The Participation Paradox: How To Survive It. How To Prosper From It



“How wonderful that we have met with a paradox.
Now we have some hope of making progress”

Niels Bohr



Technology allows participation
Let’s start with a statement of the blindingly obvious and move quickly on. Technology allows for participation and interaction. It thus follows that creative ideas that wish to leverage technology must find ways of offering participation and interaction.

Cue the rise of the participative idea.

The problem is that there’s scant discussion of people’s actual buying behaviours in all this. For when it comes to participation, while much effort has gone into analyzing people’s digital behaviours, this zeal (and rhetoric) has not been matched by a desire to connect it to – or reconcile it with – an understanding of people’s actual buying behaviours.


Participation inequality
It’s well known that when it comes to people’s digital behaviours, not everyone wants to participate. And that not everyone wants to participate equally. 

Most of us will be familiar with the theory of Participation Inequality that states that in most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action. Sadly however, this theory would appear to be as unpopulated with empirical data as Pareto’s Law. 

Forrester’s segmentation of online behaviours puts a little more flesh on the bones. This is survey data rather than actual observed behavioural data, but it’s a good start:


1 - Forrester


We’ve long known that people’s relationship with a brand affects their likelihood to notice communications from that brand, and echoing this is Patricia MacDonald’s rather nice visualisation of this participation inequality and how it relates to people’s relationships with a brand:


2 - Depth + Scale


So far so good.

However, whilst the language of ‘fans’, ‘community’, ‘relationships’, and so on obscures or denies it, this same participation inequality applies to people’s so-called ‘relationships’ with brands, in as much as:

Most people don’t buy our brand very often

Most people aren’t exclusively loyal to our brand

Most people don’t know our brand very well

And this has some significant implications for how we think about participation.

A quick review of the data first.


Most people don’t buy you very often
It is often overlooked quite how infrequently people buy any given brand. Purchase frequencies – even in frequently bought categories – are not high. 

The analysis of Nielsen data provided by Professor John Dawes (2011) is revealing. For example, in 2007, Pantene was bought in the US at an average rate of 1.8 times a year. Fructis was bought at an average rate of 1.6 times a year, reflecting the so-called ‘double jeopardy effect’ in which brands with higher shares get slightly higher rates of loyalty.

Irrespective of the category, the shape of any brand’s buying frequencies is a skewed distribution with a long tail. That is, a large number of people buy you occasionally, and an increasingly smaller number of people buy you more often. First identified by Andrew Ehrenberg it’s known as a negative binomial distribution (NBD).

Thus, Pantene was bought once by just over 12 million households, twice by about 4 million, three times by 1.7 million households, etc.:


3 - Pantene frequency

This shape of buying frequencies is the same for Fructis. It was bought once by just over 8 million households, twice by about 2.5 million, three times just over 1 million households, etc.:

4 - Fructis frequency

Most people aren’t exclusively loyal
Most people aren’t devoted to a single brand and are very happy to buy regularly from a range of brands. They have their loyalties. But they are polygamously loyal. And this is reflected in buying patterns – brands share their customers with other brands, and they do so roughly in line with their market shares. Here for example, is Professor Dawes’ (2009) analysis of the UK sportswear market, using data from TNS Superpanel:



5 - Overlap


Few consumers then, are devoted fans.

Most people don’t know your brand very well
Brand knowledge – that is, the sum total of all perceptual associations held by people about the brand – doesn’t appear to be evenly distributed.

Sharp and Romanuik (2008) have looked at the composition of brand knowledge across populations of buyers, calculating the extent of this knowledge using data for 28 product categories and 208 brands.

They found that half of all brand knowledge is concentrated amongst 20% of buyers and the remainder is spread thinly across the remaining 80% of buyers. This spread is the same for big and small brands, and brands with both high and low equity scores.

