Engagement Currency

We were talking about alternative [read: cheap] ways to build engagement recently. Something tangible, that you can see, feel or hold physically. Like stickers, for example, they’re easy and silly – but what kind? And also, what type of community would they address?

The English definition of ‘currency’ (outside of its obvious monetary connotations) is ‘The fact or quality of being generally accepted or in use‘. Keeping this in mind (and given the universal habit tagging of all things technologically vital and important), laptop stickers could therefore be construed as a currency of the blogging community

If that’s so, then why not make some of those? Good ones mind. Not just your logo on a white background.

Something interesting.
Something better.
Something that will spark a conversation.

A social object, if you will.

This thought process is not new, we used to talk about this kind of community currency back in my SpinVox days: what was it about a certain place or a group of people that would always get them talking and, better yet, what wouldn’t.

A recent video from Heineken was what got me thinking about this again (and what prompted the tweet above, too). Have a look, we’ll regroup on the other side –

Right. Let’s deconstruct this for a second. First off, as I asked the team at 1000heads last week; is this cool?

The general consensus was no, it isn’t. It’s a good video, yes. But using technology for technology’s sake is never a sound strategy for success and alas, that’s exactly what’s going on here.

“Why is this Heineken? Where is their connection?” were other recurring questions. You could argue that the new brand message of ‘open your world’ underpins this whole activity somehow, but you have to look quite hard to see it. And anyway, that much at least is besides the point.

Could this have been done better by taking a closer look at the reality of a festival currency?

Festival currency: what it isn’t

Before we get into what and what does not work around QR codes, let’s first establish that I genuinely do buy the idea that they act as a conversation starter. That’s great in fact. Any excuse to start talking to a new person at large social events is welcome. Well done.

However, as anyone who’s ever been to a festival will tell you, the genuine currency of the modern day festival-goer is communication. To stay in touch, you need that most precious of camping-based premiums: mobile phone battery life.

There is a whole other blog post to come about how the success of the next generation mobile hardware manufacturer depends on this particular aspect of their devices (and breathe), but that’s not for today. Today is about realising that festival-goers aren’t going to spend precious battery life on QR code snapping, especially when it’s the only thing keeping them connected.

Heineken could learn from Orange here.

Back to those QR codes, hands up who’s got a phone that can scan a QR code out of the box? OK, next question: hands up who’s got a phone that can scan a QR code out of the box that you know about? See what I mean. Shocking.

QR codes are great, but there’s still such a large education piece to be done before anything like this creates any real traction [note: the video proudly points out that 5000 ‘U-Codes’ were printed, not how many were actually scanned].

Taking all of the above into account, it’s clear that the modern day festival goer needs to remain connected, visible and contactable.

Festival currency: what it could be

Flags. This isn’t my idea, first off. Scroggles planted this particular seed when we were working with MTV’s Staying Alive Foundation a few years back. At a festival, if the currency isn’t anything mobile-related (or at least, related to draining mobile power) what else is there?


Think about it.


Print your own message on a [Heineken-branded] flag and suddenly you have something that you can wave to find your friends, stand near or under as a meeting point and ultimately, personalise as much as you like within your own artistic boundaries.

No messing about with esoteric QR codes, no imposing your brand onto that super-valuable phone battery; just simple, visible and useful branding.

Flags, as currency for festival goers.
Laptop stickers, as currency for bloggers.

There’s more here. I’m sure of it.

What’s your engagement currency?



[Big thanks to both James Mayes and Gia Cavalli in the construction of this post]

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Author: James Whatley

Experienced advertising and communications strategist working in brand, games, and entertainment. I got ❤️ for writing, gaming, and figuring stuff out. I'm @whatleydude pretty much everywhere that matters. Nice to meet you x

20 thoughts on “Engagement Currency”

  1. Once again James, you have me thinking! These are my initial thoughts, and I reserve the right to come back and share more.

    I do like the idea of the QR codes for the festival. Even if my battery is low or I am not in a condition to bring up the scan app, it is a conversation starter, providing the person who is wearing the code is still receptive to the idea. It reminds me of a promotion Volkswagen did back in the 90’s in Boston for the Head of the Charles crew regatta, where they handed out large stickers with the VW logo and a 4 digit code. The idea was to find the other person in the crown with the same number. The only problem was it was in stoggy New England, and people were only looking from afar. It would have worked well at the Lollapalooza concert a few months earlier, or even at Lolla today.

    When I think of currency, I think not only of the value of the item itself but what I can exchange for it. So getting a card with an iTunes code is valuable to me, but I most likely will not be exchanging it for something else, other than getting the songs. What if I could get both, an entre into meeting new people, or codes for songs or alerts to a special show on a sidestage or free chips and a drink when I buy a sub after I leave the venue? Yet keep it simple so I don’t need a specific app or hardware or long battery life or give up my complete privacy.


