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RMIT University

School of Creative Media


Master of Arts (Virtual Communication)

Research Paper
Brand engagement through participatory media
by: Helen Mitchell

Commencement Date of Research Project: 26 July 2006

Submission Date of Research Project: 3 November 2006

Abstract:

Participatory media are primarily ‘many to many’ communications, through which people can contribute
to and receive information or entertainment over the web. They are characterised by the active
contribution of the people who use them, creating content, conversation and relationship.

This research paper examines the influence that participatory media such as blogs, online social networks
and virtual worlds can have on the effectiveness of an organisation’s branding strategies. It considers the
history and suitability of the web for participation and the relevance of participatory media for branding,
particularly in a highly competitive and media-fragmented environment. It explores the shifts in
consumer behaviour, technology and the growth of online communities that are driving the changes to a
‘participatory culture’. Of particular importance is the rise in availability of do-it-yourself media tools,
social software and internet connectivity, which give anyone the ability to create content and publish it
over the web.

Through literature review, examples and evaluation of current practices, the research explores the
advantages and risks that participatory media create for brand engagement. The risks present because of
the nature of participatory environment – the audience can have control over the content and distribution
of brand communication. An organisation can mitigate these risks through understanding the principles
and behaviours underpinning participatory media.

This research shows that through using participatory media, opportunities can be created to engage and
build relationships and a deeper connection with an organisation’s brand. The analysis culminates in a
set of starting points to guide an organisation in formulating participatory media strategies to develop
positive relationships with consumers, therefore contributing to engagement with the brand.
Knowledge Network Individual Project Research paper by Helen Mitchell

Table of Contents

Introduction............................................................................................................................ 1
Scope and outputs of the research...........................................................................................1
The web as an environment for participation .............................................................................3
The relevance of participatory media for branding ......................................................................4

The rise of participatory media ............................................................................................... 5


What is happening: Disruptive innovations and technologies........................................................5
Why it is happening: Convergence of behavioural and technological effects ...................................5
How it is happening: Social software and the viral effect .............................................................8
Implications for branding: how do we engage the audience now? .................................................9

How organisations are using participatory media ................................................................. 11


Business blogs .................................................................................................................... 11
Company-created blog: Charlene Li’s blog for Forrester Research ............................................ 11
Individual-created blog: Dell Hell - Jeff Jarvis and BuzzMachine............................................... 12
Advertising and promotion through online social networks......................................................... 14
Music and entertainment: Weird Al Yankovic’s ‘White and Nerdy’ ............................................. 14
Consumer-created advertising: Chevy Tahoe and ‘The Apprentice’ ........................................... 16
Virtual world experiences: Examples from Second Life.............................................................. 19
Reuters news agency ........................................................................................................ 19
Starwood Aloft Hotel ......................................................................................................... 20

Starting points for creating a participation strategy ............................................................. 21


Research finding one: Capture the audience’s imagination with a good story................................ 21
Research finding two: Keep the audience at the centre of the strategy ........................................ 23
Research finding three: Understand how to behave when involved in the conversation ...................... 25

Conclusion ............................................................................................................................ 26

References ............................................................................................................................ 28

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List of tables
Figure 1: Example blog: ‘A Shel of my former self’ ....................................................................... 2
Figure 2: Examples of online social networks ............................................................................... 2
Figure 3: Examples of virtual worlds........................................................................................... 3
Figure 4: Increase in home media ecology 1975 – 2006 ................................................................ 7
Figure 5: Charlene Li's blog - Forrester Research ....................................................................... 12
Figure 6: Jeff Jarvis's BuzzMachine blog.................................................................................... 13
Figure 7: Image from 'White and Nerdy' video ........................................................................... 14
Figure 8: Response to ‘White and Nerdy’ blog post ..................................................................... 15
Figure 9: Image of video with Schrödinger's wave equation and fans discussing the error ................ 15
Figure 10: Image of the competition entry page on the Chevy Apprentice website .......................... 16
Figure 11: Images from four consumer-created videos for the Chevy Tahoe campaign .................... 17
Figure 12: General Motors' FastLane blog.................................................................................. 18
Figure 13: Second Life homepage ............................................................................................ 19
Figure 14: Reuters news agency in SecondLife........................................................................... 19
Figure 15: Images from Virtual Aloft hotel design process ........................................................... 20

List of figures
Figure 1: Example blog: ‘A Shel of my former self’ ....................................................................... 2
Figure 2: Examples of online social networks ............................................................................... 2
Figure 3: Examples of virtual worlds........................................................................................... 3
Figure 4: Increase in home media ecology 1975 – 2006 ................................................................ 7
Figure 5: Charlene Li's blog - Forrester Research ....................................................................... 12
Figure 6: Jeff Jarvis's BuzzMachine blog.................................................................................... 13
Figure 7: Image from 'White and Nerdy' video ........................................................................... 14
Figure 8: Response to ‘White and Nerdy’ blog post ..................................................................... 15
Figure 9: Image of video with Schrödinger's wave equation and fans discussing the error ................ 15
Figure 10: Image of the competition entry page on the Chevy Apprentice website .......................... 16
Figure 11: Images from four consumer-created videos for the Chevy Tahoe campaign .................... 17
Figure 12: General Motors' FastLane blog.................................................................................. 18
Figure 13: Second Life homepage ............................................................................................ 19
Figure 14: Reuters news agency in SecondLife........................................................................... 19
Figure 15: Images from Virtual Aloft hotel design process ........................................................... 20

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Knowledge Network Individual Project Research paper by Helen Mitchell

Introduction

Scope and outputs of the research


The objective of this research is to provide a set of starting points to guide an organisation in using
participatory media to develop positive relationships with consumers, therefore contributing to
engagement with the brand. The research defines participatory media and explores their influence
among users of the web. It examines the impact they are having on the effectiveness of branding
strategies and the significance for business, particularly in relation to the new conditions under which
people are engaging with products, services and entertainment.

A brand has been described as a valuable strategic asset and a company’s primary source of
competitive advantage (Aaker 2002). More than a compilation of name, logo and tagline, the brand is a
symbol of the organisation and its products and services, which becomes “shorthand for the entirety of
a consumer’s knowledge of the company” (Knight 2002, p 3). Successful brands “consistently evoke
positive feelings over time” (Bedbury 2002, p 15) and great brands embody a narrative that places the
customer as the story’s main protagonist (ibid). Brands can have personality, identity and voice, and
impart both tangible and intangible benefits (Aaker op cit). They are important elements in the long-
term success of an organisation because they have the ability to form meaningful relationships with
customers. This research shows that through using participatory media, opportunities can be created to
engage and build these connections.

Examples from practice will explore the advantages and risks that participatory media can create for
organisations and how their use for brand engagement might be optimised. There are several forms of
participatory media; this research considers those that can actively be used to extend a brand’s reach,
where two-way communication is enabled and a personal connection established between the
consumer and the brand. Business blogs, online social networks and virtual worlds are the categories
examined, as examples from practice demonstrate their strong potential to build relationships. They
are described in Tables 1, 2 and 3.

Table 1: Overview of blogs


What blogs ƒ A simple website consisting of short articles or ‘posts’, appearing as a list, with the most
are recent post appearing at the top of the page.
ƒ A blog usually centres on a defined topic and can include individual diaries, political
campaigns and various business uses.
ƒ The totality of blogs is called the blogosphere. On 2 November 2006, they numbered
58.7 million.
ƒ Blogs are easy to set up, and there are a number of free tools available over the web.
These include WordPress, Blogger, Movable Type, LiveJournal and Xanga.