So it emerges that a few people know a lot about your brand. And a great many more people know something about your brand. Not surprisingly, this distribution reflects the shape of a brand’s user base. A few people buy you a lot. And a great many more people buy you occasionally.


Where growth comes from
The importance of these lighter buyers (who don’t buy you often, aren’t devoted to you and don’t know you well) is further underlined when we look at which consumers matter most to brand growth. As Professor Dawes (2011) shows us, to look like Pantene and get to its size, Fructis would need to recruit 4 million new users who buy it once a year, 1.4 million more who buy it twice, 0.6 million more two buy it three times, etc.:


6 - Growth

To grow in other, words, you need to recruit lots more new users who buy you just occasionally. Those light buyers, in other words, do matter.

Trying to significantly to increase loyalty amongst a segment – to seek ‘loyalty beyond reason’ – is a fool’s errand. It would mean fighting the natural distribution for purchase frequencies for any brand.   You can’t beat the law of double jeopardy.

The difference between big and small brands is not the amount of loyalty they enjoy, but the number of buyers they have – most of whom will be light buyers. 

Thus, Charles Graham’s analysis (2010) of six years’ of TNS buyer data in the coffee category demonstrates that although penetration and share values move in line, average purchase per buyer for any brand remains roughly constant:

7 - coffee shares

It’s not surprising then, to discover that analysis of the IPA’s Databank (Binet & Field 2007) demonstrates that advertising is most successful when it seeks to increase penetration, not loyalty: 


8 - effectiveness



The participation paradox
So where does this get us? 

It tells that a very small number of people buy us frequently, and know us very well. They’ll come into contact with our brand more often.  They’ll be more likely to notice our advertising. And they’ll be more willing to participate in our marketing activity.

Equally, it tells us that the vast majority of people don’t buy us exclusively, don’t buy us very often, and don’t know us very well. 

And it tells us that significant growth comes not from increasing loyalty but from attracting more people who don’t buy us at the moment. That is, people who don’t know very much about us, don’t have much contact with us, aren’t predisposed to notice our marketing content, aren’t inclined to participate in it, and won’t buy us very often.

So here we have our paradox:

The people LEAST likely to engage deeply…

 … are the MOST important for growth

There is a way out of this paradox. But it requires us to embrace two principles:

  1. The battle is for interest, not attention
  2. Fans are actors, not the audience


The battle is for interest, not attention
Recognizing what kind of buyers growth must come from helps us understand that the real battle is not for attention, but interest. Brand growth is dependent on people who don’t care that much about us

All of this is very different from the mental image of the ‘engaged’ consumer. And while it’s arguably a crueler, more unforgiving world out there than the comforting rhetoric of ‘engagement’ suggests, none of this should prompt fits of morbid anxiety or professional self-doubt. It doesn’t mean that we’ve failed. And it certainly doesn’t mean that what we do is utterly irrelevant. 

For creativity of any form needs some form of resistance to ignite and inspire it, whether that’s the resistance of materials, media, form, genre or inherited expectations and practices. And so just as the engraver needs the resistance of the plate, we need the recognition that most people in the real world just aren’t that interested. This, not attention, is the real barrier to our success. And that’s a far, far bigger hurdle to conquer.  It demands we find ways of being part of what people genuinely find interesting, rather than merely talk about ourselves. 


Fans are actors, not the audience
The recognition that brands aren’t simply built upon exclusive loyalty but are highly dependent on vast numbers of light, polygamous buyers – and that growth comes from acquiring more of them, not increasingly the loyalty of current buyers – puts the role of the ‘fan’ into proper perspective.

While every brand wants some, fans alone are not the lifeblood of a brand. They cannot be the focus of marketing communications if a brand is not to ignore the far bigger populations of buyers who don’t currently purchase our brand. Brands need to reach out beyond their fans.

That said, in reaching out to those who are more indifferent towards our brand, fans have another value, and that’s their willingness (provided it’s worth their while) to participate and share that with a broader audience. If we do it right, they can give us creative material, and they can give us access to their social networks.


