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What do we learn from a round of applause during the pandemic?

By Matthew Alexander - Posted on 21 May 2020

Applauding care and key workers on a Thursday evening has become a regular part of the week in the UK. Here, Matthew Alexander looks at this phenomenon in terms of collective engagement in society.

At 8pm every Thursday during the Covid-19 Pandemic applause has rung out from the apartments, houses, towns and cities of the UK. Indeed, the enhanced appreciation for all those in society, often risking their own health to save the lives of those suffering from this devastating virus, is one of the most interesting manifestations of our collective response to the Covid-19 epidemic.

But what can we learn from this phenomenon and why is it important? Well the round of applause is a great example of the growing effect of engagement behaviour on our lives. The clapping began in Italy and quickly spread to other countries, almost mirroring the spread of the virus. This activity is eminently shareable with Facebook posts, Instagram and twitter with individuals capturing the zeitgeist and, critically, sharing this with their personal networks around the world. For academics in Marketing our interest is that this weekly activity was not starting by a government, or multi-national organisation with huge marketing budget, but by individuals in society who felt so passionately engaged in this life changing situation to want to show their appreciation. These small acts have become so powerful that we see our political leaders, members of the Royal Family and many celebrities joining in this activity in a very overt way as public feeling around the act of clapping aggregates into a new societal norm. This strong disposition to engage and, subsequent behaviour, which can influence others and mobilise them to continue the activity, is a great example of what, in service research, we call Actor Engagement

For around a decade now organisations have been aware of the power of the consumer (and other societal actors) to build momentum and influence around particular objects (e.g. brands/products) with the rise of ‘influencers’ a key outcome of this. In the days, weeks and years pre-Covid-19 organisations have attempted to seed and leverage this engagement to build interest around both new and existing products and services. Consumers are encouraged to like, share, tweet and post content around their favourite products and services to boost interest and encourage others to buy. 

But why is increasing engagement so important? Well there are two main reasons behind this: firstly, individuals in society have never been more connected than they are now and have never had the ability to have their views and their content so quickly shared around the world; secondly, there is growing evidence that consumer trust in large organisations (and indeed governments) has waned, this trust is instead (rightly or wrongly) often placed in individuals that you are connected to digitally (with both weak and strong social ties). These critical changes in the ways we receive, and transmit, content mean that individual comments, images, gifs and videos all have the potential to create powerful systemic effects around a focal phenomenon. This can have a positive effect (as with the rounds of applause) but also detrimental impacts as negatively valenced messages and particularly fake news are equally shareable and individuals can be misled by, as we have seen during this recent crisis.

There are several interesting observations to draw from this: firstly, unlike in past periods of crisis, governments and organisations can no longer rely on their own message (e.g. government posters during World War II such as ‘dig for victory') having the largest impact. In many ways they are now dependent on other societal actors to co-develop the message, augment it and then use it to influence and mobilise others. But great care is needed by firms and here we find our second observation. There is a need to be honest, to be authentic as societal actors are not just vehicles to share content but are intelligent, highly active, and well-connected. This explains how our scientific community has been so influential during the pandemic, with open access scientific research papers being shared, YouTube explainer videos watched and alternative hypotheses considered. Thus, government and organisational decision making is both scrutinised and critiqued but also mocked and parodied when people believe they have been let down or not given the full picture.

For all organisations then there are a few key points to take from the public response to this pandemic:

1. Governments and organisations need engaged citizens/customers in order to implement and maintain both lockdowns and effective social distancing policies; 

2. Understanding engagement helps us harness customer/citizens network assets which gets information disseminated rapidly; 

3. High levels of persuasion capital mean individuals are highly likely to be influenced and, potentially, mobilised via their own networks; 

4. Knowledge stores within your network can quickly help to diagnose problems and customer/citizen creativity can aid by proffering solutions.

5. Engaging a broad range of societal actors requires organisations to be as authentic as they can be but also accept that they cannot maintain complete control of the message.

So, who knows, perhaps a simple round of applause is the sound of a wider change in our society where collective engagement starts to shape our global future.

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