Get Them Talking: How Growing Participation Chains Will Grow Sales

November 17, 2009 By Sam Decker (@samdecker) and Ze Frank (@zefrank)

The Participation Chain
As part of a consumer research study, residents of Dallas, Texas, received a phone call asking if they would let a Hunger Relief Committee representative come to their homes and sell them cookies, with the proceeds to be used to buy meals for the needy. Only 18 percent agreed. But, when the caller started by asking, “How are you feeling this evening?” and waited for a reply, 32 percent – nearly double the earlier number – agreed to a visit from the cookie seller. Even more astounding was the fact that once someone followed up by paying a visit, nearly everyone (89 percent) made a cookie purchase. Daniel J. Howard, the researcher at Southern Methodist University who conducted the study, called this the “foot-in-the-mouth effect,” because, in this case, the salesperson didn’t even need to get a foot in the door. Once people had expressed themselves in even the most banal way, saying “good” or “fine” or the like, they were much more likely to take the next step of allowing the cookie seller to visit their homes. Once the salesperson was at their doorstep, they were almost certain to purchase. This powerful analog interaction can be replicated online in what we call a “participation chain” – a way of cultivating user involvement so that each action builds upon the one before, building value along the way. After an initial act of participation, marketers can then lead the person to another act, and to another, and so on. The chain of user engagement not only increases that person’s relationship with your brand, and potentially leads to a purchase, but may also leave behind a “trail” of content which can lead other site visitors to increase their own engagement. In 2007, Forrester’s Brian Haven concluded that “engagement” was marketing’s new key metric, but engagement is not a binary thing. It needs to be cultivated by leading users along a participation chain.


Participation Creates Engagement Value
90% of UK shoppers surveyed said they wish they could communicate directly with businesses – using live chat, forums or callme-back facilities – via their websites; one in three require it from the UK businesses they currently use. (1&1, October 2007) There were nearly 116 million US usergenerated content consumers in 2008, along with 82.5 million content creators. Both numbers are set to climb significantly by 2013. (eMarketer, February 2009) See more stats at


Here are two generally accepted principles: 1. In traditional recency, frequency, monetary (RFM) models, direct marketers know that the person most likely to respond to an offer is someone who has responded to a previous offer. 2. Researchers know that someone who has participated in a survey, usability study, or focus group is likely to change the way they think or behave as a result of that experience. We can combine these two principles into a simple truth: time and money are two sides of the same coin. In general, the more time a customer spends with you – assuming a positive experience – the more likely they are to spend money with you (or take some related action). A Harvard Business Review article by Michael I. Norton refers to this as

“The Ikea Effect,” noting that his research has found that labor undertaken in association with a brand – such as self-assembly of Ikea furniture – increases people’s affection for the result of that labor. “When people construct products themselves, from bookshelves to Build-a-Bears, they come to overvalue their (often poorly made) creations,” Norton writes. Online, those who labor to contribute content – reviews, answers, stories, wishlists, etc. – have, in effect, invested themselves in something. Their contributions could be for the sake of others. A study by Keller Fay and Bazaarvoice revealed 90% of people who write product reviews do so to help others, and 80% do so to help the brand. Regardless of whether the investment is for others or for the brand, when someone participates within a platform or web site, they increase their connection to that brand or platform.


John Lazarchic, PETCO’s VP of e-commerce, says having reviews on his site has led to increased levels of engagement and loyalty. “Customers who write reviews are more engaged with the site and come back to the site more often,” according to Lazarchic. “Our goals are twofold: one, to increase the content on the website, which adds value to the website; and two, to build loyalty. If they take the time to write, people tend to come back and see what others say. They now own part of the website.” The links in online participation chains can take a variety of forms. Some opportunities for participation are effectively private, or shared among a small group of people. Examples include building wishlists, creating gift registries, sending a friend an e-mail, or filling out a survey. Other links are more public, such as posting a publicly-viewable photo, writing a product review, or answering a question posted by another visitor to the web site. PETCO has seen customer reviews and customergenerated Q&A lead directly to increased sales and fewer product returns. PETCO rewards top contributors with special badges.