Participation isn’t enough
Having a more clear-sighted view on people’s real world buying behaviours and thus which consumers actually matter to the generation of revenue and profit begins to gives us a framework for thinking about participation. 

For if we want to survive and prosper from the paradox, then we’re going to recognize that participation alone is not enough: 

  1. Don’t confuse your passionate fans for being your most important source of revenue
  2. Treat your fans as creative collaborators, doormen to other, bigger networks, or as a channel – they are actors in your content, but they are not its ultimate audience
  3. Go beyond servicing the enthusiasm of your fans – your brand depends on the interest and purchases of the many more people who don’t know you well, aren’t devoted to you, and don’t purchase you at all, or that often
  4. Recognize that participation is merely niche marketing unless it is overheard and witnessed by the mainstream – find ways of enabling the enthusiasm of your fans to spill over into the populations who are less interested
  5. Be realistic about how many will participate and how deeply – ultimately stimulating mass reaction matters more than chasing mass participation.
  6. Build for inequality – build into creative content both high friction and low friction forms of participation. A few people will want something (perhaps even a lot) to do, but many more will want a very little (or nothing at all) to do.
  7. Building in talk value into the idea itself is a more efficient way of achieving spread than buying it. Whatever the degree of participation sought, do something f*****g awesome that is genuinely worth talking about – seek to generate headlines, both amongst media owners, and in people’s social interactions. It’s got to be good enough for some to want to take part in, and good enough for others to care.
  8. Don’t underestimate the power of paid for media to invite, document and publicise people’s participation to a wider audience


Going beyond participation: An example
The Nike Chalkbot/Livestrong campaign provides a good example of an idea with participation at its core –  but which ensured that participation was amplified to a far wider audience.

In September 2008, Lance Armstrong promised his return to professional cycling following his battle with cancer. He announced his mission to spread the message of Livestrong. Nike heard the call and responded with a campaign that would run during the upcoming Tour de France. The Chalkbot / Livestrong campaign ran from 26th June to 26th July 2009, starting a week before the Tour de France and ending on its final day.  It was such a success it made a return to the tour in July 2010.



The invitation (and inspiration) to participate was very public:

“It’s About You” films and out of home launched the campaign. On 26th June, a billboard on 7th Ave. announced “It’s About You” to millions of New Yorkers. On the same day, the “It’s About You” Livestrong films were launched, broadcast on ESPN,, and social networking sites

The films ran throughout the Tour de France, and on the final night a primetime broadcast of Sportscenter was taken over. It was an hour-long celebration of the stories and people from the “It’s About You” campaign. Over 64 million households tuned in that night.

At the same time, the Just Do It brand spot, ‘Driven,’ was broadcast on all major networks. 

 The engaged were given something to do:

Inspired by Tour spectators who chalk the roads, Chalkbot was invented: a new social media tool that collected digital conversations and broadcast them into the physical world, using the road as the canvas.

36,000 messages were collected via Twitter, Facebook, SMS, web banners and 

And over 13 stages of the Tour de France these messages were printed along the road. 

But more importantly, their participation was broadcast to a much wider audience:

Chalkbot was seamlessly integrated into the TV coverage of the event, and commentators were briefed to talk about the Chalkbot.

To reward those who’d taken part, participants were sent a GPS-tagged image of their message, as printed on the road.

And on the last day of the Tour, the campaign culminated with a full-page colour ad in the Sunday New York Times. The ad showed Lance’s determined face made up of various messages of hope from the Chalkbot.

Obviously it would have spoken most powerfully and immediately to those for whom cancer was a very personal issue. And to those with a passion for cycling. But the marketing programme around the event ensured that its impact was felt far beyond these communities of interest.


What matters most
The purpose of marketing is not merely to secure the attention, participation and purchases of the fans alone. Brands depend on retaining and attracting legions of buyers who don’t know our brand well, and don’t buy it very often. 

