For a long time when it came to consulting in digital marketing, I’d be asked what the best thing to do was to achieve a loose objective, and I’d in turn provide the usual no-brainer advice of giving the voice to the people, providing value, suggesting a permission asset, getting retweets, blah blah blah.

I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve failed by having little focus, and and as a result, committed the cardinal mistake of overestimation of participation. The result? Ghost towns. Disappointed. Unhappy investors. This post addresses the latter.

Just The Right Level Of Participation

In the this video I quickly give an example from this last week, namely of our church’s annual Vision Sunday where we produced t-shirts that people got when they turn up, which emphasised our vision for the year.

Wearing a t-shirt is only a little more than the lowest level of participation — it involves not just consuming, but collecting a t-shirt and wearing it. Not hard. For this church service we didn’t create a social network, start a blog and expect everyone to comment, get them to contribute time for a cause, or expect people to make their own videos. The participation was easy: wear a t-shirt. But many people do create social networks and forums and blogs and then experience little or no participation, and so I wonder,

How many people grossly overestimate the level at which their audience will participate?

My company works with agencies to help them deliver Social Media to their clients. We do a lot of consultation — and in our 9 step process for developing the strategy — a big chunk is set aside to rightly profiling the audience and understanding what level they will participate. The audience part of these nine steps goes like this:

  1. Profile the audience. (Who are they, when do they, why do they, what do they, etc)
  2. Identify their level of participation. (This is a framework I’m getting read to share with you)
  3. Lift restrictions. (Enable them, through the program, to do what they couldn’t do before)

This then enables you to do other things like understand what Social Media presence out of the 6 is best, what PRE stance they need, etc. It’s a thought through way to identify what your audience really needs and what you expect them to really do.

This way we don’t just think that Social Media lies in Twittering and blogging and that participation lies in retweets and comments.

Consider the worn-out ‘Social Media is a conversation‘ mantra. Yes, conversation is a part of Social Media, but not everyone wants to talk non-stop with you! Consistent conversation is a rare thing when compared to how much conversation is going on. Thinking that everyone will now post on your businesses’ Facebook Page is flawed thinking. They won’t, because there is no reason to. It’s overestimation of participation.

Actionable Summary

  • Get real and stop overestimation of participation.
  • Use the three step process above: profile audience, identify level of participation, lift restrictions.

Leading Questions

  1. Is underestimation as a big a problem? Does it cap you and stop your growth?
  2. How do you maintain mass appeal with a high participation service? Can you?
  3. Where have you got this just right — hit the sweet spot — so that we can learn from you?

Archived Comments

  • samueljsmith

    Hi Scott,

    I enjoyed your post and video! I think many people assume that you can implement a one-size-fits-all program for participation and Social Media. They don’t realize that you should segment the audience based on their participation preferences and match the participation (or engagement) activities to the audience profile. This is especially important when you have multiple generations in your audience. (not all generations communicate/participate in the same way OR have the same comfort level with technology.)

    Also, I think your step #3 “lift restrictions” is important, too. Sometimes there are just too many barriers to participate. (Website registrations, logins, queues, etc.) The easier that you make it for people to participate the more people will do it. When VW created the Fun Theory videos – they took mundane activities like recycling bottles and walking up stairs and got people to participate and change their behavior. Participation was easy and fun.

    I look forward to seeing your participation framework – when you launch it. I will be interested in seeing how it compares to (and differs from) the Groundswell’s Social Technographics ladder.

  • munyaradzihoto

    This is a great analysis. I must however disagree with where the analysis is born. I do not think the problem faced by organizations that fit into the above prescribed category is overestimation of participation, rather misunderstanding the tool completely. When the purpose of a tool (in this case social media) is unknown, abnormal use is inevitable. To assume that because there 300+ million users on facebook, therefore setting up a facebook group will increase the number of people that buy from you is misunderstanding the tool.

    I think social media face a huge challenge in that it is largely viewed as a magic wand that can solve all problems pertaining to customer interaction, and although there are case studies that profile such successes, upon further inspection, it id the understanding of the tool and then the proper use of it that achieves results.

  • Scott Gould

    Hey Samuel

    Totally – segmentation. My concern, as you say, is that too many people are just waving the wond of ‘twitter’ or ‘blogging’ over a campaign, only to have low participation.

    I also think discussing participation as a unique thing separate to engagement is useful. Engagement talks of a two way thing, which might not ever happen. There’s plenty of people who consume my content, for instance, but don’t engage with me.

    I actually didn’t do a good job here of communicating ‘Lifting Restrictions’ – the idea is more fully formed here: /lift-the-restrictions/

    Re: levels, I’ve looked at Groundswells – the idea of mine is a bit different – I should hurry up and at least get my initial thoughts down so we can collaborate together

  • Scott Gould


    Good point – yes the central misunderstanding is of the tool – but then you could say that rests on a fundemental misunderstanding of marketing or communications.

    I think it is useful to break down the problems and get a grasp at least on this aspect.