How blogs are ƒ Blogs are conversational and encourage feedback between writers and readers. Many
used blogs enable visitors to leave public comments, which can lead to a community of
readers interacting with the blog.
ƒ Blogs can be authored by a single person or a group of people, and contain personal
opinions as well as facts.
ƒ Some blogs are influential and are read by thousands of people, others are personal
diary entries written for family and friends.
ƒ Categories for business use and brand engagement: executive blogs, company blogs,
product blogs, customer service blogs, advocacy blogs, employee blogs.

References: Coggins 2006, Holtz & Demopoulos 2006, Technorati 2006, Wikipedia 2006: 1

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Figure 1: Example blog: ‘A Shel of my former self’


Source: Holtz (2006: 1)

Table 2: Overview of online social networking


What online ƒ Online social networks provide places for groups of people to interact with each other
social and form virtual communities.
networks are ƒ Communities discuss interests such as music, friends, hobbies, movies and popular
culture. Social networks can also form around business activities.
ƒ The content contained within online social networking sites is generated by its members
and the site provides the framework and underlying technology to enable this to occur.

How online ƒ Members of the online social network share information and form connections, linking to
social each other’s profiles and discussions, enabling the network to spread.
networks are ƒ Members use the tools provided to create personal profiles, lists of friends, discussions,
used share video, audio and photos, post comments, tag, rate and share favourites, chat with
friends and send and receive email.

Examples ƒ YouTube, MySpace, Flickr, Bebo, Friendster, Facebook, Linkedin

References: Wikipedia: 2, 3, 4

Figure 2: Examples of online social networks


Source: MySpace (2006); YouTube (2006: 1)

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Table 3: Overview of virtual worlds


What virtual ƒ A computer-simulated environment that has qualities of the real world, including gravity,
worlds are topography, locomotion, real time action and communication. They are often known as
massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPG).
ƒ People are represented in the virtual world by avatars, which can be two or three
dimensional graphic representations, of human or non-human appearance.
ƒ Characteristics of a virtual world are:
− Shared space: allows many users to participate at the same time
− Graphical user interface: depicts space visually, ranging in style from 2D ‘cartoon’
imagery to immersive 3D environments
− Immediacy and persistence: interaction takes place in real time, and the world's
existence continues regardless of whether users are logged in or not
− Interactivity: allows users to alter, develop or submit customised content
− Community: allows and encourages the formation of in-world social groups, for
example through events, teams, activities, etc

How virtual ƒ People can interact, play games, do business and communicate with each other.
worlds are ƒ Members are provided with tools to create objects to use in the world, e.g. users create
used avatars and can own and build on ‘virtual land’, which is in effect server space.
ƒ Many virtual worlds have a functioning economy, allowing the buying and selling of
virtual goods. Some charge a fee to trade, while other levels of membership are free.

Examples ƒ Second Life, Entropia Universe, The Sims Online, Habbo Hotel, There, EverQuest, Ultima
Online, Lineage, World of Warcraft
References: Virtual Worlds Review 2006, Wikipedia: 5, 6

Figure 3: Examples of virtual worlds


Source: Habbo Hotel (2006), Second Life (2006: 1)

The web as an environment for participation


“Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”
A.J. Liebling (1960), The New Yorker

Participatory media are primarily ‘many to many’ communications, through which people can contribute
to and receive information or entertainment over the web. They are characterised by the active
contribution of the people who use them, creating content, conversation and relationship through
hyperlinking. It is the element of audience participation that extends the scale and influence of
participatory media, known as ‘the network effect’, where the service automatically and exponentially
grows and improves the more people use it (O’Reilly 2005). In participatory media, “the boundaries
between audiences and creators become blurred and often invisible” (The Economist 2006: 1).

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Using the internet for participation is not a new phenomenon. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the
world wide web, envisioned it as a social creation and designed it to be collaborative, a place where “a
group of people of whatever size could easily express themselves, [and] quickly acquire and convey
knowledge” (Berners-Lee 1999, p 175). Although the web was embraced and grew quickly, it evolved
into a ‘read-only’ web, rather than Berners-Lee’s original design of the ‘read-write’ web. Web browsers
were intended to have both browsing and editing capabilities; however, early web developers designed
them without the editing function, much to Berners-Lee’s concern (ibid). It was only later that editing
capability was readily available, giving anyone with internet access the tools to be a web publisher.

The significance of the web for participation was foreshadowed by Levine, Locke, Searls and
Weinberger (2000) in The Cluetrain Manifesto, which asserts that the web returns the relationship
between business and consumers to a time when there was no distance between buyers and sellers –
where ‘markets are conversations’ (ibid, thesis no. 1). The authors detail the changing relationship
between business and individuals, signified in the natural language of the web: honest, pithy
discussions about issues, events, brands, organisations and products (ibid).

Participatory media have become influential as an effect of ‘Web 2.0’, the so-called second generation
of internet-based services and software that enable people to easily form networks, publish and share
information online (Wikipedia 2006: 7). The term Web 2.0 was devised in 2004 by O’Reilly Media to
label the applications that were emerging after the dot-com collapse (O’Reilly 2005). This term has
evolved to include participation in general (The Economist 2006: 2). Web 2.0 provides the “architecture
of participation”, enabling the harnessing of collective intelligence (O’Reilly 2005), where using the web
is no longer about “idly surfing and passively reading, listening or watching. It’s about doing: sharing,
socializing, collaborating, and, most of all, creating” (Yahoo!’s Eckart Walther in Hof 2005).

The relevance of participatory media for branding


The internet enables people to connect globally and instantaneously, and removes the barrier of
geography, a significant factor in the growth of human networks. It has brought almost instant and
unlimited access to information and options. Winsor (2004) identifies that people are exposed to over
3000 branded messages per day, and with this bombardment comes the need to filter out irrelevant
details. If the source of a brand’s influence is “a set of mental associations and relationships built up
over time among customers” (Kapferer 2004, p 16), then organisations clearly are challenged in
capturing the attention of their busy customers, clients and potential audiences. An important shift is in
the model of communication, away from the mass media form of ‘broadcast’ (one to many) towards
‘conversational’ (many to many) ( Bowman and Willis 2003, McCarthy, Miller and Skidmore 2004).
Businesses, cognisant of this shift in interest, are taking notice and investigating ways to stay with
their target markets and engage them with their brands.

Participatory media may play an even more crucial role for brand engagement in the future. While
research shows that younger audiences are the primary users of participatory media such as social
networking (Charron et al 2006), other studies show that the older generation are increasingly familiar
with the internet and use it for social as well as business purposes (Rainie 2006, comScore 2006). As
people increasingly filter their preferences for engaging with brands, those organisations that lack
awareness of the behaviours around participatory media may run the risk of losing their customers.
This may lead to loss of market share, decreasing revenues and increasing irrelevancy.

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The rise of participatory media

What is happening: Disruptive innovations and technologies


“We are experiencing a shift on worldwide scale from a vertical command-and-control value creation model
to an increasingly horizontal connect-and-collaborative model.”
Lucio Stanca (2006), OECD Conference for the Future Digital Economy

McKinsey and Company finds that technological connectivity is transforming the way that people live
and interact. More than the technology itself; it is the shift in behaviour enabled by technology that is
most transformational (Davis and Stephenson 2006), giving rise to the development of online
communities, allowing the growth of niche areas of interest and access to knowledge.