Participation Creates Engagement Value
“Person like me” is still the most trusted source for information about a company and, therefore, products. (Edelman Trust Barometer, November 2007) 83% of online shoppers would make purchases if sites offered increased interactive elements. (Allurent, January 2008) Recommendations from family and friends trump all other consumer touchpoints when it comes to influencing purchases, according to ZenithOptimedia. (AdAge, April, 2008) See more stats at


Word of mouth has always been the most impactful form of marketing. Now more than ever, customers are less likely to pay attention to marketing-speak and more likely to pay attention to (and trust) content from other people. The pleasant side-effect of building participation chains is that a person’s public contributions – ratings, reviews, stories, answers, photos, videos, etc. – can be used to market to, and draw in participation from, other visitors to the Web site. In a way, each piece of contributed content has a chance to help others, and they, in turn, want to return the favor. Each piece of content is a building block to creating a sense of community, and amplifies the authentic value of usergenerated content. As a result, others want to participate. Bazaarvoice has found that as the

number of reviews increases on a web site, helping more visitors purchase across more products, the review volume continues to increase. The theory holds that more content engages more buyers, and those buyers return to write reviews themselves. As content grows, so does value to the business. Bazaarvoice has found that more reviews drive higher conversion, more search traffic, and lower returns. With question and answer content, more answers drive higher conversion, lower returns, and fewer customer service calls. For example, Canadian Tire implemented the Bazaarvoice Ask & Answer application on their site and found that products with one answer per question had 28% fewer calls per product, and products with more than three answers had an 81% drop in calls per product.


Canadian Tire got an unexpected benefit when they added Ask & Answer to their site: customer service costs decreased (while overall satisfaction levels stayed steady). Products with one answered question got 28% fewer customer service calls, those with two answers saw a 67% decrease in customer service calls, and three answers drove an 81% decrease in such contacts.

Customer Service Contacts Answers per Product
3+ 2



How to Create a Participation Chain
Users who contribute product reviews or post messages visit sites nine times as often as noncontributors do. Contributors also make purchases nearly twice as often. (McKinsey & Co./Jupiter Media Metrix study, January 2002) 84% of marketers agree that building customer trust will become marketing’s primary objective. (1to1 Media survey of the 1to1 Xchange panel, April 2008) See more stats at


Participation chains are formed by linking simple forms of participation into longer chains to keep the user engaged over a longer period of time, with the goal of moving them towards a goal. That user, in the process, becomes more engaged with the site, brand or product, and creates content that benefits others. What you link together as a participation chain is highly dependent on the context and purpose of your brand, the site, and the user. Following are some actions that you could ask a user, visitor or customer to take:

» »

“Like” or vote up someone else’s contribution or content on the site Create a wishlist or other type of list

» » » » » »

Submit a photo, such as a photo of the product being used by a family member Take a poll or survey Write a review Answer or ask a question Share a story Leave a comment Thanking customers for their reviews and asking them to answer open questions helps further engage with a brand.


To determine what request should be frontand-center when you’re seeking participation, put yourself in the user’s shoes. Consider what he or she is hoping to accomplish at that particular moment. Give them an opportunity to move closer to that goal. Additionally, give them a reason to contribute – make an argument as to why that moves them closer to their goal. Bryan Eisenberg, author of Waiting for Your Cat to Bark, who consults on improving conversion rates on e-commerce sites, is an advocate for the creation of “Personas” – profiles of the different types of people who might be using your site. Developing these profiles will help you see your site from the eyes of your Web site visitors and craft chains of actions that appeal to their desires and goals.

There are a few reasons people are motivated to participate or take the time to contribute content. Focus the reason for contribution on:

» » » »

Them (their need for self expression) – Can you make them stand out, show off their creativity, gain “ego capital”? Sharing with friends – Can you make them look good in front of people they know? Helping strangers – as mentioned earlier, 90% of people write reviews to help others. Helping you (the brand) – as mentioned earlier, 80% also write product reviews to help the brand.

Percent who answered 5 out of 5 (Extremely Important)
To help other consumers make good decisions To share your experiences with other people Because you rely on consumer reviews and posting reviews yourself is a way of giving back To reward a company that has done right by you To help companies make improvements in the products and services they offer To help retailers make better decisions about what products they sell Because giving feedback publicly is the best way to get companies to listen to what you have to say To correct the record when you see that somebody else has given an unfair review Because it's fun 13% 10%

Percent who answered 4 out of 5 (Important)
70% 20% 62% 24% 56% 23% 56% 23% 48% 26% 46% 24% 39% 23% 22% 19%

The “Reviewer Intent Survey” by Keller Fay Group and Bazaarvoice (November 2007) found that helping other consumers, sharing experiences, and giving back to the community motivated consumers to write reviews.


