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Craft "thriller" marketing messages

by Eric McCarty
  • best seller
  • marketing
  • new york times
  • thrillers

Study the Best Sellers list to open the cover of your buyers’ emotions, and you’ll author your own success story

It all happened so quickly. The C-suite loved your presentation and fully funded your campaign. You put all the pieces in place. Your team is glued to Google Real Time Analytics. You hit publish, and . . . flat line. You’re like a team of paramedics staring, devastated, at a 38-year-old you knew would make it. The Defib paddle (your mouse) is still warm in your hand when you have to make the call. No amount of social sharing is going to save this one.  It’s over.

That afternoon the boss is in the conference room with a new Marketing Director candidate. You’ve seen his picture before. It’s the guy who devised the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. You come up with a pretense to circle the office and in your peripheral vision you can see them--doubled over in laughter.

The alarm clock goes off. Thank God. It was just a dream. A very, very bad dream.

Best-Sellers of the past

If you’re still reading, it may be because I tapped a strong emotion. That’s something best-selling authors have known for a long time.

Consider Jane Austen. Her novels were sold by the horse-drawn cart load in a time when marriages were often not formed on the basis of sincere affection. Readers wanted to escape the vice of societal pressures and find true love.

Westerns blazed the trail when fences and roads began carving up the wilderness and our cities boomed. Readers wanted an escape to the Wild West where the sky was big, the people were sparse, and the rules were few.

So what genre is filling Amazon carts in our time? Why? And how can that knowledge keep the marketing nightmares from crawling out from under the bed into reality?

Thrillers dominate

3026 Best Seller pie chart
Thrillers topped the NYT Best Sellers list for a whopping 35 of 52 weeks in 2016. That’s two out of every three books sold.


Are societal factors creating that prevailing appetite?

Publishing industry veteran Shawn Coyne explores this question in his book for writers--The Story Grid.

"[In contemporary media] The granddaddy of all messages we receive is this: WE’RE NOT SAFE. We are told that there are boogeymen at every corner. The fear factory is churning out product like no other time in history."

How does that impact the kinds of stories people long for? Coyne suggests:

"The thriller is all about one individual negotiating a complex world, living it to the limits of human existence, and usually triumphing over seemingly overwhelming forces of antagonism . . . We love thrillers because they reassure us that there is an order to the world and one person can make a difference, have an impact . . . If Clarice Starling can survive having Hannibal Lecter in her head, all the while chasing a schizophrenic serial killer flaying women to make himself a woman suit, we can certainly make it through another day at work."

We’re being conditioned to see danger and obstacles to success everywhere we turn. Think the thriller genre stops with fiction best sellers? Keep reading.

How the thriller trend impacts marketing imagery

Overcome image

Look at the most downloaded stock images in 2015. (The 2016 numbers aren’t out yet.)

  1. Man in workplace using technology
  2. Free happy woman enjoying nature
  3. Determination (pictured, right)
  4. Two young businessmen
  5. Mother and kids gardening
  6. Safety First
  7. Creative Environment

Notice any themes? You’re seeing individuals or small groups free from worry. They’re safe and conquering a brave new world. In each of those images, you’re looking at the last page of a James Patterson thriller. You win. Here’s the message we’re sending: “If you use our product, you’ll be safe from bad foods, car wrecks, unhealthy environments. You’ll be able to overcome any obstacle, be it health or business.”

With our product or service behind you, you’ll win the battle, and you’ll be safe and free from all of your fears.

How the thriller trend impacts non-profit marketing

There is a new trend in philanthropy called “Effective Philanthropy.” In a book by that title, Mary Ellen Capek and Molly Mead—two industry leaders in non-profit sector work—make an interesting point.

"'Effective' philanthropy is philanthropy that has impact. It is philanthropy that succeeds at amassing, managing, then allocating financial and human resources in ways that have the greatest positive impact in the sectors that foundations choose to fund."

