Marketing In The Participation Age: Getting Found + Driving Action

The term “Participation Age” was first coined by John Schwartz in 2005, while CEO of Sun Microsystems. Sadly he never turned the idea into a book. I was excited to discover “Marketing In The Participation Age” by Daina Middleton, which I added to this list of 20+ books seeking to name the post Information Age.

marketing in the participation age
Marketing in the Participation Age by Daina Middleton
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Daina begins by proposing we shift to think about consumers as participants – she explores and explains the origins of the term “consumer” and “consumerism”,  making a compelling case for the shift to focusing on participation. I love the term participant – it’s so much more respectful. Consumers and users have always felt like odd terms. It’s important to appreciate it’s not just a name change, but a role and a relationship change too.

The book also tipped me onto a second book, Spreadable Media. How an idea spreads, and thinking about the social life of your content are important ideas. Understanding how people interact with your ideas is vital if you seek to create more interaction.

Daina talks a lot about metrics, arguing that any marketing campaign should begin with the question “What action do we want people to take?”, leading to  “How do we measure those actions?” and “who has the data?”.  Designing for participation and measurement makes sense. The framework and thinking outlined in the book are highly practical. It’s very much aimed at larger enterprises and explores blending and integrating paid, earned and owned media.

Today most brands focus on eyeballs and impressions, but participation is so much more conscious that just seeing an advert (or the possibility of being seen).

The Importance of Participation

Participation is a conscious choice. Attention is finite, so when we earn people’s focus by getting them to lean in and participate, that’s significant. If your customer’s don’t care, you have to rely on a traditional expensive broadcast model. You also leave yourself open to being displaced by a brand that manages to engage your audience.

As the volume of content that’s created and shared explodes, the credibility of impression metrics diminish, reinforcing the value of participation.

It’s still early days in the shift from impressions to engagement, but early adopters and advocates of this shift include Coca Cola, Jack Morton and Deep Focus

Daina advocates that modern consumers have a self-serve mindset. They expect to discover the answers to anything online. That’s very different than them trying to find you by name. That’s the difference between being discoverable and being findable.

Daina uses a simple framework to think about creating content for a self-serve audience.

D + E + C = P2

Discover + Empower + Connect = Participation x Performance

Self-discovery, empowering your audience and facilitating social connection between your community are all intertwined. If you do all three, they feed off each other, generating more participation which leads to enhanced performance.

The trick to participation is not to make it about you. Daina proposes this 3 part framework:

  1. Discover: The human desire to continually learn, and the satisfaction of becoming competent at something. In what ways are you inviting Participants to learn more about your product/brand?
  2. Empower: Inviting someone to have a meaningful contribution to the brand and/or product. Do you invite Participants to connect with the brand: provide feedback, offer tips and suggestions, and help to create the product itself?
  3. Connect: Humans love to interact with others in meaningful ways. Brands often only think of creating environments that allow Participants to connect with the brand, but do you build environments that foster relationships with others who may share the same interest?

This book does a great job of articulating the why of participation, connecting to content marketing, community building and actionable measurement.

Daina’s argument that the born digital generation have a high expectation to be able to find the answers online resonated with me.

This is the same argument that many make – e.g. Marcus Sheridan – The Sales Lion – is a huge proponent of discoverability over findability.

  • Are brands responding to self-serving participants?
  • Are you asking what questions will “would-be participants” ask?
  • Are you publishing search ready answers?

There’s a big difference between describing and explaining your product.

Because you are not actively involved, you need to anticipate the questions participants will ask. With this in mind, find-ability or discoverability take on a much bigger definition.

Marketing is focused on creating more content, but is it the right content?

Thinking about the needs of the self-serve consumer may just be something you should give more priority.

I’ve argued beating hearts trump rolling eyes. Where do you sit on the engagement vs impressions?

Do you begin your marketing planning by asking “What action do we want your audience to take?”

Nick Kellet
Nick is co-founder the social curation platform Listly, that combines crowdsourcing, content curation and embedable lists to drive high-level community engagement, live inside your blog posts. Follow Nick's writing via his other guest posts and on his blogs at and
Nick Kellet

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