Despite the cultural vogue of “memes” and “going viral,” the virus metaphor fails us — especially us marketers who would like to make a message go viral.
The virus analogy simply doesn’t hold up. A video or news story or urban legend can’t spread itself; they do not “self replicate.” Only human beings* spread ideas, videos, blog posts, etc — and we spread them for our own purposes.
So designing messaging to be spread by your fellow humans means designing messaging that will serve them. You must craft stories worth spreading, from the point of view of the prospective “spreader.”
I hinted at this in my earlier post on The Dry Erase Girl Hoax, when I said it was a story that we wanted to be true, a desire which short-circuited my (and apparently most other’s) normal fact-checking routines. So I was pleased when Jeff Eisenberg e-mailed me this interview of the hoax’s authors reinforcing this exact same point:
“There’s no reason that somebody’s bullshit detector shouldn’t have gone off when we launched this one. People want to believe it. I think (pulling off a hoax) takes time but it’s not as big a hurdle as you think.” [Emphasis mine]
Then John Resig, The hoax’s co-founder, went on to explain his own “formula” for a successful hoax — a formula he’s proven successful through the launch of 3 block-buster hoaxes in the last 2 years.
“Number one, the story has to be uplifting. This type of thing doesn’t have to be full of malice. Anyone can say something bad about something else. I’m looking for more of an entertainment value out of it.
Number two, I’m looking for a good story. If you look at the ‘Dry Erase’ hoax, it tells a story in three acts, beginning, middle and end. It must be a story well-told.”
So I’d elaborate the first point by saying that the story should be one we want to be true because it makes us feel better, either about our own situation, or about the world in general, or about how our long-held beliefs turned out to be true.
Learning that some girl accidentally texted her dad about losing her virginity on the beach isn’t necessarily uplifting, but it says something about the dangers of colliding social networks and our constantly-on, distracted from distraction by distraction society. Something we all felt in our guts. And it says it through a humorous, and, yes, well-told story.
This makes us feel good by spreading a smile and a chuckle to our friends, but also by confirming our suspicions, which is a point worth emphasizing. Although Resig didn’t include it in his list, it helps if the hoax/story/video communicates an idea or truth or insight that we couldn’t communicate as well on our own. When a story encapsulates an idea people wish to communicate, it stops mattering whether or not the story is true, the need to communicate the idea will ensure the story spreads far and wide.
Lemmings simply don’t follow the herd off the cliff and into the doom of a frost-cold sea. But humans do. And we NEED that mental image of lemmings to describe this all-too-human behavior. So the term, and the false story behind the term, remains part of our culture. People continue to spread the myth.
The flip side of this dynamic occurs when the story or video shatters a misconception that we desperately want shattered, like when The Girl Effect video hits us all in the gut with hope for Africa and other poverty-stricken countries. If you haven’t seen it, yet, watch it below; it says something important, it’ll make you smile, and it’s a story well told
* Yeah, I’m aware that killer whales and dolphins and maybe even some primates spread “ideas,” but none of them seem to consume much media, or subscribe to blogs, or even to fall prey to hoaxes, so I’ve chosen to exclude them from our discussion, OK?
Well, for the real answer, you can always read the highly recommended Made to Stick, which was based on the Heath Bros study of this very question. But apart from their SUCCES model, there’s one factor that I think the book doesn’t discuss quite directly enough:
Oftentimes, the urban legend is something we want to be true.
Now, in a world of legends about kidney thefts, that might sound a tad gruesome, and I’d be willing to admit this factor isn’t always at play, but more often than not, I think you’ll find even the scary urban legends contain some element of Schadenfreude — some way of making the world more interesting or poetically just, even if that requires raising the spectre of the bogey man to do so.
Case in point, this wonderful fable about a girl quitting her job via dry erase board pics e-mailed to her entire office.If you haven’t seen it, I practically guarantee it’ll brighten your day.
So while I usually check these things out on Snopes or Google, I didn’t do that for this one. I wanted it to be true. Even after I was e-mailed the news the story was false, it still felt like it ought to be true.
And isn’t that a lesson in copywriting?
- Provide powerful visual imagery of positive outcomes
- Include a sense of poetic justice in your story lines
- Don’t shy away from the subtle call to social status or use of schadenfreude
Start off with an image or story that the reader wants to be true — and really IS true — and you’ll find the rest of the persuasion process easy.
