Note: This piece was first published in December 2006. With the recent LOST finale, I thought you might find relevance in a flash back to the show’s early years.
I am always blown away by the presenters at EPM Communication’s annual Entertainment Marketing Conference, held at the Universal City Hilton in Hollywood*. This year was no exception and the highlight for me was a presentation by Mike Benson, a SVP of Marketing at ABC.

Benson directs a multi-faceted marketing campaign for his network’s hit series LOST and he revealed some of the strategies they use to engage their viewer at an unprecedented level.
For those unfamiliar (as I was) with the series – LOST is the story of a plane crash and the subsequent struggles of the people who survived it on a remote jungle island. Unlike Gilligan’s Island, there’s little humor in each hour-long episode and the plot is laden with unusual events you wouldn’t expect to encounter on a supposedly uninhabited island. In short – a lot of strange things happen. Following the rapidly-twisting story has become somewhat of an obsession for many viewers, and Mike Benson’s team is using that to their advantage.
Here’s just one example – with apologies to LOST fans for the elementary telling of this:
 

  • Many of the strange things happening on the island can be linked to the Hanso Foundation, a scientific research group. Hanso is a fictitious organization, invented by the show’s writers.
  • Oceanic Airlines is a fictitious airline whose Flight 815 crashes at the beginning of the show. All those on the island were passengers on Flight 815.
  • Bad Twin is a real book, published by Hyperion, written by Gary Troup. It’s a novel, but it purports to unveil the “truth” about Hanso Foundation and the terrible things this fictitious organization has done on the island and around the world.
  • Checking at Amazon.com, you read that the book’s author, Gary Troup, was killed in the crash of Oceanic Airlines Flight 815, just days after completing his manuscript. The author of a real book, was himself a work of fiction and died in a fake plane crash.
  • On the eve of Hyperion’s release of their real book written by a fake author exposing the dirty deeds of a pretend organization, the Hanso Foundation (a fictitious company) ran ads in the the New York Times (and other real papers) urging people not to read Bad Twin because, they said, it was full of lies.
  • To counter this, Hyperion (the real publisher) ran ads urging people to “buy the book Hanso doesn’t want you to read.”

Now, before you start mumbling to yourself, consider this – it’s working. The book is a best seller, the series is a smash and there are hundreds or perhaps thousands of independent blogs and message boards all focused on LOST.
SO WHAT?
People are aching to be part of a good story. Success of LOST is more about the engagement it has earned with its audience than it is about a good plot, passable acting and gorgeous scenery. Viewers are drawn to the show because of the great story and Mike Benson’s team at ABC has played off that attraction by allowing the audience to become part of the plot.
You can book flights on the Oceanic Airlines website. You can read Gary Troup‘s tell-all novel. You can buy candy bars (dark chocolate) that reportedly have clues of some kind on the label.
It’s no longer enough to have a good product and great packaging. If your product doesn’t connect with the consumer in some form or another – you’re either history or you’re facing a pretty bleak future.

Awareness is no longer the standard – the new currency is engagement. You must do something to get your customers engaged in the process. Buying coffee is no longer good enough – they have to be able to design it their own way. Buying music on CDs won’t cut it, customers now want to pick and choose the exact songs they’ll buy. LOST has countless more viewers because ABC allows them to do so much more than just VIEW the show.

Exercise:
This is a big concept to get your corporate arms around, and no one will get it right the first time, but doesn’t release you from the need to start thinking about these ideas.

  • Gather your executive team together and read this article to each other.
  • Talk about the difference between awareness and engagement.
  • Talk about brands you know about but don’t use.
  • Conduct a serious audit of your customers and non-customers – how involved are they with your brand?
  • Do you give them an opportunity to get LOST in your product?

 
Until next time – Jim


* EPM no longer hosts the annual gathering, but they do publish a number of valuable research journals, including Research Alert, which I highly recommend.