Technology and social media gives brands the ability to listen to customer feedback better than at any time in history.  This gives companies the ability to listen to and respond to our comments. If they're really smart they can use them as R & D and create products based on our conversations. Listening and responding is one thing, interrupting us on social platforms is another. In a session I was running a few weeks back someone asked 'isn't advertising just a virus? People just don't want brands interrupting them on social media?'. Ignoring the ads that people actively like and share, most of us understand, when we get stuff for free someone or something is paying for it. We become the target and in many senses we become the product being sold.  

Now that brands have a superhero-like ability to listen to everything said about them, how to respond? Listening is a good start and when people are irate it's often worth responding. It's a tricky line to tread and all too often companies take these new open channels as a blueprint for all their new future marketing. Suddenly everything should involve co-creation and every communication has to consist of a dialogue. And  participation (or engagement) marketing becomes the holy grail.

As Tim Malbon said "suddenly digital is *everything* and everyone believes that social media has the power to turn boring crap into gold. Every product and every single brand wants to 'engage' users in a massive participatory experience. Especially if they're utterly dull. Obviously, you've got a Facebook page by now so you can 'be part of the conversation', but by now you've discovered there's very little to say if you're a brand people don't care much about or a product you put on food to make it taste better.

Never mind all that, there must be a way to engage with, by now, billions of web users who love engaging and participating, this is what they've been waiting for, and if you make the experience engaging enough they'll forget you're boring and love you and go out and buy your product instead of your slightly less participatory competition."

There's no point in boring brands trying to engage us on social media. They need a position, a passion, a point of view. Malcolm Gladwell was asked by GQ 'If you had to choose would you rather be interesting or right?" He said it entirely depended on what you do. If he was president of the United States or a CEO, he'd rather be right but he's a journalist so he'd rather be interesting. Advertising's closer to journalism than CEOs and presidents. We have to be interesting. If you're interesting, interesting things tend to happen. Have a position. Ikea's about everyone deserving the right to good design, Dove and the campaign for real beauty, Method about cleaning products which don't harm the environment, Nike wanting to encourage people to stay healthy. Having a position on culture helps them seem less self-obsessed and allows them to build a bridge between what they're good at and what we're interested in. This gives them a natural ability to exist in social spaces.  

So let's consider why people participate in things?

1. To get something useful. Tools, apps, rewards
2. To give something useful. Build communities, get group discounts
3. To bond with others. To improve social context
4. To gain status. Recognition, points, levels and rewards
5. To define themselves. Personalisation

If we are to use participation, we should be realistic about how people engage with brands. Here are two approaches:

1. Mass Participation - where it is so easy, relevant, or product related, that a significant number of people will want to get involved, and every interaction will have a direct positive marketing effect on the person interacting (Walkers Do Us a Flavour).
2. Mass Viewership of Participation - where the content that the few participators produce is of such enormous interest that masses of people will want to see the output and be positively influenced by the marketing message inherent within. (Burberry Art of the Trench).

If Clay Shirky has taught us anything, it's that people want to create primarily for themselves - their ideas, their expressions. Now and again, this might dovetail with the communication or marketing aim of a brand, but it won't most of the time. If you as a brand owner, are going to going down the creative participation route, you need to be damn sure that actually what you're doing is allowing individuals a platform to create.