By: Andy Levitt
When I was 16 years old, I landed a great job working for ARA Services, selling popcorn and sodas at The Providence Civic Center. Yes, I was that guy, yelling "Popcorn here!" and "Ice cold Coke", shlepping those tasty treats up and down the aisles to make a few bucks.
My very first gig was an 8-show run of The Ringling Bros Barnum & Bailey Circus, and it was great fun. By the end of the week, I knew the entire script for the show and saw plenty of amazing theatrics. The clowns, the trapeze artists, the way the lions wouldn't attack - it was a fantastic performance with a winning formula. More importantly, I learned how to read the nuances of the audience in order to maximize my sales. After a little practice and a show or two worth of experience, I figured out when I could capture their attention to buy my product, and when they were totally consumed by what was happening above the three ring show.
The other staple event was World Wrestling Federation which rolled into town the last Friday night of every month. Much to my amazement, fans packed the arena to see guys like Hulk Hogan engage in a staged performance, pretending to exchange crushing hits and devastating body slams with an arch enemy. The crowd would be brought to a frenzy, yelling and screaming, fight after fight.
But it was all fake. And most everyone in the audience knew it.
Part of why the circus and WWF are such successful shows is that they entertain by leveraging the human component. These events create the opportunity to engage by connecting the viewer to the experience and the outcome. They enable us to relate to the hero vs. villain concept, to cheer for someone who performs death-defying acts, and most importantly, to be thrilled with the potential of uncertain outcomes. Eyes wide open, curious to see what comes next, holding your breath in anticipation - it's all about hope and excitement.
When I get in front of potential clients and tell our story of word of mouth, I often see a similar child-like, hopeful look in adult eyes. But these folks aren't wondering how I'll perform on the tightrope of the sales pitch; no, they are hoping I show up with something that helps them create a remarkable, measurable and impactful program with a solid ROI for their brand or for their client.
Because marketers and agency folks alike are probably getting a little bored, and feel constrained by their options. They are looking to be entertained, they want to be fascinated by an experience, and they realize they want to make their own 'show' that much more enjoyable. Let's be honest: there's little excitement left in creating or reviewing a media plan, and even less in combing through the reports that show click-through rates on that banner buy. Because there's no human element in that marketing process that relies on human actions for it all to work.
What fascinates me is that the story that continues to be told throughout the organization is that "it's working, so let's keep doing it" - and that's why this starts to feel like a modern day circus.
Now don't get me wrong. It's not that I think word of mouth is inauthentic like pro wrestling. Nor do I believe that our unique service is clown's work. In fact, I know it to be just the opposite.
And here's something else I know...78% of consumers trust opinions of their peers but only 14% trust advertisements? And only 18% of traditional TV campaigns generate a positive ROI! Maybe that's because 90% of people skip ads using TiVo or DVR! (Check out this great video for more stats like this!)
And it's why word of mouth remains the most trusted (and most effective) form of advertising.
The irony doesn't escape me. It's been 25 years since my gig selling popcorn, and it dawns on me that I am still selling in an arena (dominated by traditional media) that has left its audience clinging to the fake and make believe.
Perhaps we're the new greatest show on earth!