In early 2006, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) explored the
impacts that the rise of digital content has on business and consumers (OECD 2006: 1). A key point of
agreement from the conference was that “we are entering a participatory culture not of consumers but
users” (OECD 2006: 2, p 3), where the internet acts as a disruptive technology, both enabling and
destroying business models (Waverman 2006). Most notably, it emphasised that social, democratic and
cultural growth are at stake as well as economic growth. The speed of change in the sector is impacting
current and future business models where the boundaries between content production and content
consumption are unclear (ibid).

Disruptive technologies of the past include the steam engine, electricity, telephone, radio, television
and the personal computer. A major characteristic of disruptive technologies are the changes in
business models and innovations that emerge (Waverman 2006). While disruptive innovations have
“toppled established companies” (Winsor 2004, p 6), it is an organisation’s response to the changes
that is most critical. It is not enough to be aware of the technology, an organisation must also consider
how it might threaten the way it does business or change the way its customers behave. The biggest
risk is not the technology or global competition – it is complacency (Winsor 2006).

Why it is happening: Convergence of behavioural and technological effects


“The days of crafting and delivering a top-down message are dwindling.
Several forces have converged to bring us to this precipice of change.”
Shel Holtz (2006: 2), ‘Communicating in the world of Web 2.0’

The past three years have seen an increasing uptake in people’s use of the web for communication and
collaboration, along with the development of web applications which facilitate participation (O’Reilly
2005). Social, environmental and technical effects are contributing to the rate of change. These include
the declining influence of mass media and traditional information sources, the increasing familiarity and
trust in the human networks that the web enables, and the growing access to internet broadband. A
summary of the converging shifts in behaviour and models of communication appear in Table 4.

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Table 4: Shifts in behaviour and models of communication


From ‘one to many to ‘many to ƒ Mass media and broadcast models are losing their hold as prime
many’ communication modes.

ƒ The broadcast notion of ‘filter then publish’; is being replaced by


the model of online communities: ‘publish, then filter’.

ƒ The audience can decide when they consume content, what is


relevant, and what is newsworthy through ‘on demand’ media.

(Barker, Shedd & Copper 2006, Bowman & Willis 2003,


Charron et al 2006, Rainie 2006)

Declining consumer trust in ƒ People are more independent, less brand-loyal and less trusting
business and traditional of traditional media and advertising.
information sources
ƒ Trust in the internet as an information source is growing, while it
is declining for television.

ƒ Consumers are more likely to trust peers than institutions or


experts. The Edelman Trust Barometer study found that in the
United States trust in “a person like me” has grown from 20 per
cent in 2003 to 68 per cent in 2006.

(Charron et al 2006, Edelman 2006)

Familiarity with the internet – ƒ Recent studies find that both younger and older generations are
for the young and older familiar with the internet as a communication tool.

ƒ As well as business use, there is increasing use of the internet


for social purposes, such as family and entertainment.

ƒ This is even more significant among ‘Generation Y’ and ‘digital


natives’ as they have grown up with it as normal communication
activity and they ‘live online’.

(Charron et al 2006, comScore 2006, OECD 2006: 2, Rainie 2006)

Internet use and access to ƒ The growth of broadband and internet users means that more
broadband people are online. Broadband connections mean greater speed
and interactivity is enabled over the internet.

ƒ The OECD reports that the number of broadband subscribers in


OECD countries from June 2005 to June 2006 grew by 33 per
cent, and of that two-thirds of all internet users have broadband.

(OECD 2006: 3, Waverman 2006)

Decreased barriers to entry of ƒ The rise in availability of do-it-yourself publishing tools, social
internet publishing software and internet connectivity mean that anyone has the
ability to publish over the internet – text, audio, video and
photographs.

ƒ These two way technologies have enabled people to become


their own publishers and media producers.

(Charron et al 2006, Holtz 2006: 2, Rainie 2006)

These shifts are inhibiting the effectiveness of branding activities, driven in part by the complexity and
fragmentation of communication channels. This is weakening the brand strategies of companies,
making it difficult to respond across the range of products and services a company might offer (Court,
French & Knudsen 2006). There is also a lack of information about how new technologies and vehicles
might perform (ibid).

The scale of this media fragmentation can be seen in the measure that 25 years ago, five airings of a
television commercial would reach 80 per cent of the audience. In today’s environment, more than 300

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airings would be needed to achieve a similar reach (Greenwood 2005). There are now many more
media and communication tools, such as computers, games, radio, television, DVDs, digital cameras
and mobile phones, which influence the way people choose to spend their time. As well as providing
entertainment and communications, these tools give people the means to create, publish and distribute
content (Rainie 2006). Figure 4 shows the increase in home media from 1975 compared to today.

Figure 4: Increase in home media ecology 1975 – 2006


Source: Rainie (2006)

As familiarity with the internet grows, people use it to conduct more of their daily activities. The ‘high-
speed, always on’ nature of broadband makes it easy to migrate many offline tasks to the web, for
social and business purposes. Significantly, 84 per cent of American internet users belong to an online
community (Rainie 2006), and Bowman and Willis (2003) find compelling social reasons motivating
people to participate in online communities:

ƒ To gain status or build reputation in a given community;

ƒ To create connection with other who have similar interests;

ƒ For sense-making and understanding;

ƒ To inform and be informed;

ƒ To entertain and be entertained; and

ƒ To create.

Online participatory experiences, such as collaboration, sharing of interests and immediacy of response,
can support the development of trust and credibility, therefore deepening the connection to the
community (ibid).

If each of the converging factors described above were in isolation, such a profound shift may not be
occurring. Forrester Research asserts that the combined changes will fundamentally transform the way
all businesses operate, generate products and relate to customers, creating “a social structure in which
technology puts power in communities, not institutions” (Charron et al 2006, p 2). In the participatory
culture, it is the audience that chooses how it will interact with the brand and who will achieve the
greatest coverage.

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How it is happening: Social software and the viral effect


“The only advertising that was truly effective was word of mouth, which is nothing more than conversation.
Now word of mouth has gone global.”
Rick Levine, Chris Locke, Doc Searls & David Weinberger (2000), The Cluetrain Manifesto, p 83

Social software underpins the functions of participatory media such as blogs, social networking and
virtual worlds. It supports group interaction and social patterns (Shirky 2003), allowing people to
interact by establishing and maintaining a connection that enables relationships and online
communities to form. (Wikipedia 2006: 8). Social software supports the spread of human networks
through ‘online word of mouth’ or ‘viral’ behaviour. Macklin (2006) defines the viral effect as using “a
pre-existing social network to produce exponential brand awareness through a viral process similar to
an epidemic”. Social software enables people to easily create and distribute their own and others’
content, making it as effortless to send something to large groups of people as it is to send to an
individual.

The enormous growth that social software enables can be seen in the popularity of participatory media
such as those outlined in Table 5.

