theory are Richard Ryan and Edward Deci of the University of Rochester. This science has been applied for years in human resources, in education, but has never been applied to marketing.

So the three elements needed to get participation are not new. Take discovery. People love to learn and like to become competent at something. What are you as a marketer doing to help them do that? Empowerment is a little more difficult. B2B marketers develop hundreds of white papers to demonstrate their capabilities, but do they ever think to ask customers to suggest topics, to give them a role? And if you don’t think you have a meaningful role, can you be connected? Connection is not just about connection to the brand. Brands are usually arrogant about that: “I’m going to provide them a link to connect them to me.” To build a community, marketers have to accept the fact that it’s not just about them.

But is participation marketing relevant to every brand or service? Does any consumer care to participate with a hemorrhoid medicine, for instance?

It’s funny you ask that. I was recently at a conference and talked to a woman who sold storage units—not necessarily exciting. One of the things we talked about is that low-involvement categories often don’t give people the opportunity to connect. No matter what your product or service, we’re finding people come to expect it, and if it’s not there they will sense it as a missing component. It can be as simple as leveraging the communication, going beyond just providing information to seeking information from customers. This storage company, for instance, listened to customers in Hawaii and provided them with trolleys to transport items to and from their units.

What do marketers stand to lose by just sticking with business as usual?

Trust. One of the concepts I’m playing with now is where does trust come into the equation. Brands are relevant and important, but the bigger a brand gets, the more that consumer trust in it is likely to erode. Skype, for instance, is a relatively new addition to the Microsoft suite. But I just saw a study in which people said they are more likely to trust Skype than Microsoft. You have to understand the trust values surrounding your brand.

What has mobile communications done to boost customer empowerment?

Some marketers are treating mobile like any other channel. A smartphone itself is not a channel, it’s a delivery mechanism, it’s a behavior changer. It completely and fundamentally shifts the way someone perceives a product or service. This past holiday season I got an email on my phone from UPS that said I had an undelivered package and let me know that I could send them a message to reroute it to where I was. They fundamentally changed their service and, temporarily at least, gained an advantage over competitors. So people thinking this is just a channel are really shortchanging themselves.

What’s the timeline of the “Participation Age?” How long will the methods you’re proposing be relevant?

Think of how long the Industrial Age took. Then we were in the Communication Age. The lifecycles of these ages get shorter and shorter. I don’t know what’s next, but whatever does come, it’s not going to put this genie back in the bottle. People are still people, they don’t change behaviors all that much, but what’s really changed are their expectations. 

Have marketers changed to meet their expectations?

Hell, no.

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