LOST revitalized storytelling by returning to classical methods and refusing to compromise on its underlying framework. The result was resonance. Audiences not only watched. We experienced. We engaged each other. We can learn a lot about content marketing from the storytelling principles of LOST.
I still remember the evening of September 22, 2004. It was the autumnal equinox, the transition from the hot summer of North Texas to my favorite season of the year. It was hump day, and the first weekend of Fall teased me with its possibilities. Everything about that day seemed positive, until I arrived home from work and one question slapped me in the face.
“Will you watch this new TV show with me that comes on tonight?” my beautiful wife asked. “It’s called LOST. It’s about these people who crash on an island…”
I can’t tell you how many times I have given TV shows a try and just regretted it. “It won’t be any good,” I said. “It’s a glorified Gilligan’s island. It’s not believable. I have better things to do.” The excuses continued.
But her pleading eyes said, “Don’t be your usual cynical self. And besides, this is about us spending time together.”
Alas, how do you fight those eyes and such a sensible plea?
So I sat, with arms folded and a scowl on my face, ready to stockpile my reasons for why this TV show, like most others, was simply a waste of time.
I have never been so glad to admit to my wife that she was right and I was wrong. LOST kept me and millions of others spellbound by an incredible story. Here are the things I believe made LOST great, and how we can leverage those same techniques in content marketing.
If you’re not familiar with J.J. Abrams’ mystery box, stop reading right now and go watch the inspiring TED Talk on the role of mystery in storytelling. In short, the point of the TED talk in J.J.’s own words is that mystery is the catalyst for imagination and that, very often, mystery is more important than knowledge.
Mystery is not just “whodunnit.” Mystery is about leading someone to the edge of where you want her to go, but allowing her to survey the boundaries until she notices the bridge that will take her one step further along the journey.
One of the things that hooked me into watching LOST for the long haul was that the writers embedded clues into the story without even telling you there were clues. For example, when a man shows up among the survivors, there is a question as to whether he was really in the plane crash or is he a sinister impostor who was already on the island. The man’s name is Ethan Rom. “What a peculiar name,” I thought. I wrote down the name and played with the letters until I rearranged them to spell Other Man. This got my attention.
Or how about the middle name of one random character named Charlie Pace, a musician in a band? In one episode, we get a fleeting glimpse of his unusual middle name: Hieronymus. Why go to all the trouble of telling us this is his middle name unless there is a reason? My own research reveals that Hieronymus Cardanus, a sixteenth-century mathemetician, invented the drive shaft. Driveshaft is the name of Charlie’s band. Solving that little mystery only leads to this one: what is so important about Hieronymus Cardanus or the drive shaft?
These are just a few of the simplest of thousands of mysterious clues. Perhaps the greatest is the meaning behind the numbers 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42. These numbers play a tremendous role throughout the series, but like Abrams’ mystery box, he never once opens the box to explain the real meaning of the numbers. That mystery was left for the viewers to solve for themselves. Has one viewer solved that mystery?
Content marketing needs more mystery – more stimulation of the imagination. The most important thing you could ever do in your content marketing is to…
See what I mean? Where does your imagination take you with that question?
Spoon-feed your audience and they may open their mouths. Give your audience the smell of bacon coming from another room where they must get up to follow the scent and you will have them coming to you.
The characters in LOST have depth. They are very real people with heart-wrenching back stories that instill you to fight for their redemption – even when they are murderers, con men, torturers, drunks, addicts, and otherwise insignificant and forgotten by society. Their on and off-island stories are revealed slowly, leveraging mystery, so that you find yourself conflicted about how to feel. One week you think a character is unredeemable. The next, you find yourself in tears over what drove that same character to his villainous lifestyle.
Rather than focus on one particular hero, the writers wanted to focus in depth on many. Damon Lindelof, one of the primary writers of LOST from the very beginning, had this to say about the original intention behind the development of LOST’s characters.
Instead of saying “This is Luke Skywalker’s Journey” maybe we could do it with 16 heroes.
Content marketing needs characters – real people – with which your audience can identify. If you are writing a corporate blog, be sure that your stories are always character-centric. I had the privilege of having lunch with one of Southwest Airline’s content marketing experts, and he was driven by one thing: people-centered stories. A scan of Southwest Airlines’ most recent blog posts reveals the names and stories of scores of employees and passengers engaged in activities loosely centered on the flight experience and tightly woven around interesting and meaningful characters.
Content marketing without intriguing characters is like a cheeseburger without the cheese – it’s missing the most expected ingredient.
