Engaging communication

Web 2.0 has inspired a revolution in communications: the social networking sites. It is time for experiential marketing to get social with digital, says Tim Leighton

Hands up who has a Facebook page? Remarkable, isn’t it? About two months ago I didn’t know anyone with a page on the Facebook site; now I seem to be the only one who hasn’t signed up.

As a thousand column inches can confirm, Web 2.0 is here to stay and it has profoundly changed the way we interact with information, media and, most significantly, each other. Thanks to this revolution, we can all transmit our views, information, videos, pictures, music and life story to whoever wants to listen, either in a structured way (enter the ascendant Facebook, or the more established MySpace) or an unstructured way (hello YouTube, Flickr et al).

Two fundamental things are going on here. The first is that to achieve breakthrough and engagement, communication or information must be multi-dimensional. A one-channel, one-way piece of communication is so last century. Audiences want to interact with information by owning it, shaping it, posting it and sharing it. And this is, of course, what the smart brands are waking up to and leading on. Active participation has the ability to achieve cut-though, leaving passive forms of communication simply lost in the mix.

The second, related phenomenon is that of social networking. Needless to say, those of us who were born before MySpace thought we had social networking pretty licked. You went to physical places and met people in, well, a physical sense. The truth is that the Web 2.0 version of this is based on the same psychological and emotional needs; it’s just a lot easier, slicker and faster. There are no geographical boundaries and, in theory at least, no social boundaries either. Communities are being built and enriched with every click of the mouse. They are therefore, by definition, dynamic and active; the participation culture beats at their very heart.

Just in case you think that I’m about to advocate digital as the ultimate communications channel, capable of single-handedly answering every marketer’s problem, let me declare my hand right now. I’m in the emerging, but still largely undefined, world of experiential. From where I’m standing – for all the reasons above – the future of communications looks pretty exciting.

Why? Because the desire for rich and involving communications that engage consumers plays incredibly well to the idea of creating experiences, alongside television advertising, digital, print or any other channel you might care to mention. The keyword, or rather principle, is “engagement”. Whether you’re talking to consumers, customers, commercial partners or internal employees, engagement is absolutely fundamental to the nature of communications in our brave new world. And what better way to engage people than through the immediacy of an “experience”? In one place, at one time, the communication experience becomes your world. But, significantly, you’re not alone.

The social networking phenomenon amplifies the engagement phenomenon by creating and sustaining communities in a digital world – and beyond. Brands are already beginning to create and sustain their own online communities. Imagine the power of bringing those communities physically together for certain key moments to share new information and inspire action. In such settings, the pupils dilate, the senses come alive and the nervous system tingles. I’ve seen it happen for clients like Microsoft and British Airways; it is extremely powerful.

It’s early days, of course. Clients are experimenting to find the right mix of media and, critically, levels of return across their target audiences. And that raises an interesting issue: digital’s ever-increasing share of spend is, in part, thanks to the high level of quantitative and qualitative data it offers. The integration of digital with experiential brings the cumulative engagement and social networking benefits, and the possibility to track its effects.

I started this piece by talking about the effect that Web 2.0 applications have had on the way we deal with information. In fact, what these sophisticated technologies have helped create is a new communications paradigm, centred on engagement. Experiential has all the potential to be the fulfilment of this paradigm, the ultimate (but not exclusive) engagement tool for a world that wants to get its hands dirty with information. And, as a certain detergent brand has taught us, dirt is good.

Tim Leighton is head of strategy at FitchLive

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