The Motivations Behind Why People Participate–And How to Use Them To Your Advantage

You can draw loyal, engaged people in, without sinking to bribery tactics. Here’s how.

The Motivations Behind Why People Participate–And How to Use Them To Your Advantage
[Image: Flickr user web4camguy]

We live in a participatory world. Increasingly, organizations base marketing campaigns around customer-created content: blog posts about using a product, recipes involving a product, videos describing why users love whatever it is they love, you get the point.


Some brands with cult followings get this without trying. Some brands just pay people to participate. But what if you’d like to find a middle ground? Why do people choose to participate, and how can you draw them in in authentic ways?

To answer this question, I interviewed a pair of artists who’ve recently arrived in Philadelphia (where I live) from the Netherlands. Esther Polak and Ivar van Bekkum, a husband and wife team, have long created art requiring participation from large groups of people.

One recent project had participants wear GPS trackers as they walked and biked around Amsterdam, creating a human-centered map of the city that is similar to, but not entirely like, the normal street ones. Now in Philadelphia, they’re having residents of different parts of the city walk through their neighborhoods while narrating aspects of life there. The resulting interactive display will “give a voice to the map,” says Polak. Here are their strategies for getting people to participate.

Find a way to relate your need to something people want.

People are busy. So you need to give them a good reason to volunteer their time. Artists have it somewhat easier here in that “there are just people who really like to be involved in these kinds of projects if it’s art,” says van Bekkum. But beyond that, people also have strong feelings about their hometown. “They want to be involved in something that’s about the whole of Philadelphia.”

A big victory–like getting your homemade video played at the Super Bowl–might work. Pepsi canned its Refresh campaign, in which customers promoted nonprofits, in part because the process was fuzzy, but the broad idea–getting people to create content showing great things happening in their communities–isn’t a bad one.

A clothing company might do well offering to promote budding fashionistas who incorporate items into outfits they model and photograph. I recently wrote about the Swoon Reads YA romance novel imprint, and how it gets readers to give opinions by offering them access to free new reads frequently. If producing what you want aligns with what users want, you’ll have a much easier time.


Network beyond the usual suspects.

Some people want attention more than others, and while they can be fascinating, they’re not the only people who are fascinating. If you need models for a project, and are looking for fresh faces, you might want to send out scouts to find people who wouldn’t normally consider showing up for a casting call.

Some people can say yes more readily than others. When Polak and van Bekkum recruited fishing boats for a project in Europe, they had much more success with small vessels. “In a huge company, the captain of the boat is not the owner of his boat,” says van Bekkum. Notes Polak, “if there is not one person making the decision, if there is a network of people who feel responsible, it becomes complex. If you’re dealing with individuals that can have their own agency and make their own decisions, I don’t remember ever having been turned down.”

Allow for serendipity to happen–within limits.

There’s always an element of serendipity in participatory events–and that’s a good thing. But you need some sense of what the outcome will look like so you can give people instructions. One reason Polak and van Bekkum set up shop in Philly two months before recording started was to give them time to discover the city and figure out how to do this project differently than previous ones.

For instance, what makes people narrate their neighborhoods well? “We know that if we send people out alone on streets, it’s quite different to talk out loud,” van Bekkum says. People feel inhibited, and stop when others approach. So how can you solve that problem? The goal is to give people good enough instructions that you get the best stuff possible.

Learn from your first participants.

While some projects must be done all at once–say, if you’re recording 24 hours in the life of a convenience store–you’re generally better off with a rolling approach. Polak and van Bekkum won’t have chosen all their participants when they start recording the first narration. “We learn from our experience,” Polak says. By seeing what goes right and goes wrong, they can keep getting better fodder as they go.


About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at