  2. Ah, the old QR code debate. I won’t wade in on that one, it’s for another post (and one that I’m currently brewing). In principle, the Heineken idea was a nice one, in practice however, not so much. Retro fitting technology because ‘you can’ is never going to work and I like your ‘strip it back to basics and think about what people actually DO’ approach to this.

    We’ve used umbrellas at festivals (bit dangerous after a few though, particularly for a 5’2″ girl) so the flag idea is particularly nice. Laptop stickers, well let’s not confine them to bloggers alone. I think there are a few people that could jump on that gravy train.

    I was having a chat with some single friends recently about a way of identifying other singles in bars (or wherever really). This is a tough one and would need to be right to remove any stigma, but one of the suggestions was badges. Really nicely designed badges that send out a particular message (you can imagine the ensuing suggestions, but I’ll leave it there). In a similar vein, how can you engage with the right people at business events? Again, some kind of badge system.

    There must be more.

    whatleydude Reply:

    I always liked Jeff Pulver’s ‘real life social tagging’ game that he plays at his breakfast mornings.

    Definitely worth a look (and something I’ve used before too) – it works!


  3. Thanks for the h/t, appreciated! As with most things, the answers lies in correctly identifying pain points and offering the solution.

    At a festival (yep, I’ve done a few…) location is always a pain (either “where are my friends” and occasionally “where am I”) – hence the flags are a winner. Thing is, once I’ve got my flag, where does the engagement come from? People will spot the brand, sure. It’s not gonna make me follow up in any meaningful way though. When I talk about the event after, the brand on that flag won’t be featuring either. What I mean to say is I think you’re right to say it’s a festival currency… but it’s a way short of being an engagement currency!

    I’m gonna hark back to the original tweets on the subject: interest me, educate me, show me something cool – I’ll engage with you on that and tell all my friends about it too. What’s more, I’ll do so with passion. The trick, therefore, is to combine that with a well-identified pain point.

    To continue with your thought on mobile battery life: Don’t just give me a charging point. I’ll just take your power, note your brand, and move on. Have a live demo there that shows me how I can pour water through a device which uses gravitational pull and resistance to generate power. It might be a crummy prototype which is years from production, but I’ll be blown away by your sexy new device, I’ll love that you’re creating things to solve developing world issues, I’ll have my pain point resolved and I’ll talk avidly about what you just showed me. Howzat?

  4. The worry I would have with flags is that people tend to distrust brands who try to co-opt an individual’s message.

    I remember The Mirror newspaper handing out thousands of placards at the Make Poverty History demonstration. People took the banners then ripped off The Mirror’s logo.

    Why would I want a beer brand diluting my message?

    With QR codes… I don’t think they’re the worst way to engage with people at a festival. Although the mud may be a problem with scanability.

    For me, the question is “why do I want to scan this person?” If it’s just about seeing their message… well… that’s ok, but not so interesting.

    What it needs is a question and reveal:
    “Who is my favourite artist?”
    “Where was I born?”
    “What’s the best album of all time?”

    You pose the question on the sticker, then have the reveal on the scan.

    But that’s only the first half – you’ve scanned and got the answer. Now what?

    “Oh, you like Joy Division too! Shall we….?”

    Ok, but how does that help the brand? Unless they name the subsequent kid “Drunken Mistake” 😉

    Does scanning the code lead to a “like us on Facebook to find out the answer” experience?

    Does it let me add someone as a friend on Twitter straight away? If so, does the brand get involved or does it merely get in the way?

    whatleydude Reply:

    I love that Question / Scan for response idea Terence. Great stuff.

  5. I hate this sort of stuff. Seriously. Who wants to be using QR codes at a festival? And the reveal or reward? Some tiny message. Ugh.

    James is right – essentially what do people want or need. People need battery for their phones. They need to find their friends. They also would probably like a decent meal, a nice shower or somewhere comfy to sit down. I don’t see how QR codes help in any of these. Also any of these things could be provided fairly cheap.

    Flags would be a fun if you could personalise them. Even stickers could work maybe if they were of the bands actually playing that festival so you could show your allegiance.

    You know what would be cool – some simple mechanic that encouraged people to sign up to win a night sleeping in a pimped out Airstream. Or special access to Heineken showers. Again more expensive that printing off QR codes but again who really talks about QR codes.

    Utility is a great way in – festival food is mostly rubbish – why not set up an awesome caff where people can eat – if they do engage with the brand in the caff they get a nice discount. Why try to get people to engage with the brand by introducing a wholly new beahviour (QR) rather than finding a way for the brand to fit into an existing behaviour?

    I guess I’ve moved away from quick and cheap but i can’t imagine Heineken is hurting for funds to pump into festivals.

    whatleydude Reply:

    This —> “Why try to get people to engage with the brand by introducing a wholly new beahviour (QR) rather than finding a way for the brand to fit into an existing behaviour?

    A million times.

  6. I’d be interested in seeing what Heineken hoped to achieve, versus the results that they actually saw. And if this was a campaign that had particular targets behind it. Or if, indeed, it was a social experiment.