Participation and interaction give us new and exciting creative material. But while participation can undoubtedly can bring our ideas to life in new, vivid, and exciting ways, the participation of a relatively small number of fans cannot be an end it itself. 

So while fans can be contributors to and and actors in participative ideas, ultimately this activity must find and interest the far bigger populations of buyers who have far less appetite to participate deeply but who are the lifeblood of brands. 

The rhetoric of ‘engagement’ has encouraged us to think in terms of depth. But reach still matters, and as the Chalkbot example shows, stimulating the emotions of big populations of people does not depend on their active participation. For  ultimately mass reaction matters far more than participation.





 Les Binet and Peter Field, Marketing in the Era of Accountability, 2007

John Dawes, ‘Brand loyalty in the UK sportswear market’, International Journal of Advertising Research, vol. 51, No. 4, 2009

John Dawes, ‘Predictable Patterns in buyer behaviour and brand metrics: Implications for brand managers’, in Mark Uncles, ed. Perspectives on Brand Management, 2011

Andrew Ehrenberg, Repetitive advertising and the consumer’, Journal of Advertising Research, Vol. 40, No. 6, November/December 2000

Andrew Ehrenberg, ‘What Brand Loyalty Can Tell Us’, Admap, October 2004, Issue 454

Andrew Ehrenberg, Neil Barnard, Rachel Kennedy, Helen Bloom, ‘Brand Advertising As Creative Publicity’, Journal of Advertising Research: Vol. 42, No. 4, July/August 2002 

Paul Feldwick, ‘Rules of Engagement’, Admap January 2009, Issue 501

Charles Graham, ‘Is your brand’s share trying to tell you something?’ Market Leader: Quarter 1, 2010

Patricia MacDonald, ‘Planning for participation’,

Steve Whittaker, Loren Terveen, Will Hill, and Lynn Cherny: ‘The dynamics of mass interaction’, Proceedings of CSCW 98, the ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (Seattle, WA, November 14-18, 1998)

McDonald and John Scriven, ‘Why marketing needs marketing science’, Admap, October 2006, Issue 476 

Byron Sharp, How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know, 2010

Byron Sharp and Kate Newstead, ‘Loyalty is not the Holy Grail’, Admap, September 2010

Jaywant Singh, Chris Hand, Hsin Chen, ‘Differentiation in a branded commodity category: Tapping into behavioural data’, Kingston University


  1. Gina Rau

    Incredibly thought-provoking take on marketer’s recent assumptions that engagement is critical for bottom-line results. I do wonder what impact the product category has on these results as there is typically less engagement to begin with in certain categories -entry-level shampoo being one of those.
    Mass awareness and interest has always been key for many categories and will continue to, even with the potential for engagement with social media.

  2. che23

    This is a well constructed argument. I’m an Ehrenbergian so I’m totally with you. The only thing I’d ask though is why do we pursue participation at all? Its not a bankable strategy. It very rarely delivers for us. Hence why Chalkbot is just about the only great example of it – and its two years old. I think though you’re fundamentally saying its about Fame. And you’re just being nice to participation because its politically incorrect to be otherwise at the moment. At least until many marketers catch up and realise that participation is a fad and that most people aren’t interested in their brands and never will be.