Did you notice the similarity between that definition and Coyne’s insight?

Coyne: “We love thrillers because they reassure us that there is an order to the world and one person can make a difference, have an impact.”

Capek and Mead: “Effective Philanthropy is philanthropy that has impact.”

Foundation and non-profit marketers are recognizing that people want to see the results of their donation. Why is that?

As Coyne puts it, we want to fight those things we fear like disease, homelessness, or natural disasters. Non-profits need to show that we, their donors, are tangibly making an impact with our time and money. They need to enable us to be the hero of our own thriller story.

A marketing thriller example: John Lewis’s #BusterTheBoxer

Let’s examine a real world example. The most shared video ad of 2016 was the John Lewis (a London Retailer) #BusterTheBoxer 2 minute clip. At this moment, it’s at 24,814,785 views.

What makes it so “thrilling?”

  • The dark setting - A big city home with a small backyard. Dad is attempting to set up a trampoline for his daughter (Brigette) as she goes to bed on Christmas Eve. Bridget loves to jump. She jumps on her bed in her cramped room. Her posters inspire her – gymnasts, a frog, a dog, and kangaroos--all jumping. A high fence portrays that this family is trying to create a safe place in their treacherous surroundings. Eerie violins. Bright street lights. A fog so thick you could spread it on your crumpets. The low rumble of constant traffic. The notoriously dangerous trampoline, of course, has a safety net. A telephone booth crowds the protagonist’s back yard barrier. The yard has many small trees and shrubs – they are trying to carve out a more natural existence in their suffocating man-made world.
  • The battling hero - Dad fights through the cold, studies the instructions, strains to stretch the springs, smashes his finger as he connects the poles, and single-handedly heaves the heavy structure into position. He stands back to admire his work with a confident nod of satisfaction.
  • The victory - Then the magic happens. Two foxes, a badger, a squirrel, and a porcupine ramble out of the bushes and begin bouncing on the trampoline. A dramatic rendition of the song “One Day I’ll Fly Away” begins. They are flying away from the unnatural, the cramped, the boring. (If the animals seem out of place, consider that 10 percent of proceeds from the campaign went to The Wildlife Trusts.) It ends with a twist, as any good thriller should. Buster The Boxer, the family hound, beats Bridget to the trampoline and frolics in canine ecstasy. The video ends with the text “Gifts that everyone will love.” You just killed two birds with one stone, Dad. (That’s an admittedly inappropriate metaphor, having just mentioned The Wildlife Trusts. I know.)

John Lewis’s underlying thriller message

We live in a dark, dangerous, cramped, monotonous life a million interstate exits from open country. Our kids need stuff we can’t give them. Our pets are sad. But take heart, downcast parent.

We can overcome. We can chisel out a magical haven for our families. We can beat back the antagonist – the artificial, usurping modern life. We can even help save cute wild animals. All with the help of John Lewis.

What this means for you, marketer

Understanding the overwhelming media message of fear helps you tap into your buyers’ often subconscious desires. Understanding the theme of thrillers helps you feed that hunger.

How can you put more thriller into your marketing?

Craft your message with these questions in mind:

  • The dark setting - What struggles are my customers up against? What confuses them, threatens them, or makes their lives difficult? What emotions are they feeling?
  • The battling hero - How do we clear the fog for them? How can we help them make order out of chaos? How do we unravel the mystery? How do we equip them for victory?
  • The victory - What does victory look like? What emotions do they feel when the battle is won? Are there other benefits to your solution? Can you provide a twist? Can you provide a bonus benefit to seal the deal?

It’s time to become the John Grisham of marketing. It’s time to fill the whiteboard, craft a wildly popular campaign, blow up Facebook, and make your CMO fear for their job.

Did you notice that I used some thriller techniques in this blog post?

Oh, and here’s one more statistic. What’s the Best Selling album of all time at over 65 million?

MJ Thriller

That would be Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

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