If you agree with those sentiments, as many do, you’re falling prey to what’s become known as the “third-person effect.”
As it turns out, advertising is effective on all of us, even you and me. We’re just notoriously bad at figuring out our own motives, especially when it comes to sensing the subconscious, half-conscious, and unconscious desires and impulses that drive much of our behavior. But we’re much better at the cool observation of others, so we can see that advertising works on “the masses” and even on our friends and neighbors. Hence the third person effect: “advertising doesn’t work on me, but it sure seems to affect others.”
Want to know how to turn this to your advantage?
First, realize that the third-person effect is stronger when the message isn’t directly relevant to the listener/viewer/reader. As PSYBLOG explains it:
In other words people are likely to be influenced more than they think on subjects that are currently of little or no interest to them. An everyday example would be seeing an advert for a car, when you’re not in the market for a new car. We’d probably guess it has little or no influence on us, but this research suggests we’d be wrong.
Now, I’m extrapolating a bit here, but this rather precisely matches what my and my colleagues experience with radio advertising: despite the innate desire to reach people who are already in the market right now, the best time to influence your prospect is BEFORE they need what you’re selling, so that they enter the market with an already established predisposition to favor you and your brand.
When I don’t have a strong opinion and have little vested interest, it doesn’t take much to sway my preference. And frankly, this describes exactly how most people think about a great many markets.
Do you really have a strong opinion on which carpet cleaner to call? Or which Small Engine Repair shop is the best? Or who has the best pressure washing service for your deck or fence, and so on?
Most of us don’t — until we need that service or product — then we’d rather not make a blind decision. And that’s where advertising’s influence makes all the difference.
With the right ad campaign, your audience will think of your company first and feel the best about you. Good enough, at least, to pick you instead of the competition, because you’ll no longer be a “blind choice.”
Pre-internet, this kind of branding campaign meant the prospect would flip open the Yellow Pages and purposefully look for your ad, rather than scanning the page in hopes that one of the ads might catch her eye.
Now, in the age of Google, it means the prospect searches on your companyname or even your Website’s URL rather than typic in more generic search terms for your market. And that pretty much screws your competitions’ fancy schmancy SEO and PPC work, delivering the prospect straight to your Website and then your door.
Just don’t be surprised when your newly thronged store and constantly ringing phone are populated by customers claiming to have heard about you from a friend, rather than your radio ads — ’cause everyone knows they’re not influenced by advertising
Don’t let this video’s inane dialogue fool you, just focus your attention on the fundamental ideas and dynamics presented. If your job involves persuasion, this video is well worth the watch.
Truism #1: If people see it coming, the transformational moment — the moment when a character moves past his primary fears, block, wound, or limitation — will fail to create maximum emotion in the reader because it’ll get dampened or squashed by the audience’s psychological defenses.
Truism #2: If the transformational moment isn’t properly set up, and instead the writer just launches into high drama on the page, the scene won’t be believable and it will fall emotionally flat for the reader.
Here’s an example of this second truism from the movie, Zombieland:
***Warning — Movie Spoilers Ahead*****
There’s emotion on the screen, duly portrayed by Woody Harrelson, but it never really touches the audience. The flashback, in fact, feels a bit off. Who feeds their dog pancakes or lifts them up and bathes them like that? But then again, Woody’s character is a bit “off,” so the viewer (or this viewer at least) let’s the disconnects slide.
And that’s the genius of this scene. Because as the movie goes on and the audience gets tied up in the more exciting aspects of zombie bashing, they forget all about that disconnect until the writer springs this scene on them:
After watching that scene, it dawned on me that the audience wasn’t meant to feel emotion in the first scene: it was just the set-up for this second scene in a way that would keep the audience from “bracing” against the emotion. Hence the “narrative misdirection” of the puppy flashback.
That undetected set-up makes all the difference because we, the audience, were taken in along with the Greg Eisenberg’s character, “Columbus.” So we felt Columbus’s insight and empathy as our own. It transfered right from the screen to our chests.
Better yet, while the audience was caught up in the emotion of that scene, the writer set us up for this bit of dialogue:
Brilliant, huh? We see the nihilistic loner confront his loss and then overcome his isolation. And it feels real. In fact, the emotion and drama works quite well for an otherwise silly comedy.
