The Participation Economy

Clicks are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to measuring online user behavior and Web initiatives’ effectiveness. There are far mushier metrics marketers and publishers use to benchmark their initiatives, engagement being one of them, even if there’s no real industry consensus as to what the term “engagement” should or does mean.

Engagement is a tough thing to measure. It’s not so much a quantifiable thing as it’s a user’s mental or emotional state, for which time spent is an awkward, inaccurate proxy. Given that just a definition of engagement is elusive, perhaps marketers should consider a related indication of user interest and involvement: participation.

After all, what’s more indicative of an interactive channel than an invitation to participate? And to what else can the stunning rise of social media, user-generated media, and Web 2.0 in general be attributed to other than users who are impelled or inspired in some way to participate with online content?

A quick online search turned up a couple different definitions of “participation”:

    The act of participating; the state of being related to a larger whole; the process during which individuals, groups and organizations are consulted about or have the opportunity to become actively involved in a project or program of activity. —Wictionary

    The condition of sharing in common with others (as fellows or partners etc.). —WordNet Search 3.0

And as you’d suspect, they’re not far afield from the concept of engagement:

    The act of sharing in the activities of a group; “the teacher tried to increase his students’ engagement in class activities.” —The Free Dictionary

Of course, participation isn’t the easiest thing to measure. It doesn’t always occur where you can quantify it relatively easily, such as on your own Web site. Moreover, the quality of different levels of participation varies wildly. Registering as a user in Second Life, for example, is a very different level of participation from becoming an active member of the virtual world. And among active users, levels of participation vary greatly, from hardcore addicts to the occasional day-tripping tourist.

If participation is to be measured, then, how can the quality rather than just the quantity of participation be gauged? Participation includes all sorts of metrics already in play on the Web; engagement is just the beginning. Interaction and behavior also figure into the equation.

How users can participate online is limitless. Games are a solid example (small wonder Google launched an ad product for games this week). Participation in social media is another strong indicator of engagement, involvement, and endorsement. Bryan Eisenberg recently pointed a new plug-in for Google Analytics that measures how often a page has been referred to on Digg, Sphinn, Delicious, StumbleUpon, and Yahoo Inlink — for starters. More social sites will be added to the roster.

Participation operates in many forms and guises. There are obvious participatory indicators, such as the aforementioned communities and gaming. But opening, reading, and forwarding an e-mail message is also a form of participation. A page view is one level of participation, commenting on that page is a higher level. Clicking on a link is participatory. Online voting, user reviews, and survey completion are also participation. So is signing up, logging in, subscribing, even bookmarking a page. Search is participation, refining a search query represents deeper involvement. At its acme, participation involves creating and sharing: blogging, CGM (define), photo and video sharing, even tweeting and instant messaging.

Of course, participation isn’t always positive. Completing a call to action is participation, but so is skipping an ad, navigating away, or deleting a message.

Participation goes beyond interaction. And as such, it’s a very slippery metric. It occurs in all channels and forms of digital media. There isn’t an analytics package out there that can wrap its arms around all the ways users participate with brands, products, and services across the myriad digital channels.

Perhaps there should be. What do you think? Does the digital media industry need a participation metric? Participate. Share your thoughts.

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