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4 Marketing Hacks for Citizen Participation - Lessons from Apple, Nike & Co.

It’s one of the central promises of (digital) citizen participation and simultaneously one of its biggest challenges: better representation and inclusion.

If we can’t get every single citizen involved, at least every group in society should be represented. That way all perspectives are heard and taken into consideration. 

That’s the theory. In reality, however, only very few projects achieve this. Instead, the majority of citizens who participate tend to be the ones already actively engaged in their community.

This issue doesn’t only affect citizen participation. It permeates through our political system, posing a fundamental challenge to modern democracy at large. There’s entire segments of society that are socially and politically isolated, taking very little or no part in public life. 

Clearly, this challenge requires serious attention. According to More in Common’s study ‘The other divide’, one third of German citizens today are barely or not at all included in democracy.

The exclusion of this so-called ‘invisible third’ that exists on the margins of our political system becomes particularly apparent during elections. Half its members no longer participate in voting at all while the rest tends to cast their vote to extremist parties.

To prevent further fragmentation of society, our efforts must be geared towards rebuilding this group’s trust in government and in regaining their confidence in our society. And this will be most fruitful if backed by evidence. We must show disengaged citizens that both democracy and society remain strong and that political engagement pays off. An inclusive citizen participation project is an important first step in this process.

But how do we reach people who have withdrawn completely from political participation? Yet another meet-and-greet with the mayor or a poster in town hall clearly doesn’t do the trick. And even a digital participation platform is, by itself, unlikely to bring results, as showcased by countless failed attempts.

At Civocracy, our partners aren’t simply handed an effective and easy-to-use platform for digital participation; we guide them through the process of implementing impactful participation projects. And active participation constitutes a key pillar of this. 

From our projects, those that proved most successful were overseen by project teams that sought to generate excitement around participation and developed their approach accordingly.

An effective communication strategy for citizen participation

No one’s fully cracked the citizen-participation-code yet. Reaching a satisfiable level of representation in participation projects poses a fresh challenge each time. Some formulas, however, have been successful.

Amongst them, an approach that’s been widely overlooked so far: broadening one’s view beyond the political context to find inspiration. After all, true expertise in reaching disconnected citizens exists. Just typically not within the political sphere.

I’m talking about private companies. Brands like BMW, Apple, Facebook and Nike spread their message beyond societal divides, reaching all segments of society. Could their approach prove effective for citizen participation as well?

At first consideration, this idea might raise alarm bells. Doesn’t the economy have enough influence on politics as it is? Should the public sector really imitate methods used by private companies? 

Of course democratic institutions shouldn’t be guided by market logic alone. They should, however, pay attention to successful outreach-strategies - and draw from them lessons that would benefit the public sector as well.

So, how do these companies do it? What motivates people to buy their products or even camp outside their stores in anticipation of their release? How strong would a society be if this kind of hype was generated around political participation?

The public and the private sector are separate entities - and should remain such.

There are of course crucial differences between the public sector and private companies. The latter are first and foremost driven by profit, which allows them to target specific groups while leaving aside others. The public sector, on the other hand, cannot and should never do this. On the contrary, it’s the public sector’s task to treat people equally and invest equal efforts into including them.

Moreover, the fall in political participation over the past years can hardly be blamed on ineffective marketing. Citizens’ distrust goes deep and is rooted in a multitude of reasons with no easy fix available. 

Even though they are driven by a markedly different purpose, the fact that some companies reach almost everyone in society should certainly be of interest to the public sector. You would be hard put to find a group in society that doesn’t own a single piece of clothing from Nike or Adidas, for example. How this can be useful to political participation is worth investigating.

Lessons for (digital) citizen participation taken from product marketing . 

At Civocracy, we take this seriously and don’t shy away from using insights gained from marketing to boost participation and representativeness in our projects.

There’s 4 universally applicable lessons for building impactful (digital) participation projects. 

1. Creating Personas and identifying Touchpoints.

When a new participation project is about to begin, you’re most likely to find out about it here:

  1. On the city’s website

  2. As a notice in town hall

  3. In the local gazette.

If it was the goal to get only public servants to participate, this would be an efficient communication strategy. To reach citizens, however, this kind of communication is largely ineffective. They go to the town hall only for bureaucratic tasks, the city’s website is normally of little interest to them and the Gazette’s readers are engaged citizens already.

Communication becomes more effective the more you adopt the perspective of a citizen. A good tool for this is creating personas, meaning you think of the type of person(s) you want to reach and describe them as closely as possible.

How old is this person? What profession does s/he have? What does his or her day-to-day routine look like? Who does she meet up with? What is his or her family status? What does s/he get up to in his or her free time?

This exercise helps you to think like the citizen you want to reach and prepares you for the second step: determining what kind of communication is most effective in reaching and animating them. You just started identifying ‘touchpoints’.

In what situation(s) is a citizen likely to encounter their city’s call to participation? It could be a poster at a bus stop, a conversation in the local pub, while waiting in line at the supermarket or browsing through your social media. 

For the public sector, multiple personas need to be created. The goal is to reach every single group in society, so each group needs its own persona with individual touchpoints and a communication strategy that’s aligned accordingly.

Once you have a clear understanding of the different groups your community is made up of, where they spend their time, what excites them and when they’re most receptive, you’ve laid the foundation for successful communication. 