Copywriting Techniques to Take Away From All This
First of all, the copywriting equivalents of these techniques probably require a “don’t try this at home, kids” style warning, because they are in direct contradiction to standard: “hit ‘em as hard as you can with a WIIFM Appeal and UVP statement right off the bat”-style copywriting advice. Advice which I normally endorse as sound practice, by the way.
But these techniques and examples DO work when done right and are worth studying and thinking about. So with that caveat, here’s what I have seen used:
1) Sometimes the indirect approach works better. As I wrote earlier, most copywriters want to go in with guns a’ blazin’, spewing high-voltage WIIFM and UVP statements along with emotional problem-agitation-focused copy. But sometimes a slower start works to your advantage by allowing you to set-up your dramatic moments and power statements.
So long as your copy is interesting and is subtle in its set-ups, this indirect approach can massively outpull regular “reason-why” style copy. For example, here’s how the famous Wall Street Journal copy starts:
“On a beautiful late spring afternoon, twenty-five years ago, two young men graduated from the same college. They were very much alike, these two young men.
Both had been better than average students, both were personable and both – as young college graduates are – were filled with ambitious dreams for the future.
Recently, these men returned to their college for their 25th reunion.
They were still very much alike.
Both were happily married. Both had three children. And both, it turned out, had gone to work for the same Midwestern manufacturing company after graduation, and were still there.
But there was a difference. One of the men was manager of a small department of that company. The other was its president.”
With the tale eventually leading up to this power statement:
“The difference lies in what each person knows and how he or she makes use of that knowledge.
And that is why I am writing to you and to people like you about The Wall Street Journal. For that is the whole purpose of The Journal: To give its readers knowledge – knowledge that they can use in business.”
Can you imagine the fall off in response if the copywriter had skipped the set-up and just launched into the power statement? Can you imagine the U.S. School of Music correspondence course deciding a straight offer would work better than the immortal opening of “They laughed when I sat down at the piano but when I started to play!-”
And then there’s this bit of direct mail masterpiece that continues to work so well a recent copy just arrived in my inbox today:
You look out your window, past your gardener, who is busily pruning the lemon, cherry, and fig trees…amidst the splendor of gardenias, hibiscus, and hollyhocks.
The sky is clear blue. The sea is a deeper blue, sparkling with sunlight.
A gentle breeze comes drifting in from the ocean, clean and refreshing, as your maid brings you breakfast in bed.
For a moment, you think you have died and gone to heaven.
But this paradise is real. And affordable. In fact, it costs only half as much to live this dream lifestyle…as it would to stay in your own home!
Dear ETR Reader,
I’d like to send you a FREE copy of a unique–and invaluable–report. It’s called How to Retire in Paradise on $30 a Day. And it tells you about the best places in the world for retirement living.
Again, imagine how much less effective the straight offer of “Retire in Paradise on $30 a Day” would have been. No set-up, no emotional punch.
And while I’ll be the first to admit that readers are more suspicious of set-ups and more time sensitive than ever before, the continued use of this e-mail proves it still pulls. Trust me, if the direct mail superstars of Early to Rise had tested something better, they’d be using it.
2) Reference your prospect’s “photo in a wallet” symbolism to leverage otherwise unavailable emotions. Woody Harrelson’s character, Tallahassee, wasn’t planning on helping rescue the two girls. He needed to be convinced. But rather than launch into a rational argument, or a straightforward WIIFM-style appeal, the “Columbus” character clothed his appeal in the talismanic image of Tallahassee’s only keepsake from his lost son. And it worked.
I guarantee you that your prospect’s likely have a “wallet picture” type of mental image, some symbol, keepsake, or event that powerfully embodies and evokes their emotional stakes. If you wish to give your copy greater emotional impact, find out what that talisman-like symbol is, and create mental images that take advantage of that symbolism. Examples of this abound, but perhaps the most famous is Michelin’s tagline:
Before this Michelin ad, no one really cared about small quality differences between tire brands. The “wallet picture” imagery Michelin employed changed all that.
So while these techniques probably aren’t for beginning copywriters, they are worth thinking about. They’re worth practicing. And — if and when you nail it — they’re worth using.
Many have probably already seen this video of Taylor Mali’s slam poetry classic, Totally Like Whatever, You Know? But how could I not reference it after my previous post on passionate copy. So here it is — enjoy: