Everyday, communicators try to imagine what will engage their target audiences. What will bring an idea to life and create a lasting impression? Historically, the solutions to questions like these have been expressed through one-way channels: talking at consumers and hoping the message will resonate with them. Today though, pioneering campaigns are considering the power of interactivity to engage audiences and, most importantly, create meaningful, personalised relationships.
Back in my university days, one of my major interests was the study of hypertexts. These electronic texts changed the way we consumed literature, offering an interactive element that gave power to the reader to control their own narrative journey. Of course, all reading can be regarded as interactive in the sense that we have to come to decisions about meaning. But, without getting all theoretical, one of the major distinctions between a hypertext and, say, a traditional novel, is that a hypertext has a unique element of user interaction and control. A reader's decisions actually change their experience of order, structure and, in some cases, the representational nature of the text itself. This is much easier to imagine when we think about the world's biggest existing hypertext, one that is chopping, changing and very much 'alive' right this minute: the internet. Every day, readers chart their own course through this massive interlinked text, interacting with links to other pages and being asked to leave their mark on a range of interactive features.
This kind of textual intercourse existed in pre-electronic forms too. The cult of adventure game books was a well-established mini-craze among young people, especially in the 90s. These books placed the reader in the body of the narrator, asking them to take executive decisions by turning to a corresponding page in order to continue the plot. The challenge was to get to the end of the story still alive! Of course, modern gaming has now replaced such literary versions as the height of interactive, decision-based entertainment. In fact, so much of popular culture has now embraced interactivity: from popular television programmes asking viewers to take part in national quizzes through to satellite navigation equipment, asking users to input a range of personal preferences.
So what of the communications industry?
Well, there is an increasing trend towards campaigns that empower consumers by asking them to interact with brands. The most obvious form would be through social media channels, where communicating has evolved from the traditional, top-down 'brand-speaks-same-message-to-large-number-of-passive-consumers' model to one where brands have multiple conversations with active consumers and, crucially, listen back to what they have to say. Of course, that doesn't mean consumers didn't have a voice when brands weren't really listening – only that they didn't have the platform to interact and express themselves directly. Today, most leading brands have strategies for engaging interactive platforms like social media and have had to evolve their communications strategies as more and more companies look to increase engagement.
Brand interaction with social media is something that has commonly been seen to be the responsibility of a PR strategy, as opposed to the more above-the-line discipline of advertising. However, innovators are showing that doesn't have to be the case. More and more advertising campaigns are including interactive elements, engaging consumers and, in the process, blurring the boundaries between what is seen as advertising and PR. For example, Walkers crisps devised a campaign asking members of the public to come up with interesting and unusual flavours. Their campaign, 'Do us a flavour', ended up with the public proposing varieties such as Chilli and Chocolate, Fish and Chips and even Cajun Squirrel. To complete the interactive engagement and prolong the campaign, Walkers then asked the public to vote for which flavour they would like to see developed as part of Walkers' permanent product range. Cue massive buzz and word of mouth promotion before the winner, Builder's Breakfast, was finally announced. The fact the flavour was discontinued a year later did little to dampen the publicity fever of the time.
Some companies have gone even further, asking the public to decide on the outcomes of their own adverts. As an example of this, BT have been asking the public to decide the outcome of their TV advert series featuring a fictional 'ordinary' British couple, Jane and Adam. In one particular dilemma for example, 72% of 1.6 million voters decided that Jane should conceive, to the headlines of 'Jane is pregnant!' Fans of Adam and Jane are subsequently campaigning on Facebook to ensure future adverts see the couple stay together. As much as everyone likes a happy ending, everyone equally likes to see how their own decisions can impact the lives of others.
In a further show of one-upmanship, in the United States, Pepsi have really been taking interactive campaigns up a notch. In a campaign supposedly demonstrating true consumer democracy, Pepsi asked fans to help create a new flavour for their Mountain Dew product range, 'chosen by the people, for the people.' However, this was not simply a flavour vote. Pepsi asked fans to submit product names, colours and packaging designs, as well as the promotional ads themselves, asking consumers to transparently and democratically vote for their favourite in each case.
Other cases are abundant. From interactive Japanese websites that actively demonstrate the animation skills of those they seek to promote to online gaming experiences with content designed to manipulate the public behaviour of users, interactive marketing is here to stay and for a very good reason: it allows the public and consumers to feel a valued and active part of the communications process and not just a passive, target audience to be preached at.