This step can be taken even further by outlining a customer-journey (which we offer as part of our consulting services). But even the simple step of identifying personas and touchpoints puts you decisively ahead of 90% of the participation projects. 

2. Positive Marketing

Scott Harrison, founder of the NGO ‘Charity Water’, once said that, ahead of every communications-decision, he asks himself the following question: “What would Nike do?”

With each product release, the American sports-brand manages to generate a new hype around - and a willingness to pay for - the latest shoe, shorts or jersey. While the tag lines change from product to product, the key message stays the same:  “Our product helps you thrive in new ways and makes you a hero”.

This strategy of emotional branding personifies positive marketing like no other. Nike paints the future in the brightest colours.

There’s much to be learnt from this for the communication of political issues. After all, in the context of citizen participation, every voice is heard and every person becomes part of a triumphant movement, emerging as a hero. What’s more heroic than improving one’s city, protecting the environment or enabling a better future for our children?

A tale of a hero who steps up for his or her community - this could be one of the central narratives around citizen participation. Nike, Adidas & Co. are proof that this kind of message does not only get through to people but also animates them to take action. Of course, not every person will respond to this type of message - bear in mind the personas - but many people who are currently isolated politically will be re-engaged this way. 

3. Storytelling

“Citizen participation in *name of city* - give us your opinion and get involved!” - this is the standard call to action for participation projects. On an emotional level, this message has little effect. But emotion is one of the key drivers for action.

Strategies in product marketing show us a better way of doing this. Story-telling has been employed by companies as a standard technique for many years. That is to say, rather than explaining what the product is and how it works, companies show us stories of people whose lives have been changed by the product. 

Storytelling (almost) always follows the same pattern. Your average, relatable person is confronted with a challenge that s/he overcomes with help of the product in question, transforming them into the triumphant hero of their own story. The focus is on the protagonist. The product is only the tool. 

This storyline is particularly well-suited for (digital) citizen participation. Because it’s actual heroes we’re talking about. Ideally, society at large benefits from their participation and not (as it is the case with product marketing) mainly the company’s shareholders.

So, for every participation project we should consider the citizens that become heroes for their communities and use this as a narrative to promote the project itself. This is even more effective when there’s already been successful participation projects in the past. The heroes themselves (aka engaged citizens) can tell their stories and encourage others to get involved. 

4. Influencer Marketing

At the end of last year, one project dominated the German media and polarised public opinion. Berlin’s olympic stadium would host a ‘festival for democracy’. To cover the costs of roughly 2 million Euros, a crowdfunding campaign was set up. Strong backlash followed quickly, criticising the ‘eventisation’ of democracy, amongst other things. What even its critics couldn’t deny was the success of its fundraising campaign: the project did in fact raise 2 million Euros. And: the donations largely came from groups that don’t typically get involved with political initiatives. This was not just a considerable success with regard to citizen engagement. It was the single most successful crowdfunding-campaign that ever took place in Germany. No other new, innovative product ever made as much money as a ‘festival for democracy’. Politics beat the economy.

Influencers played a decisive role in making the campaign a success. Amongst political figures like Luisa Neubauer from Fridays for Future, celebrities like author Charlotte Roche and musician Lena Meyer Landrut promoted the project. These celebrities reached up to millions of people through their channels and mobilised parts of the fan-base, who spent 30 Euros on a ticket.

Influencers can be employed to reach disconnected citizens. And it doesn’t take celebrities for this. What about the head of the local sports club? The priest? The chair of the carnival-committee? Who’s got influence in town certainly varies but well-connected people that the local population listens to always exist. And often there’s residents who have considerable influence online, too, that stretches beyond the city itself. After all, blog articles are being written and social media feeds filled in every city. The people behind these posts are often incredibly influential in their community - and should be included in participation projects.

Celebrities outside of the digital realm can be of assistance, too. When it comes to a good cause (strengthening the community) that’s also rooted in local issues, there’ll be celebrities willing to back the cause without breaking your budget. 

Football player Thomas Mueller was born in Weilheim. Helene Fischer grew up in Woellstein. Rapper Massiv is from Pirmasens. The outreach of these three celebrities far exceeds that of any typical political actor. And they also have an emotional connection with the cities in question. There’s nothing to lose in asking them. Just a 15 seconds clip included in an Instagram story with a link to the platform will make follower-numbers sky-rocket.

Leave the beaten tracks for effective citizen participation.

These four points show only a fraction of how product marketing can inform citizen participation. There’s entire segments like content marketing or guerilla marketing that haven’t been mentioned here but also have big potential. What will work in a project always depends on its specific goals and set-up, too.

What’s clear is the power to be gained from broadening one’s horizon when it comes to communication strategies. If you learn from approaches in marketing, assume the perspective of the target group and remain open for experiments, you’re sure to see a spike in participation rates and representativeness in your project.

We’ve learnt from our experience. A communication strategy that is informed by/uses the lessons from product marketing, can be a crucial part/lays foundation for successful participation projects.

Active participation is only the first step on the way to building impactful citizen participation. Good marketing ensures that more people show up at events and sign up to the digital participation platforms. 

Whether the citizens stay and come back depends on how the project is set up, to what extent it is backed by the government and whether it yields results. A lazy effort overall cannot be saved by the best marketing.

Would you like to learn more about our approach and how we manage to include all groups in society in participation projects? Do you have thoughts, questions or suggestions regarding participation projects and marketing that you’d like to share with us? Shoot us an email at:


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