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Take Note: The Former Audience Gets Active

By Lisa Leslie Henderson

While in New York this past week, I was fortunate to participate in Here Lies Love, an immersive theatrical experience created by David Byrne (of Talking Heads fame) and British DJ Fatboy Slim.  Set in a dance club atmosphere, Here Lies Love tells the story of twentieth-century Filipino politics and the rise and fall of First Lady Imelda Marcos.

The mandatory checking of our bags and jackets before entering the theatre suggested that we would not be passively viewing this show.  A cash bar in what would typically be the front of the theatre and modular platforms on wheels interspersed where rows of bolted-down seating usually reside, hinted that the audience and the cast would be occupying the same space.

Although the storyline of Here Lies Love is chronological, the evening itself was any thing but linear.  As the DJ announced at the beginning of the performance, this was going to be a “360” experience.  Platforms would be moving throughout the evening and we would all be moving along with them.  Intrigued, I wished I had chosen to wear my flats; used to being part of a more passive audience at the theater, I was not suitably dressed to be an active participant!

A good story can bring a historical period of time to life.  A good story in which the audience is actively part of the unfolding experience can make people feel as if they were actually there.

During the course of the evening we attended a political rally in which reporters captured and projected our images with the presidential candidate across multiple television screens.  We were caught up in the rhythm of multiple genres of music, naturally moving our hips and breaking into moments of Filipino-style line dancing—together.  We raised our hands in protest as we were angered by the growing insensitivity of First Lady Imelda Marcos to the plight of the Filipino people, complicating the initial tenderness we felt for her as a young girl.   We were part of the rainy funeral procession of opposition leader Ninoy Aquino, and shed a tear as his mother passed by us, accompanying her son’s casket, while she described how he had always wanted to be a drummer who led the people.  Strobe lights, gusts of wind, and the sound of a helicopter reeving its engines provided a powerful backdrop for the Marcos’ evacuation from the Philippines after the four-day People Power Revolution.  When the curtain call took place—of course there was no curtain; instead a drum beat summoned characters—I was elated and moved.

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Here Lies Love was not only a theatrical experience, it is an example of a critical shift that is taking place:  the formerly passive audience is becoming an active co-creator of experiences.  The Internet and other digital technologies are largely fueling this shift—people around the world are creating, collaborating, commenting, sharing, liking, pinning, posting, uploading, and following—in a way that was simply not possible during the broadcast era.

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As far back as 1998, the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto foresaw that the Web would be an audience-driven medium; people would be curators of their own experience, deciding with whom they will engage and how, when, and where, blurring the boundaries between creators and audiences.  A recent study conducted by the Pew Internet Project confirmed this trend:  56 percent of Internet users act as either creators (share their own images) or curators (share other people’s images).  More than half of online adults want to be actively engaged.  Imagine what this number might look like when today’s digital natives become adults.

How are brands taking advantage of this shift?

  • Nike and Adidas allow customers to customize their own clothing and footwear.  Nokia, in conjunction with Makerbot, makes it possible for people to custom design and create their very own shells for Lumina phones via their browser and 3-D printers.
  • Nivea activated a traditional magazine print ad for sunscreen by embedding it on an ultra-thin solar panel containing a phone plug. When in direct sunlight, the ad transformed the sun’s rays into energy that could be used to charge a cell phone. The theme of the campaign:  you don’t need to leave the beach to charge your cell phone—just use sunscreen if you are there all day!
  • Television, a traditionally passive experience, is becoming more active as viewers partake in second screening.  AMC offered second-screen content for its shows  “Breaking Bad,” “The Walking Dead,” and “The Killing.” Content on the second screen appeared periodically throughout the show and complemented the primary storyline.
  • The Washington Capitals have developed an app for Google Glass wearers that allows them to access replays and up-to-the-minute game stats during games.
  • REI, the store for outdoor enthusiasts, offers open climbs and climbing classes on indoor climbing walls located at its retail stores.  (It’s outdoor school offers additional programs in kayaking, cycling, navigation, hiking, and more.)

Take Away:

How might this shift represent an opportunity for our brands? How might we encourage our prospects and customers to participate with us?  Do people believe and feel engaged by the experiences we offer? Are there moments when our prospects and customers might prefer a more passive experience? How else might customer participation find expression in the future?