  3. Blunt_

    Thanks for this post, it’s deeply good. It reminded me in some ways of the recent “Majority Report” post over on BBH Labs, only less knee-jerk contrarian and with better stats to back it up 😉
    @che23, woah there! Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water! It’s clearly not the case that nobody “participates” in campaign activity, or with brands in a broader sense. No doubt brands need to work much harder than they do already to provide people with compelling reasons to do so, especially in social spaces (the words “Like us on Facebook” do not a compelling call-to-action make). But given that interaction (ie. “doing something” rather than just “consuming something”) is the lingua franca of digital platforms – and that even broadcast channels are becoming increasingly and irrevocably digital – the idea that participation, in its broadest sense, is dead is surely short-sighted. 
    @martin – I especially liked the way you tried to consider not just the relative merits of broadcast versus participation, but the relationship between the two. I think this in-between space – how broadcast messages can inform the participatory experience, and vice versa – is certainly the most exciting area for the industry to explore and experiment with over the next few years. I’d be interested to know your thoughts on how valuable you think the idea of co-creation can be for even passive consumers. By which I mean: how might it change your experience of a TV ad if you know that consumers were in some way involved in the creation of your seeing? How valuable is it to make TV responsive to what’s going on digitally? And how might that change the punter’s perception of the brand?

  4. BdeCastella

    Again, an excellent piece and well argued. Makes perfect sense, particularly in ‘don’t care’ categories like shampoo, where decisions are often made hastily in-store. Furthermore, I think we’d all agree that ‘mass interest’ is important in any category (except perhaps for niche brands).
    However, like Gina, I’d love to hear your perspective on the role of deeper advertiser-aided consideration (which may or may not involve consumer participation) in high-involvement, low-frequency categories like mobile phones or cars?
    If it’s about complimentary roles, how do we determine how much effort to put into driving mass interest versus deeper consideration?

  5. Martin

    ch23… There are indeed some hard questions yet to be answered. Namely does building an element of participation into ideas make them a) more efficient and b) more effective than ideas which have no participative element? On that front, the jury is still well and truly out…

  6. Martin

    Blunt… yes… the meeting points between channels and experiences, between the real and the online etc. is where we should be looking.
    How might it change your experience of a TV ad if you know that consumers were in some way involved? Not at all, if it’s a rubbish ad, I’d say. No amount of consumer participation can rescue an inherently dull or irrelevant idea. Just as no amount of social media can rescue an idea that has no inherent social value or use…

  7. Martin

    Gina and BdeCastella…
    There’s lots of evidence that demonstrates that people notice and remember communications for brands they already purchase than for brands they don’t…. that’s not a category-specific response.
    But I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean by ‘engagement’…. whether in the context of purchase decisions or consumer communications.

  8. Blunt_

    Well, yes… You can assume I was expecting that this hypothetical ad would not be rubbish. Participation is clearly not a band-aid for shit telly creative 😉
    My question was more along the lines of: between 2 awesome ads, where one is influenced in some way by participation, and the other not at all… what value there?

  9. David O'Hanlon

    I’m really glad you wrote this but I’m with che23 in feeling that you’re still being a little soft on the real implications the data about actual purchase behaviour has for engagement marketing.
    By soft I mean, for instance, the inclusion of the word “simply” in this sentence… “The recognition that brands aren’t simply built upon exclusive loyalty but are highly dependent on vast numbers of light, polygamous buyers…”.
    As Byron Sharp’s amazing book (in your bibliography) shows, what looks like loyalty in consumer data is, in almost all cases, nothing more than the habitual loss-avoidance buying behaviour (sometimes within repertoires) of consumers who simply have far more to do with their lives than bother with considering competing brand offers and so they just buy what they bought last time because it was “good enough”
    And by soft I mean the inclusion of the word “alone” in this sentence… “While every brand wants some, fans alone are not the lifeblood of a brand.”
    Engagement and participation have maybe had the remarkable appeal they have enjoyed in marketing circles for two reasons:
    One is the still-pervasive belief in Reichheld & Sasser’s hughly influential 1990 HBR article (claiming amazing bottom line results for loyalty marketing) that Byron Sharp so comprehensively debunks (p29/30 of his book)
    The other is that it is far more emotionally rewarding for those of us working in marketing and communication if people respond to our work, praise our work, react to our work, engage with our work, post their delight in our work on blogs, Facebook and Twitter. We’d love it to therefore be the route to greater commercial effectiveness but as the data you put in your excellent post shows, it just isn’t.
    I’m not sure there is a paradox. “The people LEAST likely to engage deeply are the MOST important for growth” isn’t a seemingly contradictory statement that happens to be true. I’m not sure it’s contradictory at all but I guess it depends upon your assumptions. It’s similar to stock market tops happening when investors are most bullish – it happens because when everyone is 100% invested there’s no more money to come in so the market can only tank.
    Re your remedy…
    According to Sharp the battle is for heightened mental availability in buying situations, (not heightened engagement in non-buying situations).
    So the implication would be that fans are only of any use if their existence somehow contributes to achieving this.
    All that said, great post. Thank you

