This week I was on a flight back to New York and when I looked out the airplane window it reminded me of a classic Twilight Zone episode: “Nightmare at 20,000 feet.” That’s the the one where William Shatner plays an airplane passenger who sees a gremlin on the wing of his plane in mid-flight. He tries to warn the flight crew about the gremlin but nobody believes his claim.
Thinking about that episode made me wonder…if there was a gremlin on the plane wing right outside my window, how I’d react. I might explain to it what I was working on. What would a gremlin think about marketing and our digital world? The conversation might go something like this:
Gremlin: hey, what are you doing?
Me (after getting over the initial shock of speaking to a gremlin): Umm, I’m reviewing a marketing plan.
Gremlin: What’s marketing?
Me: It’s what humans do to sell things to each other.
Gremlin: We’ve been observing humans for some time. Our earth scanning shows that there are massive amounts of commerce on your planet. But in recent years humans seem to be doing that more while reclining in their dwellings.
Me: Yes, we call that e-commerce.
Gremlin: What’s the “e” stand for?
Me: Electronic. Most humans are connected through an electronic network, where they can buy things without doing it in person.
Gremlin: Not in person? So humans engage in commerce with people they do not know?
Me: Sometimes. They also buy things from companies they know and companies they don’t know.
Gremlin: Oh yes, companies. We’ve heard of them. Wouldn’t humans be more likely to buy something from a company that they know?
Me: Yes, absolutely. That’s the value of a brand. Most companies spend lots of money to become known, so more people will buy their things.
Gremlin: what do they spend the money on?
Me: Companies spend in a lot of different ways. And these days a lot of money is spent trying to reach people who are searching for very specific things, when they are doing research or ready to buy. In fact, we use technologies like eye tracking to see what messages they are looking at and analytics to see patterns in the data. But ultimately it goes back to the brand.
Gremlin: But if humans don’t know about the brand, why would they care about the message?
Me: It’s complicated. Many people see a little bit of the message, get interested and then decide to learn more which sometimes can lead to a purchase. Or sometimes the message comes in the form of a story. Humans love stories and like brands that tell them stories they care about.
Gremlin: telling stories to get people to pay attention sounds childish.
Me: It’s hard to explain exactly why people like certain stories and are more likely to pay attention to certain messages. But that’s part of what marketers try to do. Also,
sometimes people just like to try new things, so we try to tell the stories to the experimental ones who can influence others.
Gremlin: how do you find influential humans? The gremlin approach is to hang out on airplane wings, look for people who sit in the front of the plane and drink strange liquids from tiny bottles until they fall asleep.
Me: umm, that’s one way but there are actually special tools available to do that. It’s important to find these influencers, but they are rare. Most humans simply go about their daily business and are not that experimental or influential.
Gremlin: why don’t most humans like to try new things?
Me: people are really comfortable with their habits and routines, which makes it challenging to get them interested. But solving that challenge can be exciting, especially using that electronic network I mentioned.
Gremlin: what’s that network all about?
Me: The network connects us all, and is a place where humans learn, get entertained and communicate with each other. We also use it to share personal information and things we’ve experienced with people we barely know.
Gremlin: That sounds dumb and really impersonal.
Me: actually we call it becoming more “social.” Humans love sharing the things they think, feel and see with others — especially with people they do know. And for marketers it is becoming more popular way of getting messages to people.
Gremlin: You humans are strange. Because when gremlins are sharing things and connecting with each other, the last thing we want to do is get a message about some product.
Me (attempting to justify it all): Yes, but with humans the messages can be shown only to the people who like a product or a brand, if the marketer sets it up that way. So it can be very relevant to the person who sees the message.
Gremlin: It’s not relevant if the person is in the middle of sharing or communicating, which is what they’d rather be doing.
Me: Yes, but it gets back to the stories. A great story for a brand can entertain people, connect people and inspire people. And when that happens the brand becomes relevant and people then gravitate to their messages.
Gremlin: I suppose so but it sounds like an intrusion. If it works why doesn’t every marketer create these stories?
Me: I ask myself the same question. What would work better?
Gremlin: Why don’t marketers just tell the truth?
Me (exasperated): You better get off that wing now. We’re about to land.