Table 5: Reach of participatory media


Blogs ƒ Number over 58.7 million, with about 175,000 new blogs created each
day. Blogs are updated at a rate of about 1.6 million posts daily or about
18 blog updates per second
(Technorati 2006)

YouTube ƒ Reportedly serves 100 million videos per day with more than 65,000
(social networking / video videos uploaded per day and nearly 30 million unique users.
sharing, launched 2005) (Nielsen//Netratings 2006, YouTube 2006: 2)

Flickr ƒ Is reported as having 6.3 million unique visitors in July 2006, a 12 month
(photo sharing, launched growth of 201 per cent
2004) (Nielsen//Netratings 2006)

MySpace ƒ Is reported as having 106 million registered users (Sellers 2006) and over
(social networking, 46 million unique visitors in July 2006, a 12-month growth of 183 per
launched 2003) cent
(Nielsen//Netratings 2006)

Second Life ƒ On 3 September 2006, Second Life’s homepage listed 615,800 resident
(virtual world, launched members; on 2 November 2006, this number had grown to 1,221,392.
2003)
ƒ At any time thousands are online, e.g. at 3.00pm 17 September 2006,
9496 residents were logged in; at 10.15pm on 2 November 2006 it had
6000 online.
(Second Life 2006: 1)

The value of the viral phenomenon lies in the community and behaviour that the technology enables,
rather than the technology itself. Walsh (2006) explains that MySpace users are highly interdependent
and self-organising, thus creating an environment where “new ideas, brands and entertainment
products replicate through the network like wildfire”. MySpace is a community, not simply transient
traffic to a website. This is sufficiently compelling for organisations to pay large sums of money to
acquire them, such as News Corporation’s payment of US$580 million for MySpace in July 2006 (Sellers
2006), and in Google’s purchase of YouTube for US$1.65 billion in October 2006 (Macklin, Gauntt and
Hallerman 2006).

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Google’s chief executive officer Eric Schmidt refers to YouTube as a “social phenomenon” (Schmidt
2006) and that the driver for Google to begin discussions with YouTube was the networking and social
aspects of the site (ibid). YouTube users can do many things with the video – discuss, rate, save to
favourites, organise, share, see other related videos, and subscribe to video channels. The appeal in
YouTube does not lie in the video itself; rather it is “about the community that’s around the video” (Li
2006: 1). Therefore, the value is in the structure of the user base, who give context and meaning to
the content, and will keep returning to the community (ibid, Walsh 2006).

Implications for branding: how do we engage the audience now?


“Stories are how we make sense of things. Anything else is just information.”
Rick Levine, Chris Locke, Doc Searls & David Weinberger (2000), The Cluetrain Manifesto, p 151

In the participatory culture, there is no captive audience to which organisations can deliver messages.
Assaad and Carson (2006) contend that a key problem is that the tradition of marketing is built on
interrupting people during their leisure time to deliver messages, annoying the very people they are
trying to engage and creating a situation where “we have trained them to ignore us” (ibid). In effect,
there are new ‘rules’ to play by, which are akin to the principles of entertainment rather than selling
(Leonard 2006).

Viral and networking activity cannot be implemented in the ways of a traditional branding campaign,
because it relies on the active participation of the audience to share it with their online community. A
deeper connection is required between consumers and the brand, encouraging people to contribute
content and form a community around ideas and interests. Ibeh, Luo and Dinnie (2005) find that
established approaches to branding have been changed by the internet, and the tactics developed in
response are now undergoing further change. Online strategies are no longer primarily about the
website; a range of collaborative approaches are needed for building brand engagement. These
elements include creating an online community that facilitates interactions among customers, enabling
them to deepen their experiences and build a more personal connection with the brand (ibid). Engaging
people with conversation rather than delivering information is a more effective strategy, because
“although there is no demand for messages, there is a tremendous demand for good conversation”
(Levine et al 2000, p 95).

A brand is essentially a relationship and strong brands “establish a relationship that is grounded in
brand narrative” (Denning 2005, p 106). Aaker (2002) finds that people can respond to a brand in the
same manner they relate to another person, and with this comes expectations around behaviour, voice,
character and personality. The human experience is brought to life through stories, which are an
influential tool because they can communicate identity, transmit values, foster collaboration and share
knowledge (Denning 2005). They form the foundation of good conversation and the emotional
connection that effective brand building requires. Bedbury (2002) determines that this connection is
the most powerful and lasting engagement that a brand can have with a customer. To instigate the
conversation, Winsor (2004) encourages organisations to go beyond telling their own stories by
listening to and understanding their customers’ stories, thereby being more human and increasing their
relevancy to the community (ibid).

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Engagement through a storytelling framework may be seen in the experience of MasterCard’s ‘Priceless’
campaign, which operates on the narrative ‘Tangible item/service: price, tangible item/service: price,
tangible item/service: price, intangible item/concept: priceless: “The best things in life are free. For
everything else, there’s MasterCard.”’ (Bedbury 2002, Wikipedia 2006: 9)

Although credit cards are functionally about transactions, the campaign has created an emotional
connection with the public (Bedbury 2002). In response to the initial campaign, MasterCard’s vice
president for global marketing received daily letters and emails from people worldwide suggesting their
own ‘priceless’ moments (ibid). In its nine year history, the campaign has seen numerous tribute and
parody commercials created by individuals and circulated via email and over the web. MasterCard
acknowledges that “We can’t manage what happens out there…it has taken on a life of its own”
(MasterCard Worldwide’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer, in Elliot 2006), and in
2006 ran a competition inviting consumers to make their own advertisements of their ‘priceless’
moments (MasterCard 2006).

This example demonstrates what can occur when people genuinely engage in a brand and its narrative:
the audience joins in communicating the story. Through online social networks the audience has the
ability to spread brand material, and it has the media creation tools to make its own content. This
phenomenon is being variously labelled as ‘participation marketing’, (Elliott 2006), co-creation (Winsor
2006), open source marketing and citizen marketing (Holtz 2006: 1). Brand identity is not solely
created by the organisation – it also rests in the hands of its audience, where the cumulative
experiences of customers will ultimately define the brand (Aaker 2002, Bedbury 2002).

Along with the benefits, there are downsides to engaging with participatory media, largely due to the
lack of control that a brand has over its communication. These risks can occur whether or not the
organisation has initiated the communication, because the audience are also producers, consumers and
distributors of content. Risks can be mitigated through understanding how to both engage and respond
through participatory media, which will be explored in the examples from practice and in the starting
points for creating a participation strategy.

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How organisations are using participatory media

Research undertaken for this report identifies three models of brand engagement regularly found in
participatory media. Each of these models is reviewed through selected examples from practice. The
three communication models are outlined in Table 6 and examples from practice follow in the next
section.

Table 6: Communication models in participatory media


Business blogs ƒ Blogs usually aim to create both knowledge sharing and feedback channels.
The actions an organisation can take for business blogs are:
− Create a company-authored blog to communicate and engage with its
audience for a strategic business purpose, for example, about products
and services, customer service, technical support, issues advocacy or
research
− Set up an area where customers can talk among themselves about a
company’s products and services
− Monitor and respond to the conversations that take place on
individual-created blogs

ƒ Individual bloggers can also initiate brand conversations, and have the
same ability to engage with online communities as does the organisation.

Advertising and ƒ An organisation or individual creates a short video, and ‘seeds’ it on the
promotion through internet, either officially posting it to a website or specific social network
online social networks site, or through unofficially ‘leaking’ it to a social network site or blog.

ƒ Because of the intrinsic value of the video, such as entertainment or


controversy, it creates the impetus for the viral effect and it quickly spreads
through the network and gains notoriety, often being reported on by the
traditional media, which further reinforces its spread.

Virtual world ƒ An organisation or brand creates a presence within the virtual world
experiences representing its real world activity, inviting participants to visit and become
involved.

ƒ This might involve establishing a virtual office, holding an event such as a


product launch, concert or press conference, or selling virtual products to
participants.

Business blogs
Company-created blog: Charlene Li’s blog for Forrester Research

Forrester Research is an independent technology and market research company that provides advice
about technology's impact on business and consumers (Forrester 2006: 1). Charlene Li is a principal
analyst for Forrester, specialising in technology developments in media and marketing, which includes
participatory media (Forrester 2006: 2).