One strategy to consider is to allow users to easily, without registration, contribute tiny micro-bits of content. The success of the “Like” thumbs-up button on Facebook, or the status update, may, in part, be due to the sheer ease of participating without making a big commitment of time or creativity. Once you have the user engaged with a microaction, you can move on to soliciting a more robust action. A simple example of this would be in an online photo gallery. A user comes in with the goal of sharing some photos with a friend. She begins by uploading files from her computer, then is offered chances to crop the photos, scale them and tag them. Once her gallery is finalized, she’s presented with the options of emailing them to a friend or posting them to Facebook. Once that is done, she is offered the chance to make a calendar, do it again,

or enter one of her photos in a contest. As she enters the photo in the contest, she finds she can view, rate and comment on other people’s photos. Participation chains are made possible by merchandising next steps and making participation calls to action very visible, compelling and convenient. Alternatively, had you just allowed them to upload a photo and click “done,” you may never had gotten them to create more content and increase their engagement into that system. An example of a more robust action is when a customer leaves a review for a product or service. In this case, the action represents a commitment from the user that is far greater than a mouse click. Once the submit button is clicked, what are some possible ways to form an action chain? The dead-end option

Cycle of Engagement
Visitors come to site to read review. More visitors are attracted by the customer’s content. Visitor attracted by customer’s content becomes a new customer. New customer writes product review.






Customer writes product review.

Customer asks and answers questions.

Customer writes a story about brand.


would be a thank you page and a back button. Alternatively, you could ask the user to write another review, ask them to rate other reviews on the same product, or ask them if they want to share the review they just wrote with colleagues. You could also present an opportunity for an action that is completely unrelated to reviews – ask them to submit an entry to a contest or call for overall feedback on the brand. Bazaarvoice has learned that once people contribute in some way (for example, write a review) they are more likely to do

something else (such as answer a question or write another review). For example, just by presenting unanswered community questions to a user after they had written a review, average answer volume increased by 139% across multiple clients. Originally a customer may have clicked a link in a post-purchase email to write a product review with an objective of helping others, because other site contributors helped her decide upon that purchase. After writing the review, she was invited to further help customers by sharing an answer. In doing

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so, she may have discovered that writing this content contributes to a profile she has on the web site, which encourages her to possibly do the next link in the chain:

going back to the site to see their content published. While they were there – wrapped in a blanket of contributory goodwill – they found something to buy! In order to build a participation chain, analyze the following within the context of some participation that can occur on your web site:

» » » » »

Share a profile or content with others via email or Facebook Write another review Write another answer Share new content, such as a story Browse the content or profiles of others, which may lead to a purchase

» » » »

Identify the most common goals that user might have. Identify a next contribution that best maximizes the value for that user and their context. Identify the actions that you (as a platform) are most interested in having the user participate in. Identify the most simple and logical “next step.” If people are using your platform in a way you hadn’t intended, embrace it and offer a clear path for them to accomplish their aims. Consider explicitly asking a user to explore another part of the site, or learn more about site functionality. Identify ways to push toward high-value content submission. Take that “like” or one-click star rating and convert it into a more robust review or story.

In one example noted by Bazaarvoice, a large retailer sent emails to reviewers after their product reviews were either posted or rejected. This email simply thanked the reviewers, let them know that their content was published (or, if not, why). There were a few links back to the ecommerce site, but no product promotion. What resulted from these emails was unexpected and astonishing. Those emails produced a higher open rate and greater sales per email than almost any promotional email the retailer sent to customers. Why? The fact that people had contributed to the site caused them to be more invested in opening the email and

» »