  10. Martin

    Thanks for reading and your comments. Much appreciated.
    In truth, I suspect you’re reading softness where there is simply poor English that hadn’t had the benefit of copy-editing!
    I’m with you in that fans cannot be the focus for revenue generation.
    Though in as much as all brands acquire some, and they do contribute, it would have been somewhat extreme to suggest a brand actively didn’t want them.
    I’m also with you that we’re in denial about our own psychology about all this stuff. We’d rather believe our brands thrive on people adoring us, than on a mild and habit-driven indifference!
    Agree absolutely on the remedy.
    Hope that reassures/clarifies!
    Again, thanks for the comments.

  11. BdeCastella

    Great point Simon on ad agency types seeking emotional reward (if a little uncomfortable)
    Martin: what I was asking about was not really around the concept of ‘fans’ or loyalty so much as the influence channels or types of communications in higher-involvement decisions like buying a car.
    If you’re buying a car, the decision making process is likely to take a little longer than say, stocking up on loo roll.
    Mass reach media like TV will arguably influence the cars you consider (and even subsequently choose). However, along the way you’ll probably also ask your mates who are into cars, read TopGear reviews or maybe spend time on the car brand’s website (possibly even participating in some sort of interactive experience!).
    The question is around the mix – how much emphasis or investment should we should put on these ‘consideration’ channels, eg brand websites / review sites / experiences versus mass reach comms that drive familiarity in the first place?

  12. Martin

    My glib answer is as much emphasis as is right for the task in hand.
    Though in truth, I think you’ve pretty much answered your own question already.
    Your business objectives, competitive situation, audience, the buying process, budget, idea… they’ll all influence the mix.
    Figuring that out is the art and science of comms planning.
    But since advertising deals with the specific, not the general, I don’t think one can generalise as to what’s right.

  13. Martin

    well… most of the time I’m full of utterly subjective opinions based upon nothing more than recycled opinions and hot air.

  14. The Hidden Persuader

    “Wanna sell more”?
    The equation is quite simple:
    1) Make your product obsolete/shorten it’s life cycle more frequently. Apple via its constant “improvements” is a great example. Gillete via its 3-4 blades shaving razors – or just because you should “change the blades every 2 months” – is another example.
    2) Create new rituals or new moments/ways of usage. Oreo cookies taste better with milk (excuse to have them for breakfast, snack, after-meal). Dropping 2x Alka-Seltzers in a glass are more effective than just one tablet.
    3) Be interesting: make people want to follow/talk about you. Be part of the conversation, engage your audience – be it through entertaining advertising, marketing content, APP’s, etc. Out of sight, out of mind.
    Innovation + Occasions + Participation

  15. northern

    I love this post, I love the rigour.
    I guess the only contention I have with people that end up as fans in social is that they are not always heavy buyers, but massively into the avertising.
    The point that tends to bug me most though is this co-creation gubbins. I find it extraordinary that brands will listen to the odd people that will give up their time to work on their behalf- as representive of the majority of buyers as Lilly Savage is of the people from Merseyside

  16. chroma (@chroma)

    I think a lot of people will be less confused about all of this once they realize that there is a world of things a brand can do outside of advertising that absolutely gets people involved and are participative, but has nothing to do with building “engagement” for a marketing campaign.