Li blogs in her capacity as a Forrester employee. The blog’s tone is conversational and personal; she
gives a sense of who she is by providing insights into her work, asking for feedback and creating a
sense of community around her topics. Li’s posts include commentary on developments in her specialist
area and discussion of current projects. Forrester sells research reports for several hundred dollars
each; often Li reports on this research as it is under development – the illustration in Figure 5 is a case
in point. This post is about Li’s investigation into measuring the return on investment (ROI) on blogs.

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Figure 5: Charlene Li's blog - Forrester Research


Source: Li (2006: 2)

Li discusses the status of the project, provides the framework they have been developing, links to
papers on the topic, and asks her readers for their insights and experiences to add to the research. In
the past this may have been considered giving away confidential information and Forrester’s intellectual
capital – not so in the conversational mode that underlies the character of participatory media.

This blog does much to promote the human face of Forrester and its work (Holtz 2006: 3, Weil 2006).
Li herself says that a blog’s core value to an organisation is in creating a dialogue with customers (Li
2006: 3). It would seem that the blog is showing results for recognition and engagement in the
blogosphere. A search on “Charlene Li” and “Forrester” in Technorati’s blog search engine yields 2700
mentions, with 374 mentions in ‘blogs with a lot of authority’. In Google, the same search returns
274,000 results.

At an industry conference in March 2006, Li informed delegates that her blog could be equated to
providing US$1 million in new business for Forrester in 2005 (Li 2006: 3, Weil 2006). She later wrote
that financial measures are not the only ones that should be evaluated – it is a range of factors that
consider value, engagement and visibility (Li 2006: 2, 3). What is clear in reviewing the many posts
and comments Li, her blog and subject area attracts, is that she is contributing constructively to
industry and audience engagement in Forrester’s brand.

Individual-created blog: Dell Hell - Jeff Jarvis and BuzzMachine

Jeff Jarvis is well-known blogger and newspaper and television journalist. Having become exasperated
with the poor quality of his computer and the ongoing lack of helpful customer service from Dell, he
began to write about his experiences. In July 2005, in his BuzzMachine blog, Jarvis posted “Dell lies.
Dell sucks.” (Jarvis 2005: 1), complaining about the service he received upon request that Dell replace
a faulty laptop. Jarvis was incensed because although he paid for an expensive four year home service

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plan, he was told by Dell that if someone was sent to his home to fix the computer, he would still lose
the computer for two weeks as the Dell service person would not have all the parts required (ibid).

This series of posts hit a nerve in the blogosphere, and soon Jarvis was receiving 10,000 visits a day
(Armstrong 2006). Disgruntled Dell customers shared their experiences by leaving comments on
Jarvis’s blog; other bloggers posted their own thoughts independently. Soon it took on the power of a
“negative viral campaign” (Gupta 2005) and was reported in mainstream newspapers such as The
Washington Post, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal (Mcorp 2006).

Although Dell reportedly monitors online conversations, its policy of “look, don't touch”, means that
“those monitoring do not respond publicly, nor do they try to make contact proactively” (Jarvis 2005:
2). Jarvis appealed numerous times to Dell management to respond publicly to him, and published
several open letters to Dell executives on BuzzMachine as well as emailing them directly. This situation
became known as ‘Dell Hell’, and continued for some months from June 2005. The BuzzMachine blog is
shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6: Jeff Jarvis's BuzzMachine blog


Source: Jarvis (2005: 2)

‘Dell Hell’ weakened Dell’s reputation and brand, reportedly contributing to the fall in Dell’s share price
(Armstrong 2006, Jarvis 2005: 1). Dell’s lack of public response proved to be detrimental. A UK study
found that ‘Dell Hell’ affected the corporate reputation of Dell to the point where Jarvis himself is
viewed as being more than twice as authoritative as Dell on the issue of Dell’s poor customer service
(Public Relations Online 2005). This example demonstrates the need for organisations to listen and
address any negative brand conversations. Perhaps if Dell executives had responded and participated in
the conversation they may have managed to turn the negative feeling to a more constructive outcome.

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Advertising and promotion through online social networks


Music and entertainment: Weird Al Yankovic’s ‘White and Nerdy’

‘White and Nerdy’, a song by Weird Al Yankovic, is a parody of rap singer Chamillionaire’s ‘Ridin’. The
story of ‘White and Nerdy’' follows Weird Al’s desire to “roll with the gangstas”; however he knows they
will never accept him because he is too “white and nerdy”. The lyrics explain and celebrate the nerdy
character’s habits, friends and social activities, which make it clear why the “gangstas” want nothing to
do with him. Figure 7 shows an image from the video.

Figure 7: Image from 'White and Nerdy' video


Source: MySpace (2006: 2)

A leaked copy of the music video was uploaded to the web in mid-August 2006, reportedly one day
before AOL was due to release it as a world premiere (Wikipedia 2006: 10, Yankovic 2006: 1). As a
result, AOL cancelled the premiere, and the video quickly gained momentum through communities such
as YouTube and MySpace. It is estimated that the video has been downloaded over 10 million times.
For a viral campaign, one million views are considered to be the ‘magic number’ (Hampp 2006).

The spread of the video through online social networks has seen fans engage in the video itself, Weird
Al the person and the ‘white and nerdy’ character. Conversation topics include the trivia that the song
celebrates, such as the popular culture references to Dungeons and Dragons, Star Trek, mathematics,
physics and the cameos in the video of well-known people. Examples of these conversations appear
below, which demonstrate the degree of engagement with the ‘White and Nerdy’ brand. Figure 8 shows
responses to a blog post about the extended DVD version of the film Lord of the Rings, and Figure 9
contains an image from the video showing a physics equation and a discussion about an error in it.

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Figure 8: Response to ‘White and Nerdy’ blog post


Source : MySpace (2006: 3)

Figure 9: Image of video with Schrödinger's wave equation and fans discussing the error
Source: YouTube (2006: 3)

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The engagement with the public has translated into sales of both the single and the album. In the
United States, the ‘White and Nerdy’ single has achieved top 10 in several major music charts, the best
in Yankovic’s career. The album achieved top 20 ranking. (Billboard 2006: 1 & 2, Wikipedia 2006: 10).

Weird Al’s MySpace page, a website and references on other websites for the marketing of ‘White and
Nerdy’, have been used to good effect, capitalising on the viral nature of social networking and online
community. As a follow-up, a competition is running with Yahoo, inviting fans to make their own ‘white
and nerdy’ video and submit it for consideration on Weird Al’s Yahoo page (Yahoo 2006).

It would appear that Yankovic is holding true to his public persona, consistent with his own ‘brand’ of
music. His website shows a photo gallery of his childhood activities, demonstrating him behaving in
‘nerdy’ situations, such as winning a spelling bee, posing with trophies and wearing huge glasses
(Yankovic 2006: 2). This campaign has been successful because it engages fans and potential fans on
several levels, makes good use of cross-fertilisation through social networking sites, has high
entertainment values and is true to the nature of what it is – comedy, music and popular culture.

Consumer-created advertising: Chevy Tahoe and ‘The Apprentice’

In mid-March 2006, General Motors (GM) launched a campaign inviting consumers to make their own
advertisement for the Chevrolet (Chevy) Tahoe. The competition, a promotional tie in with its television
appearance on ‘The Apprentice’, offered prizes for creating the commercials. Chevy made available
video clips, images and music tracks, and invited competitors to write copy and put together the
advertisements. The invitation text is shown below.

“The all new 2007 Chevy Tahoe is more capable, more responsible, and more refined.
Now, you’re the director and it’s your job to communicate this message by creating
the best Tahoe online commercial for your chance to win.”
Source: Long 2006
Entrants were asked to upload their videos to GM website at chevyapprentice.com. Figure 10 shows the
webpage on which people could create their advertisements.