For each of the actions above, evaluate how easy it is for the user to make that next step. Does it require knowledge about the site other than what is displayed? Is the call to action clear and visible? Is the call to action in a logical place in the design flow? Are you using language that is goal-oriented rather than feature-oriented? Can you word these goals in a social framework? (“share a picture with your friends” – rather than “upload a pic” and then “share with your friends”). Players of the Xbox game Halo – despite being presented with a vast rich landscape featuring a seemingly unlimited number of possible actions – often find themselves intuitively moving forward exactly as envisioned by the game’s designers. How did the makers of the game ensure that the story would move forward, while still giving players the impression that they have free will and a wide variety of options? They used subtle cues involving lighting and music that

pull the player toward the path where the next event was supposed to happen. Although surrounded with a myriad of possibilities, the next action is always intuitive and present and leads players along a path. Just like Halo, consumer platforms represent a world with many possibilities, and the trick is to provide clear paths so that users can achieve specific goals. Once those goals are achieved, a new goal should be presented, leading the user forward. This can be successful even if the participation chains offer a next step that is tangential, or even orthogonal from the original goal. One of the Web’s most fundamental properties is that it allows and encourages serendipity – users may find themselves happily doing something entirely different from the purpose that brought them to the site. Build your site with an understanding of this.


Compete on Customer Conversations
Of merchants who adopt customer reviews, 58% said improving customer experience was the most important reason for adding reviews to their sites, followed by building customer loyalty (47%), driving sales (42%), and maintaining a competitive advantage (37%). (eTailing Group, June 2008) 68% of online marketers believe “media is in big trouble and will lose dollars to usergenerated content.” (iMedia Connection, February 2008) See more stats at


In the current explosion of social interactions, it’s time to rethink your marketing assets. It’s always been about the customer, but now there’s exponential impact from your customers’ engagement and influence. Their participation is the key to unlocking value.

visit to your site may be his first, or may be his tenth. Make sure that the loyal customer has new and different opportunities, as people may tire if they’re offered the same opportunities again and again. Don’t be afraid to change the conversation as you get to know one another better. Much has been said about engagement, and about markets as conversations. The participation chain concept addresses one of the key considerations involved in this type of marketing – once you begin a dialogue with your potential customer, how do you keep it going and make the value exchange deeper and more meaningful? Begin by asking for participation, even if it’s only the online equivalent of “How are you feeling this evening?” – because a seemingly-banal response like “fine” could be the first link in a strong and lengthy participation chain.

As you begin the task of lengthening and deepening customers’ participation on your site, ask yourself where customers are participating with your brand or platform and determine what your brand is already doing to keep the conversation going. Look for participation dead ends, such as thank you pages that lead nowhere. Consider possible ways to follow up, including links on the submission form, confirmation e-mails, followup e-mails, and specialized notifications on return visits. Consider both short-term and long-term engagement, realizing that a user’s


Sam Decker Chief Marketing Officer, Bazaarvoice Sam Decker is a recognized expert in eCommerce, word of mouth marketing, and direct marketing. He frequently speaks at marketing and eCommerce events and authors the award-winning marketing blog at Prior to Bazaarvoice, Decker helped build into the largest consumer eCommerce site, established their global best practices in merchandising, analytics, product management, and operations, and pioneered Dell’s customer-centricity and customer segmentation strategies. He has led marketing at B2C and B2B startups, helped develop loyalty marketing strategies for Apple and Adobe, and written two marketing books. He serves on the Board of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. Twitter: @samdecker.

Ze Frank Designer, Speaker, and Popular Video Blogger Ze Frank (pronounced “Zay”) brings an entertaining and insightful look at how technology and creativity intersect, especially in web design, marketing and new forms of media. He rose to Internet fame in 2001 with his viral video “How to Dance Properly,” and has been making online comedy and web toys ever since. His most recent hit, “The Show with Ze Frank,” drew press, praise, and thousands of viewers daily during its year-long run ending March 2007. The podcast earned him a Vloggie at the inaugural 2006 award show and a Web Award at SXSW 2007. His most brilliant move: calling on fans to write the show for him. Using collaborative tools, online viewers collectively put words in his mouth (and props in his lap); he faithfully performed this wiki-comedy each week for his “Fabuloso Friday” show. Twitter: @zefrank.

Bazaarvoice 3900 N. Capital of Texas Hwy., Suite 300 Austin, TX 78746 Toll-Free: (866) 522-9227 Phone: (512) 551-6000 Fax: (512) 551-6001 Site: Blog: Twitter: @bazaarvoice

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Send us your participation success story The top five stories will win a $50 gift card and be featured in a webinar with Ze Frank and Sam Decker on January 20th. Submit your story to by January 12th.


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