    The problem is, in many social media campaigns, the planning stage doesn’t start with the question: ‘Why?’ Instead, people opt for: ‘What?’

    By the time it is realised that there isn’t a ‘why’ to go on, it is too late and the show must go on, as they say.

    I believe that this is the key question that should be asked when considering ‘social currency’. *Why* is it required for a particular campaign, which will then allow the marketing team involved to work out *what* it is that they should use to achieve the goals that have been set out.

    Personally though, Mr Whatley, whatever the *why*, a flag would never be my *what*. ; )

  7. Recognizing all the good points above my feeling is that if we are trying to first engage people AT festivals then we are starting too late, and it is ridiculously hard work thus expensive. As anyone who goes to festivals knows the excitement and buzz starts even before the tickets are bought and builds up massively until the event – be in online or just in the pub. The question for me is how to become a trusted part of the chat way before folk arrive at the festival so when they get there they are pre-activated and warmed up to engage further with the brand. I know this is 101 but in practice so often we go for stunts over strategy.

    To me QR codes work as part of the final festival journey – in the points of high dwell time during the journey to a festival for example such as the bus stop near your house bus stop, scan a code to see some awesome content and keep scanning all the way to the festival to get the full story, sharing as you go so you are amplifying the experience in a meaningful way to your network. Wider than this, if it is currency you are after then nothing beats it for me than easy festival access and booze, nice cold booze – can I get a bucket of beers and a quick route into the festival if I have engaged with your brand before the festival?

    To me wearing the brand (or a code) or waving it around would never work en mass, yes it would for some and make a nice post campaign video but I am looking for cold, hard numbers for my clients and so I want to be part of their lives as soon as possible in the hope that I am there when the tent has been thrown away, the boots dumped in the cupboard and the hangover subsides.

  8. Nice post James. Heineken should have done better, particularly with that brand message ‘Open Your World’ – such rich territory.

    On the flag it’s perfect festival currency – my boyfriend’s best mate created a truly amasing flag for Bestival, for his 30th. He put a lot of love into it. It was a striking design (pink and yellow), with a hand illustration of his face. It looked cool and pretty special.

    We had a group of 60 of us, who used it as a meeting point. But we found strangers also used it for a meeting point. So we got to know people from it.

    Word got around about this amasing flag and who was the person’s face on it.
    We heard funny stories, some were saying a guy from Grange Hill, Jimmy Hendrix etc and afterwards people were talking online about it.

    We found a photographer who had it on this site, so requested a copy of the photo and it was on Exposure’s site.

    It totally got people talking during and after the Festival about it, it was an ice breaker and it didn’t cost much.

    If brands try to do this though, it should be unbranded. Otherwise it would just be a bit crap. Be pretty cool for a brand to team up with an illustrator or graffiti artist like Mr Bingo or David Walker, so one person could have a flag designed for them. I’m sure it would create a lot of word of mouth…..I’d like one.

  9. A few people have pretty much covered this from top to bottom already but aside from the specifics; the QR codes and the flags the fundamentals to this whole case is behavior.

    Think this chap hit the nail on the head:

    “Why try to get people to engage with the brand by introducing a wholly new beahviour (QR) rather than finding a way for the brand to fit into an existing behaviour?”

    Being an analyst at my core, I question everything and want to know the how and why an idea is being commissioned. If there is no data or research that shows the thought process, then how are we projecting a return?

    So many brands and companies don’t ask the simplest of questions before they undertake a campaign:

    – What do our users want from us?
    – Do we know what we want our users to actually do?

    Before defining an Engagement Currency, how about defining the Engagement Strategy.

    Behavior is everything. Yes that’s right. What motivates a transactional or non transactional behavior is gold to any brand looking to ship a product. If you know these answers, then you are onto something big.

    Think Mark Jennings said it also, it’s about recognising what Festival goers actually want, understanding the journey from the first discussion a consumer had with a friend about the festival, to taking action and purchasing tickets, buying festival shit, traveling to the event, attending and post festival conversations. That is the journey and that is what the brand should be looking deep into. The thought process and the emotions of a festival goer.

    If an engagement strategy isn’t focused on these elements then it’s just fluff. It has no value to me or my beliefs and I am not motivated to engage.

    What I would like to see would be some form of reward/loyalty scheme for festivals.

    Yes Gamification (kill me now), but reward festival goers for every part of the journey they take leading up to the festival, points for sharing content, following SNS etc
    Upon attending the event, points/badges for attending various tents, taking pictures, tweeting, checkin in, making new friends, purchasing food and merchandise bla bla.

    All placed on some kind of real time leaderboard you can access online/mobile. Points can be redeemed at the festival or like Nectar points, saved up and used for money off next year’s ticket.

    Now that is a motivation for me to engage.

    PS: I accept I lose credibility for the word gamification. A sacrifice I was willing to make.

  10. James will be the guest on CommsChat tonight (Monday 16th January) at 8pm discussing engagement currency
    follow the conversation on twitter at #commschat

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