Buzz

Storytelling, Virality

What marketers can learn from urban myths.

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Tom Kuplic

Did you hear the story about the guy who woke up in a bathtub of ice after taking a sip from a drink from a stranger, or the one about the businessman who found a disturbing note scrawled in lipstick on his hotel room’s bathroom mirror?

Urban myths might not be the first place you look for insights to your brand’s success, but can you think of another example of stories that have a better ROI formula? What other storytelling vehicle can spread a message so widely, so quickly, and with such an impressive viral effect?  We can gain incredible insights for brands by looking at those urban myths that we cannot help but pay attention to and that we cannot help but retell.

The two stories above are among the most successful urban myths of all time. They are stories with obscure origins, with characters just out of reach of verification, and plots and scenes that are familiar, yet shocking enough to ensure they will spread. It is not by accident that some of these stories become urban myths and others fizzle out. And for marketers looking to learn how to get people talking about their brands, urban myths give a great insight into the key directives that determine the viral success of urban myths.

Be Familiar and Approachable

Urban myths always start out with: “A friend told me about this guy”¦.” This line is extremely important because it establishes a closeness to the origin of the story. Folklorists have called these stories “FOAFs”, short for Friend of a friend stories.  This proximity is just close enough to make it sound credible because the people are almost like you and people you almost know. The story itself is also just banal enough in its beginning to sound perfectly plausible. “The guy was having a drink one night at a bar in midtown when he ran into this really attractive woman”¦”

Be Relevant

The stories that get retold are the ones that are the most relevant to the everyday activities of people within a specific group. More often than not it is a relevant context that triggers someone to share an urban myth.  They are in an environment where people are sharing stories or observations that are related to the urban myth. The “kidney heist” story is almost always told in the context of friends regaling each other with drinking stories with bad endings. Within that context, a person is triggered to start, “That reminds me of this story a friend told me”¦”

Be Surprising

A story that begins like any other tale of a night out on the town shifts radically to a new scene that is shocking and surprising. Any good urban myth must avoid extremes while still being shocking enough to stand out. If the shock of the story makes it no longer relevant to the audience, they will be lost. At the same time, a story that doesn’t stand out won’t be memorable. This is where a team of creative folks can help you strike the right balance so you and your brand can stand out and still propel people to action.

Be Clear on Action or Moral

This is the big “So what?” of every story.  It is also where most stories fail and why most urban myths succeed. If the listener needs to search for the reason this story is being told, they will never know why they should retell it, and they will never know in what context, with what group, it should be retold.

The key to great stories is that the surprise ties together things you already knew with an insightful twist you hadn’t expected, and the call to action that follows is clear. The call to action of most of the urban myths I mentioned in this post is clear:  Be careful of the strangers you meet or something bad will happen to you.

The call to action is successful because it is simple, it is relevant, and delivered via a surprising twist. And the warning is always delivered in a context of fear that appears critical to the moment.

Now What?

By looking closer at urban myths, we can see the core questions we should be asking about our brands:

Are we relevant to the everyday life and activity of our core audience?

Where and when is it most likely that they would be talking about us?

What can we say/offer that nobody else can say/offer in a way that will make people take notice?

Beyond incenting purchases, how are we making ourselves so memorable and relevant to people’s lives that they can’t help but talk about us?

When there are clear answers to these questions, your brand is on the right path to being talked about with the fervor and passion of the best urban myths.

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