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The final post of a four-part series on the Performance Marketing Revolution

Posted by Daina Middleton, CEO, Performics

In my previous posts, I covered the history of consumerism, the need to change marketing’s vocabulary to better reflect its participatory nature, and how the Participant Model redefines marketing and challenges the rationale behind the traditional purchase consideration funnel. Now, with an understanding of the roots and nature of participant marketing, let’s turn our attention to designing marketing programs utilizing the Participant Model.

The visual representation of the Participant Model is an infinite spiral. Conversations and destinations fuel participation, which then fuel conversations and then the process repeats itself.  The goal of marketing should be to leverage conversations which encourage participation leading to other conversations and destinations, and destinations can proactively drive traffic to active participant conversations.  Many other words have been used to describe these types of marketing activities, including “word of mouth,” “buzz,” and, the most popular, “viral.” Viral is another one of those words which we should ban from our vocabulary because it assumes the actions are involuntary transmission of ideas by unaware “consumers”– quite the opposite of participation and what is really occurring in our socially connected world today. The use of the viral metaphor also perpetuates the old power relationships between marketers and “consumers” – the infection reducing “consumers” to involuntary hosts of media viruses.

If you’re interested in reading in great detail about this area, I suggest Henry Jenkins blog posts. Jenkins is the Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. Prior to joining USC in 2009, he spent 10 years as the Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program.  He is the author and/or editor of 12 books on various aspects of media and popular culture, including Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. This book is rich with information about the participant model and example strategies. Jenkins prefers the word “spreadable” but the concept is the same.

Marketing Designed for Conversations and Participation

Designing marketing programs with the objective of inspiring dialogue and participation is the fundamental goal. In the old view of marketing, the creative concept was considered to be untouchable and sacred – only producible by the marketer who hired an agency to create the idea and a media company as a distributor. In the Participation Model, marketers and their agency partners need to specifically design programs encouraging participants to modify and enhance the original idea and the media distribution. As Jenkins describes, participants “shape the circulation of media content, often expanding potential meanings and opening up brands to unanticipated new markets.” This Participant Model “assumes that the repurposing and transformation of media content adds value, allowing media content to be localized to diverse contexts of use.” 

The magic here begins with a fundamental mindset change. The idea is to approach every marketing program with the primary objective of encouraging conversations and participation.  The actual program will be much different than creating a program which is meant to be “consumed.” Cross-channel planning is critical because media channels are inter-related.  Marketers need to make it easy for participants to spread content and integrate their program for them. Agencies and marketers who embrace this new way of thinking can create programs which thrive in today’s network culture.

Participants play a crucial role in amplifying content. Their choices, their investments, their actions determine what gets valued today. Marketers need to adapt practices which sustain the desire to help circulate relevant material throughout social networks – thus keeping that Participant Model spiral spinning.

Engaging Participants Wherever They May Be

Understanding the specific differences between conversations and destinations is less important than understanding the end goal of engaging participants and encouraging them to participate in whatever way(s) they prefer. In the early days of the Internet culture, our goal was to of drive participants to brand websites and get them to stay as long as possible. We called this term “stickiness” and the idea was to keep that visitor as long as possible.  Most brands measure stickiness in terms of how long visitors stay during a particular visit, or how many pages they view. While this is a form of participation, stickiness is still a structured activity with control in mind rather than open-ended participation. Participants will actively seek out answers to their questions and solutions to their problems, and for marketers to fully embrace the advantages of the Model means less reliance on stickiness and more activation to engage these participants every chance they get where ever they are. As Jenkins notes, “we are misled when we focus on what media does to people rather than trying to understand what people are doing to media and why.” Providing opportunities for participants to actively engage and opt-in to receive information on their own terms, after all, is a foundational element of participant marketing. Once willing participants are actively engaged, marketers are positioned much more advantageously to meet their needs.

My hope is that this four-part series on performance marketing starts a new conversation about how we market by encouraging participation. I welcome comments and discussion around participant marketing and its implications for the future of advertising and communications. If we can correct some old habits and realign some of our industry’s problematic thinking, relationships between marketers and participants will only improve. 

Daina Middleton is CEO at Performics. Contact her at

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