Watching Jack fight his demons internally while trying to save the world externally is an experience. As a doctor, he is driven to save lives, but he is faced with more than he can handle. The opening scene of LOST illustrates this vividly as, in the aftermath of the crash, he runs at a full sprint from injury to injury trying to do everything all by himself, all while fighting the voice of his father in his head saying, “You don’t have what it takes.” It is only episodes later that he realizes that he and his newfound friends must “live together or die alone” and that he must lead them despite his father’s debilitating criticism.
If you’re selling a product or service and want attention from your clients and prospects, the temptation is to forget experience and go for the flat, distilled marketing spin that everyone else uses. “Our service is great! Call now!” That’s not an experience. That’s an invitation to an experience. Show, don’t tell.
A customer’s journey is bigger than your product or service and includes an overall experience. Why not engage the customer at all points possible along that journey – before, during, and after doing business with you? For example, at Heritage Auctions, our clients are searching for ways to buy or sell rare and significant objects. We earn our money when the client uses us to buy or sell. But we also realize that this is not the only part of the journey. One of the biggest first steps for anyone who wants to sell a unique and valuable item or complete collection is to have a firm idea of what it is worth. To that end, Heritage provides free access to its auction archives of over 2,000,000 rarities with pictures, video, the price and date sold as well as third-party estimates of value from multiple sources. In addition, you can catalog your entire collection for free, upload your own images, and request a free valuation. This customized software that we provide free of charge is a necessary part of the customer experience – even for those who may never transact real dollars with us. Being a collector myself, I understand the experience of putting a collection together and making sure you know what it is worth.
In one episode in LOST‘s first season, we get to witness Charlie attempt to overcome his addiction to heroin. Overcoming addiction is a common story, but rarely is it or any other story told poetically. Charlie’s addiction is quietly symbolized by a black boar on the island. The first time Charlie tries to take a hit of heroin, a black boar is chasing him through the jungle – symbolizing Charlie’s attempts to escape his addiction. The second time, the boar is dead and being skinned by another character. The third time, the boar is roasting over a fire for dinner. As the once dangerous animal now becomes food, Charlie seizes his stash of heroin and throws it into the fire beneath the boar. Overhead, a moth that has just emerged from a cocoon flies away.
Poetry matters. It encapsulates the story in imagery, metaphor, and sequence that you can easily recall to meditate on the story later. It is a time capsule for the message. And what business does not want its content marketing to become the meditation of its audience?
I don’t always eat cookies, but when I do, I reach for Oreos. I am fascinated by the poetry in Oreo’s content marketing. I will never forget how they created a cookie with Mars-red stuffing and created a content marketing campaign showing the tracks of the latest Mars rover running across the stuffing itself. It instantly made me a fan. Every time I think of Oreos, I smile. I have a good feeling about that brand.
Poetry takes work, but it is work that pays off. If you have a product or service and you want your audience to know it, show them your inner poet.
In Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate, Brian McDonald describes a story’s armature as the underlying message of your story on which every scene must hang. Anything extraneous distracts from the message and should be cut.
LOST is full of invisible ink. It’s armature is The Hero’s Journey. In the episode White Rabbit, Jack is trying to avoid being the hero, but the call to become one is all around him. The specific armature in this episode is the point in the Hero’s journey known as the refusal of the call. At each point that Jack refuses, the scene uses the symbol of water to reaffirm the message poetically. At a key point in the episode, Jack slips over the edge of a cliff and hangs over a dry riverbed – symbolizing what his life will be like if he refuses the call. After being rescued, he discovers fresh water in the valley and returns to others with new hope for survival and his willingness to be a hero.
You need to plan and understand your armature and then develop a story that hangs on that armature throughout that piece of content marketing. Keep in mind, the armature can’t be about you. It’s about the customer.
Think for a moment about all of the content marketing you have digested recently. Which among all those pieces has a consistent message – an underlying armature that stands out? Tough, isn’t it?
What comes to my mind is Evernote. What I have seen of Evernote’s blog and other content marketing is not about the product itself. It is about my need to stay organized so that I can accomplish my goals. Everything I see from them stays on this theme. I get tips, tricks, suggested apps, and promoted offline projects that all stay centered on helping me. As a result, I am a huge Evernote fan.
The LOST Art of Content Marketing
If you want your content marketing to stand out in today’s sea of sameness, these examples mined from the storytelling techniques of LOST should help give you direction. Create a sense of positive mystery to make your audience want to know more. Tell your story through fictional or real-life characters that stand out. Demonstrate (show, don’t tell) an engging experience and pull your audience into it. Use a poetic style to make it easy to remember and reinforce the meaning. Hang everything you say off your armature.
Do these things, and you just may develop a following that rivals LOST‘s.