Figure 10: Image of the competition entry page on the Chevy Apprentice website
Source: Long (2006)

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Climate change activists and environmental groups took notice and focused on the controversial and
environmental impacts of large vehicles such as the Chevy Tahoe. Thousands of negative videos were
uploaded on to the GM site and circulated over the web, charging the Tahoe with contributing to global
warming, protesting the war in Iraq or demeaning the Tahoe’s quality. Figure 11 shows a selection of
images from entrants. Some videos contained unsavoury content (Sandoval 2006). The campaign
created a ‘blogswarm’, which was reported by the mainstream media, gained coverage in major
newspapers such as the New York Times, and screened on prime time television news programs
(Gunderson 2006).

Figure 11: Images from four consumer-created videos for the Chevy Tahoe campaign
Source: YouTube (2006: 4)

This strong reaction is a consequence of using participatory media. Commenting on the campaign, Li
(2006: 4) wrote “If you’re going to participate as a marketer in the social computing arena, you’ve got
to have thick skin and be ready to engage in the messy world of your customer’s opinions.” This
appears to be the accepted approach when dealing with this type of social media: it is important for
both sides to participate. The two way conversation can be chaotic; however, this is the point of being
engaged in conversation, and there will be many different points of view.

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GM was widely criticised for its slow response to the reaction. Although the campaign was launched in
mid-March, it was not until 6 April that the Chevrolet general manager responded in GM’s FastLane
blog, illustrated in Figure 12.

Figure 12: General Motors' FastLane blog


Source: Peper (2006)

The campaign has been called “one of the least successful attempts to engage with consumers online”
(Dudley 2006). However, in GM’s opinion, “this has been one of the most creative and successful
promotions we have done” (Peper 2006).

The marketing manager for the Tahoe campaign considered the campaign a success, with the
chevyapprentice.com website generating a total of 5.5 million visitors and an average time spent of
nine minutes. Over 22,000 ads were submitted, 16 per cent of them negative (Sandoval 2006, Soy
Daily 2006). While statistics track volume, they do not show behaviour and attitude, which begs the
question whether the campaign was in the best interests of brand engagement. These figures may be a
success in terms of web statistics; however there are wider implications for potential damage to the
brand. Sixteen per cent of negative videos are significant, equating to over 3500 negative messages
potentially remaining in indefinite circulation over the internet, in addition to substantial media and
blog coverage.

While the Chevy Apprentice campaign attracted much attention, it is questionable whether it provoked
the sort of reaction that GM intended or needed. Aaker (2002) writes that the strongest brands are
managed not for general awareness, but for strategic awareness. It is not enough to simply be
remembered – a brand should be memorable for the right reasons and not the wrong reasons (ibid).

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Virtual world experiences: Examples from Second Life


Second Life describes itself as “a 3D online digital world imagined, created and owned by its residents”
(Second Life 2006: 1). The virtual world has attracted significant media attention, in part due to the
high profile organisations that are using Second Life for branding and experimentation (Terdiman
2006). Through media reportage, recognition for using virtual worlds has the additional benefit that
brand engagement can be created with the general public, even though they may not participate within
the virtual world itself. Figure 13 shows the Second Life homepage.

Figure 13: Second Life homepage


Source: Second Life 2006: 1

Reuters news agency

Reuters opened an office in Second Life in October 2006 to report on the activities and news affecting
residents and the virtual world. The ‘embedded’ reporter, Adam Pasick, writes under his avatar’s name,
Adam Reuters, and he and another reporter are shown in Figure 14. A website has been created for
reporting the news: http://secondlife.reuters.com.

Figure 14: Reuters news agency in SecondLife


Source: Hutcheon (2006)

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Residents can watch streaming news and discuss stories by visiting Reuter’s virtual headquarters within
Second Life. Reuters also gives away to avatars a display panel called ‘Reuters News Centre’, which
streams the latest news from the real and virtual worlds. The initiative is an experiment for Reuters. It
aims to find new audiences and position the organisation as innovative with technology and new ways
of presenting the news, making Reuters “part of a new generation” (Hartlaub 2006, Hutcheon 2006).

Starwood Aloft Hotel

Starwood Hotels launched the Aloft Hotel in Second Life in October 2006. It has been building the
virtual hotel since September as a prototype of the real world hotel that is due to open in 2008. The
Aloft Hotels prime audience is “trendy, tech-savvy 30 year olds” which is the demographic of many
Second Life residents (Voigt and Melillo 2006).

To understand the environment themselves, Starwood executives created avatars of themselves,


bought virtual land in Second Life and began planning and building the hotel. The 25-person team hold
daily virtual team meetings in their Second Life board room (ibid). A blog was created to show and
discuss the progress of the hotel, and in the two months since blog’s launch it has had around 10,000
visits and Starwood is building into the hotel’s design feedback from visitor comments (ibid). Figure 15
shows the virtual hotel during its design.

Figure 15: Images from Virtual Aloft hotel design process


Source: Starwood (2006)

Starwood uses the virtual hotel to promote engagement with their brand and to gain consumer input
into the design of the real-world hotel. In Second Life itself, avatars are encouraged to explore the
Virtual Aloft hotel and provide feedback. Social events for avatars are also held in the hotel (Starwood
2006).

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Starting points for creating a participation strategy

When participatory media are successful for brand engagement, there are benefits for both the
audience and the organisation. At the heart of this success is a good story that creates a connection,
inspires conversation and encourages people to participate and share it with their online community.
The organisation benefits through better brand recognition and goodwill from the online community,
which can also lead to the tangible benefit of revenue. This can be seen in the examples of ‘White and
Nerdy’ and the Forrester Research blog.

When brand engagement is working well through using participatory media, each medium
complements the other. Communities within blogs and social networks discuss and share the story
further, often being reported in traditional media such as television and newspapers. Unfortunately, the
same is true for when participatory media are not working well for brand engagement, such as in the
examples of Chevy Tahoe and Dell Hell. In these cases, General Motors and Dell experienced the
derogatory stories that their customers wanted to tell. Through unintended consequences, a frenzy of
involvement may be created, but work against the brand. It can damage reputation and revenue, with
the issue being widely reported and remaining indefinitely in circulation on the internet.

Therein lies the challenge of using participatory media in branding strategies: the audience reaction has
a potential global reach that cannot be controlled, consequently creating risks for the organisation.
Participatory media can create direct value for companies, such as lower product development costs,
lower marketing costs and lower research costs. However, to realise these benefits, the organisation
needs to learn to use participatory media properly (Charron et al 2006).

Three major findings have been identified from the research undertaken for this project:

ƒ Capture the audience’s imagination with a good story;

ƒ Keep the audience at the centre of the strategy; and

ƒ Understand how to behave when involved in the conversation.

Through using the research examples to illustrate, these elements can assist an organisation with
starting points to build a framework for a participation strategy, and are explained below.

Research finding one: Capture the audience’s imagination with a good story
Finding one overview: The story should resonate with the audience and encourage them to participate.
Choose a story that your audience will engage with in a positive way, congruent with what the brand is and
what it does.

Participatory media is about using a creative idea that people can be part of; not of delivering a
message to consumers. A successful participatory activity offers a compelling premise that engages the
audience in the story and with the brand. Ideally the story connects at an emotional level through
humour, entertainment, insight or creativity, including material with which the audience can identify, to
encourage interaction, discussion and sharing.

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It is also important to consider the likelihood of the story capturing the audience’s imagination in
unintended ways, such as in the experiences of the Chevy Tahoe campaign. In this case, the story
premise captured the imagination of environmental activists in ways that could potentially damage the
Tahoe brand. Questions to assist in clarification might include:

ƒ Is the story congruent with the brand-as-person and audience expectations of the brand?

ƒ Is the proposed idea within the brand or organisation’s character and will it be accepted by the
target audience?

ƒ Does the story carry any risk of devaluing the brand or organisation? How great are the risks?

Table 7 examines the underlying story or premise for each of the research examples.

Table 7: Story or premise identified in examples from practice and audience response
Forrester Research: ƒ ‘Forrester helps business. Charlene Li gives insights on technology developments
Charlene Li’s blog in media and marketing, and shares and discusses her knowledge with you.’

ƒ Li’s kudos translates into recognition and profile for Forrester’s business. Li is
helpful and friendly in her blog posts, so too is conversation with her participants.

ƒ Forrester trades in knowledge – therefore their blogs are about the current
thinking for how business can use new technology well.

Dell Hell ƒ ‘Dell promises home service, technical support and responsive customer service.’

ƒ Jeff Jarvis’s story about inadequate and expensive service resonates with Dell
customers, contributes to Dell’s falling share price and weakens its brand and
reputation.

ƒ Dell senior management refused to participate publicly in this evolving story,


receiving much negative criticism.

White and nerdy ƒ ‘A nerdy guy wants to be friends with the “gangstas’” But they won’t accept him,
because he is too “white and nerdy’”’

ƒ Audience enthusiastically embraces the references to popular culture and all


things nerdy, relating it to themselves and people they know.

ƒ ‘White and Nerdy’ is a popular song, fun, silly, and is in keeping with the persona
of its creator Weird Al Yankovic, which translates into recognition and sales.

Chevy Tahoe ƒ ‘The Chevy Tahoe is capable, responsible and refined. We want to know that you
think so too, so tell us.’

ƒ Many tell stories of the Tahoe’s contribution to global warming, pollution and the
Iraq war. The negative stories gain the most resonance with public and media.

ƒ Tahoe is an example of how things can go wrong – people saw the brand values
and story of the Tahoe differently to how the organisation promoted it.

Second Life:

Reuters ƒ ‘Reuters is technology-savvy, innovative and embraces experimentation. As


serious reporters in a virtual world, we invite Second Life residents to talk with
us.’

ƒ Reported by media worldwide. Avatars visit and engage with avatar reporter
Adam Reuters in Reuters’ Second Life headquarters.

ƒ Although this is an experiment for an established 110-year-old organisation,


sending an ‘embedded reporter’ into Second Life remains true to its purpose as a
news agency.

Starwood Aloft ƒ ‘We want residents to contribute to the design of a real-world hotel by visiting the
Hotel virtual hotel and our events. The Aloft Hotel is ‘trendy and tech-savvy’.

ƒ Avatars attend events, visit virtual hotel and provide feedback that is responded
to and implemented by Aloft into the hotel’s design.

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Research finding two: Keep the audience at the centre of the strategy
Finding two overview: Know what you want to achieve with your audience. Understand how they feel about
your organisation and brand and design and assess the risk that the story may create. Create the pathways
and tools for them to participate with you, and listen and promptly respond to the conversation.

Know what you want to achieve


The adage “just because you can doesn’t mean you should” (Bedbury 2002, p 61) is especially true for
participatory media. As part of a communication strategy, participatory media should be planned in line
with achieving business goals (Holtz and Demopoulos 2006). These objectives might include to:

ƒ Respond to technical questions from customers;

ƒ Gain feedback from the public on an emerging product’s design;

ƒ Show forward-thinking or thought leadership of the organisation;

ƒ Build company profile by provide insights into the operations of its business; or

ƒ Create excitement and anticipation about a forthcoming event or product.

Understand your audience’s attitudes


As the audience is a prime stakeholder in the participation strategy, it is important to know what
consumers love and hate about the organisation and its products, services and brand. This can enable
the organisation to be aware of the downsides and negativity that may occur and assess the risks of
using participatory media. This can be achieved in the following ways:

ƒ Review data collected through channels such as audience research, complaints, media
monitoring, feedback or letters to the editor.

ƒ Consider online conversations that may be occurring about the brand through monitoring
consumer generated content. There are organisations that offer this monitoring service,
providing analysis of discussions and opinions that are in circulation over the internet.

ƒ Conduct a SWOT analysis for how the audience might respond to the proposed strategy,
including the potential for negative reactions and consequences for how it might work against
the brand.

Make it easy to participate


Ensure it is easy for the audience to respond and participate through explicitly inviting participation and
creating the conditions for community to occur. This can include:

ƒ Providing a place for audience to comment and discuss. It is also appropriate to provide the
organisation’s policy for moderation of comments and acceptable language. This should be brief
and clearly visible near the comment posting area.

ƒ Enabling the media to be easily shared. For example, YouTube allows the video to be emailed,
supplies the underlying code to embed the video in a web page, and provides a unique web
address for each video.

ƒ Giving the tools to create and submit content. For example, for a strategy that asks the
audience to create an advertisement, provide the images, music and tools for them to produce
and submit their creations.

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Understand the particulars of using blogs, social networking and virtual worlds
Research suggests that while the principles underlying participatory media work across its various
forms, there are some characteristics particular to each. These are outlined in Table 8.

Table 8: Features of business blogs, social networking and virtual worlds


Business blogs ƒ The person who blogs should be someone who:
− understands and thrives on blogs and public conversation, e.g. who reads and
comments on blogs
− understands the specialist area the blog covers
− has the time, energy and passion or inclination to blog
− has the freedom to blog, and does not have to go through the legal
department or an approval process for every post

ƒ Never publish anything that the core online community would find boring or phoney
– it is important to be real

ƒ Linking is at the heart of the blog conversation - ensure sources are referenced and
maintain trackbacks (where another blog has mentioned another blog) and
permalinks (unique URLs to a specific post) on the blog. This makes it easy to link
between blogs, and find particular posts.

(Gahran 2006, Holtz and Demopoulos 2006)

Social ƒ The old way of key messages does not transfer to the new world of conversation -
networking do not annoy the community through intrusive advertising

ƒ Do not place unnecessary restrictions on what network members can do, as this
runs the risk of the community migrating elsewhere.

ƒ For example, when MySpace realised that many of its users were embedding
YouTube videos into their profiles, it blocked links to YouTube, as it saw this
competing with the MySpace video service. This move was loudly protested by
MySpace users, and the functionality was reinstated.

(Wikipedia 2006: 11)

Virtual worlds ƒ Virtual worlds are built by players for players and can be resistant to outside
commercial influences. It is not about plastering the online world with advertising.

ƒ Brands should interact with the game seamlessly and find innovative and
imaginative ways to engage with participants and create an experience.

ƒ Add relevance and value to the virtual world and the player experience – this can
include having participants create something with the organisation.

ƒ Factor in the cost of virtual world campaigns, e.g. the Toyota Scion launch in
Second Life cost around $200,000, most of it towards the online design for the
virtual and visual elements of the campaign.

ƒ Second Life assists organisations in the following way:


− Pairs the brand with content developers in Second Life
− Encourages the brand to buy virtual land, integrate into the community and
hire web developers to help them with their campaigns and content creation

(McCormick 2006, The Economist 2006: 3, Trendwatching 2006)

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Research finding three: Understand how to behave when involved in the conversation
Finding three overview: Once you’ve started the conversation, participate in it by being authentic,
personable and responsive. Be a good conversationalist by being real – this is no place for ‘corporate speak’
or ‘key messages’.
Any form of participatory media an organisation uses should embody the qualities of an honest, ethical
and reasonable person, ready to listen and respond: in essence, a good conversationalist. Behaviours
that are important to demonstrate in participatory media include authenticity, sociability and
responsiveness.

Authenticity
In the online environment truth, identity and reality can be hard to prove (Charron et al 2006). To
create positive relationships through participatory media, authenticity is critical to trust and
engagement in the brand. This includes transparency and disclosure of actions and intentions.
Betraying the trust of readers and participants can be detrimental to the brand. Wal-Mart and
McDonalds have been publicly chastised by their professional peers and online communities for creating
fake blogs, known as ‘flogs’ (Bosman 2006, Holtz 2006: 4). A flog is where a blogger acts for pure
company promotion without disclosure, or a blog is written by a PR organisation under an assumed
name and denoted as real.

Faking the source of material through social networking is frowned upon by the online community. The
discovery of the true nature of lonelygirl15 on YouTube demonstrates this. A series of videos were
posted under the name of a home-schooled girl called ‘Bree’. In actuality it was created by two
producers piloting an internet drama. ‘Bree’ is an actress and the videos were labelled a hoax. The
community felt duped into believing that lonelygirl15 was something she was not and trust was eroded
(Bosman 2006). Examples show that if an author is honest about identity and intention, the community
will accept it. This can be seen in the case of ‘White and Nerdy’ where MySpace members quite happily
conversed on the blog of the white and nerdy character – they knew who and what they were dealing
with and played along with it. America’s NBC network had a character from the television series ‘The
Office’ write a blog. This proved popular with the audience of ‘The Office’, who were happy to
participate, fully aware that the blog was written tongue-in-cheek by the actor who played the
character (Viveiros 2006).

Sociability
Participatory media are places of informality; therefore a conversational and personable approach and
voice are best. A dialogue such as this is built on warmth and a personal connection; corporate speak
or formal language are inappropriate. An organisation can create connection through substantive and
personalised communications, providing “more than an advertising-jingle persona” (Levine et al 2000,
p 25). The genuine voice emanates from attention, caring and honesty of purpose. An early example is
shown by Symantec, who in the 1990s had an employee assist customers by scanning and responding
to online technical forums. This person gave “honest answers to hard questions, acknowledged product
shortcomings, and painted an honest, open picture of the product’s strengths and weaknesses” (ibid p
70). This resulted in much positive feeling, where “the developer community’s collective opinion of
Symantec soared” (ibid).

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Knowledge Network Individual Project Research paper by Helen Mitchell

Responsiveness
Once the conversation has been instigated, an organisation needs to participate by listening and
responding promptly. As seen in the Dell Hell and Chevy Tahoe examples, there are risks to brand
reputation by not participating, whether or not the conversation is begun by the organisation. How the
organisation responds can make the difference whether it succeeds or fails in participatory media, and
it should be prepared to receive some negative feedback. Silence is not viewed favourably. Being
responsive also means to admit mistakes, take steps to rectify them and then follow up.

Listening and responding can help the brand to maintain and improve its reputation. Winsor (2006)
urges organisations to proactively pay attention to what the market is saying about their brands.
Because consumers increasingly trust the opinions posted in online forums, the organisation only has
an illusion of control over the brand’s reputation (ibid). This active responsiveness means that by
letting go of control of the ‘corporate message’ and participating in the conversation, the organisation
can tap into a valuable feedback channel and create a deeper relationship with its customers.

Conclusion
“I believe that 99 percent of the Internet’s applications have yet to be invented.”
Vinton Cerf, Chief Internet Evangelist, Google (2006)
“And 99% of the remaining 1% have yet to be appreciated”
Doc Searls, weblog (2006)

This research paper has considered how participatory media can influence engagement in a brand and
why they are increasingly important to branding activities. Through observation and research, a series
of starting points has been created to assist organisations in planning their strategies for brand
engagement through participatory media.

A brand can be viewed as the sum total of all the experiences an audience has with it. Brands are
powerful because they can demonstrate personal qualities such as voice, attitude and identity, which
give them the ability to form relationships. Participatory media can be used to create and maintain
relationships, and are becoming increasingly important in an organisation’s suite of brand engagement
strategies. The examples discussed in this paper show that leverage can be gained through using blogs,
online social networks and virtual worlds in branding activities.

A business blog can offer ongoing and regular conversation in a specialist area over periods of time,
providing the opportunity for a feedback channel between the organisations, customers and potential
customers that contribute to the discussion. A social network can spread brand engagement through
the viral effect, creating and sharing content as a result of the relationships within the online
community. Through experimenting with virtual worlds and providing an experience for participants,
brands are proving that much media attention can be generated and recognition gained among the
general public, even if many do not directly participate in virtual worlds.

The converging social, environmental and technical factors underpinning the shift to the participatory
culture point to the influence of these forms of media. Complacency or ignorance is not an option for

Master of Arts (Virtual Communication) November 2006 Page 26


Knowledge Network Individual Project Research paper by Helen Mitchell

organisations if they wish their brands to remain relevant to their audiences, who are increasingly
choosing to spend their time in the online communities enabled through participatory media.

Participatory media can affect a brand even if the engagement is not instigated by the organisation,
because the audience are also producers, consumers and distributors of content. Along with the
benefits of using participatory media are downsides, largely due to the lack of control that a brand has
over its communication. An organisation should monitor and respond to conversations that occur in the
blogosphere and in online social networks to counter any risk to brand reputation. When using
participatory media, an awareness of the social and behavioural principles that underpin them will
assist brand engagement and mitigation of any risks.

When people genuinely engage in a brand and its narrative, they join in communicating the story. At
the heart of a good participatory media activity is a story that the audience finds compelling enough to
share with their online community. The starting points identified to assist the development of
participatory media strategies for brand engagement are:

ƒ Capture the audience’s imagination with a good story. The story should resonate with the
audience and encourage them to participate. Choose a story that the audience will engage with
in a positive way, congruent with what the brand is and what it does.

ƒ Keep the audience at the centre of the strategy. Know the goals in engaging with your
audience. Understand how they feel about the brand and design and assess the risk that the
story may create. Create the pathways and tools for them to participate, and listen and
promptly respond to the conversation.

ƒ Understand how to behave when involved in the conversation. Once the conversation has
started, participate in it by being authentic, personable and responsive. Be a good
conversationalist by being real – this is no place for ‘corporate speak’ or ‘key messages’.

Opportunities for future research includes how to evaluate the success of participatory media in
extending a brand’s reach. While there is exploration of the criteria to evaluate brand engagement
through participatory media, there are few well-known measures to benchmark and quantify their
success. Evaluation of engagement for websites presently includes quantitative measures such as
website hits, click-throughs and conversion rates. These may prove inadequate in the social
environment created by participatory media, where intangible concepts such as conversation,
participation, ideas and the goodwill created speak more of relationship on a personal level and
engagement with the brand.

The investigation into participatory media for brand engagement has shown that it is a fast-moving and
emerging area, as evidenced by the growth of the online communities observed during the research
period. Considering the statement that 99 per cent of the internet’s applications are yet to be invented
(Cerf 2006), the ideas, concepts and conclusions drawn from this research may well change in a short
period of time. The possibilities created for communication and brand engagement through blogs,
online social networks and virtual worlds are limited only by the imaginations the individuals and
businesses who choose to participate.

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Knowledge Network Individual Project Research paper by Helen Mitchell

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