An interesting post at MarketingProfs compares some of the principles of improv comedy with aspects of marketing (and the idea-generation process so critical to it). Though I’m more of a stand-up (comedy) guy myself, I certainly get what the author is saying.
But the post made me take an even broader view of marketing and the way it has changed in the last two decades. We’ve heard plenty about things like one-to-one selling, consumer control of channels and content, the “relationship” aspects of social media and interactive. To me, here’s a simple way to describe what’s happened.
Up until about 20 years ago, marketing was a lecture. Sometimes it was an interesting one, of course, but more often boring, and occasionally just awful. But basically, the advertiser (through a commercial, print ad, whatever) was the lecturer, and consumers were the captive audience in the lecture hall.
Today, the whole business of marketing no longer works in the “lecture” model. College students may not always have a choice about sitting through that lecture (though I seem to recall finding better things to do on a few occasions myself). But in the real world, you don’t have to sit through anything you don’t find enjoyable. So marketing that is not enjoyable has no chance.
But it’s not enough to think of marketing as entertainment, either. Because a symphony orchestra, play, or musical performance also tends to be a ‘one way’ experience. A rock band or singer may have a little conversation with the audience, but it’s still mostly “I sing, you listen.” And chances are, you came especially to hear that performer or see that play, so you like it.
It’s not quite that simple with comedy. The audience doesn’t just sit back and listen – it evaluates constantly. As a comedian, you are only as good as your last joke. A chain of good ones will build up some support, but it can crash pretty quickly with a clunker or a suddenly tedious topical direction. A singer who misses a high note will still get polite applause. But a comedian has no such net of civility.
Now that’s more like marketing today. If you are a marketer, or an agency working for one, you have NO captive audience. You have to be GOOD consistently. You don’t have to be FUNNY, but you’d better be INTERESTING at least. If you take a wrong turn, correct it quickly or they’re gone forever. You need to sense the feedback you’re getting, and use it to your advantage. React quickly.
One of the biggest laughs I’ve ever gotten in stand-up came when I (known for pretty clean humor) followed a boorish, loudmouthed sports talk show host who had, in his routine, repeatedly used a filthy term that begins with a parent who isn’t your father. As I took the stage, I pretended to look sheepishy left and right, work up my nerve, and simply uttered that same word into the microphone, adding “Sorry, I just wanted to see what that felt like for once.” The audience loved it, and was mine from that moment on.
Situational awareness and calling a quick audible earned me what weeks of writing, rewriting, and practice sometimes did not. If you want to reach today’s consumers on their turf (and it’s ALL their turf) – that’s not a bad lesson.