Participatory Marketing – Pull Marketing’s New Push

For more than 50 years, push marketing ruled the industry. But as the internet, new technology and communication channels emerged, so did a new paradigm that included asking and gaining permission in the hopes of growing truly one-to-one dialogues and improving marketing efficiency.

Now, with the emergence of the social internet — where consumers are more efficient self-organizers, hyperconnectors, and expert recommenders of products and services -— more emphasis is being placed on peer interactions. I call this new era of marketing participatory marketing.

A marketing mind shift

Participatory marketing is a mind shift that includes learning how to market with customers, rather than at them. It requires new strategies and tactics to capture the hearts and minds of consumers — particularly those in Generation Y, who have fully embraced technology and the social internet.

The social internet and the notion of participatory marketing are new grounds for many of us. In fact, the thought of creating true interactive conversations with customers, and the fear they may turn on you, can send even the most experienced marketers into a cold sweat. But to succeed in an era where consumers turn to other consumers, rather than brands, for the things they need first requires marketers to learn new skills and rethink traditional push and permission approaches.

To ease the fear and showcase what’s possible, my organization, the Participatory Marketing Network, has collected a series of participatory marketing examples. We hope these stories inspire you to rethink and reinvent the way you market to and engage key prospects and customers.


Program summary: In its “Fiesta Movement” campaign, Ford invites 100 Gen Yers selected from more than 4,000 applicants to drive a Ford Fiesta for six months and report their experiences on various social media sites and blogs.

Why it’s important: The Fiesta Movement shows adversity is a powerful motivator. Ford’s program is creating buzz among one of the most powerful, vocal and connected generations in the market — Gen Y. Launching in Europe first, Ford is doing a fine job already building buzz for the future U.S. launch.

What you can learn: The typical product marketing launch cycle now starts many months earlier than it used to. It’s also global and more dependent than ever on your customers because of the social internet. Strong relationships allow leading brands to create open dialogues with customers that can get them talking about those brands even before they’re launched.


Program summary: In its “What Do You Play For” campaign, Nike calls on teens to share their sports stories. Participants are encouraged to upload photos of themselves playing sports they’re passionate about and share their inspirational tales. Visitors vote on their favorites, and winners receive various cash and/or scholarship prizes.

Why it’s important: Nike originally built its brand showcasing the talents of unattainable superheroes like Michael Jordan. This latest effort demonstrates the company’s evolution by using the power of participation and regular people to inspire others. That’s truly the future, folks.

What you can learn: For marketers struggling to connect with customers and prospects, Nike demonstrates some of the key questions you need to ask yourself. How does your product or service impact or benefit the lives of your customers? How can you get those customers to be active with your brand in the most powerful and engaging ways? How can you build a participatory marketing program that’s identifiable to your target audience and reinforces core brand values and positioning?

Program summary: For its “Happy Mother’s Day” promotion, used an innovative outreach program that targeted 24 “mommy bloggers” filling eight archetypes (On-The-Go-Mom, etc.) of motherhood to help spur Mother’s Day sales. Chosen bloggers received a bouquet of flowers and discount codes to share with their readers. Additionally, the bloggers were recognized by’s “floral lifestyle expert” Julie Mulligan in her blog, were encouraged to write their own blogs and attended a cocktail party in their honor with company CEO Jim McCann. Finally, visitors also were encouraged to submit their own nominations for mothers that they felt deserved some recognition.

Why it’s important: The “Happy Mother’s Day” program combined aggressive public relations with participatory marketing, targeting consumers supported with offline advertising. It’s an example that uses the social internet, but also raises an important question regarding trust and the importance of disclosure.

What you can learn: Proper disclosure is critical to building trust, and this program raised the all important questions: Are, and should, bloggers be viewed and trusted like reporters? Are programs like this impacting the trustworthiness of bloggers on the social internet? Additionally, the use of microsites and unique discount codes to track redemptions in the program demonstrates how marketers can close the loop and measure the effectiveness of their social media efforts.


Program summary: The Starbucks “I’m In” program encourages visitors to go to and more than 11,000 Starbucks locations to pledge five hours of community service. In exchange, Starbucks gives pledgers a free cup of coffee. Participants receive a pledge card and an “I’m In” badge that can be embedded on their websites to help spread the word. Users also can sign up for email updates to watch what “we” do.

Why it’s important: “I’m In” is poweful because it demonstrates the importance of participation and organizational involvement in encouraging community service to make a difference.

The goal of the program is to donate more than 1 million hours, and Starbucks employees have committed to match that goal with 1 million hours of their own.

What you can learn: To date, more than 1 million visitors to have viewed the “I’m In” video, and more than 1.25 million hours of community service have been pledged

Additionally, the program received national recognition from powerful influencers, including Oprah Winfrey, Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher. Winfrey, for example, mentioned it on her popular television show.

The “I’m In” program is an example of how marketers who think outside of the box and add a little participation sweetener to their efforts can not only build a brand, but help change the world.

Michael Della Penna is co-founder and executive chairman of The Participatory Marketing Network, a New York City-based industry association dedicated to helping marketers transition from push and permission marketing to participatory marketing. He’s also the founder and CEO of Conversa Marketing, a firm that helps brands build social and email marketing programs. Reach Michael at