I am a huge fan of the TV show Lost.  The writing is brilliant, the plot is both engaging and unpredictable and every episode leaves you wanting more.  What else could you possibly ask for in a TV show?

What has been equally impressive to me, in addition to the top-notch writing and plot, is their effective use of social media and viral marketing programs to generate buzz.  The show’s marketing is an excellent example of not only the effective use of social media but also of the use of multiple marketing channels to build and maintain a loyal community.

Getting Lost:

If you have never seen Lost, the program chronicles the lives of the survivors of Oceanic flight 815.  815 is a flight from Sydney Australia to Los Angeles, CA that crash lands on a mysterious and supernatural island somewhere in the South Pacific.  While there are no “typical episodes”, most focus on the survivors lives on the Island while featuring a secondary plot that is focused on an individual character during another point in their life (note to newbies, time travel is a big component of Lost).

Lost has leveraged the passion of their fans to launch several cross-media promotions including a Lost Magazine, 4 novels (one, called “Bad Twin“, was credited to Gary Troup (an anagram for “purgatory”), a survivor of Flight 815), as well as a series of alternate reality games, Mobisodes, podcasts and viral videos.  One example was a video released by the show’s producers that provided a clue to one of the shows biggest and best kept secrets:

One of the aspects of the show that has captured the speculation and imagination of fans is the show’s elaborate mythology.  This mythology has been the driving force behind hundreds (if not thousands) of viewer created sites and blogs focusing on  theories and speculation on the Island’s past and the outcome of the show.  Sites like DarkUFO and “The Numbers” not only feature fan discussion forums but also include user generated podcasts and videos, fan fiction, episode summaries, photos, spoilers and much more.

The marketing was effective because it leveraged the passion of loyal fans and multiple marketing vehicles (both print and online) to build an active community.  Below Damon Lindelof, Executive Producer of Lost, talks about some of the innovative marketing and effective use of multiple forms of media to generate buzz for the show.

While you probably don’t have an ABC-sized budget to to drive your marketing there are some great lessons from Lost that marketers should consider as they develop their marketing programs.

Marketing Lessons from Lost:

1. Know your audience and empower them:

Success in marketing, especially in social media, comes from having a deep understanding of your audience.  Without an understanding of who your audience is and which vehicle(s) is best to communicate with them can lead to the failure of your program.  The producers of Lost took the time to know their audience up front and to communicate with them through the channels they were most comfortable using.  They also took the next step by empowering their audience to contribute and drive the conversation.  Empowering customers is a difficult concept for many brands to grasp because it goes against the way most of use have been trained to market.  As marketers, we are comfortable delivering messages when we want to deliver them, to the audiences we choose, through channels we select.  Allowing the audience to discuss and market our products and services outside of the guidelines and oversight of corporate marketing can be a difficult pill to swallow.

My good friend Chris Brogan recently wrote a post called “Empowering versus Marketing” where he said “Today, I’m thinking about how empowering people matters so much more than marketing to them.”  As you think about your marketing programs take a lesson from Lost and ask yourself what can you do to empower your market?

2. Don’t be afraid to use multiple channels:

Lately I have been speaking at a lot of social media focused conferences and have been hearing how traditional forms of media are “dead”.  Print is the vehicle that seems to get the most criticism and tends to fall into the “going the way of dinosaur” bucket.  In my opinion, modern marketing is all about leveraging the types of media necessary to engage your audience.  If you follow step one and take the time to know your audience and learn about their preferences you may find that print is the best way to reach them, or you may discover 99% listen to podcasts, you may find that 85% attend a certain conference every year or they all listen to a particular radio station everyday.  While social media currently has a lot of hype and is buzzword of the day for marketers, it’s important to not lose site of the fact that your marketing goals have not changed.  While there are new ways of marketing your products or services, your ultimate goal is still to engage your audience, generate leads, build awareness, drive conversions, etc.  To do that you need to engage with your audience through the channels that they are most comfortable with.  Lost used a combination of print (Lost Magazine, Novels, Messages in a bottle) and digital (podcasts, videos, mobisodes, fan forums) to facilitate a dialog, drive buzz and gain viewers.

As you look at your campaigns ask yourself if there are other channels you can use to communicate with your audience?

3. Identify the influencer’s

Identifying and empowering specific key individuals (or types of individual) can help build your audience faster than mass marketing to your target audience as a whole. This type of marketing identifies the individuals that have influence over potential buyers (or viewers in the case of Lost), and orients marketing activities around them.  A couple of weeks ago I did a webinar with David Meerman Scott, author of New Rules of Marketing & PR and World Wide Rave, and he tells the story of the launch of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios, Orlando.  Cynthia Gordon, vice president of new media and marketing partnerships at Universal Orlando Resort, launched a program to tell the world about the new park by only informing seven influential bloggers.   By targeting and enabling these seven individuals, word quickly spread to over 350 million.  How’s that for an ROI?

Similarly, prior to the debut of Lost, the show producers previewed the pilot episode to more than 3000 at the Comic-Con conference in San Diego.  The demographic in attendance was primarily young technology enthusiasts whom the producers of Lost had identified as influencers for the show.  In addition, the producers launched multiple websites before the show hit the airwaves. These microsites provided limited details on the characters and storyline as well as provided ways to dialog and connect with other viewers.  These tactics were aimed at identifying and empowering influencers who were likely to spread the word about the show and encourage others to attend.

As you are executing your marketing programs ask yourself, who are the influencers of your product or service and have you taken the time to engage them?

4. Take some risk

A common component of some of the most successful marketing programs in history is an element risk.  Marketing innovation is all about stepping outside of what is comfortable and avoiding a natural fear of rejection.

Ironically, a big risk for the Lost producers was empowering their fans.  As the show gained popularity fans began to speculate about the mysteries of the show.  This led to “spoilers” being leaked and distributed online (from WIkipedia: A spoiler is any element of any summary or description of any piece of fiction that reveals any plot element which will give away the outcome of a dramatic episode within the work of fiction, or the conclusion of the entire work.)

Every marketing program contains a certain element of risk and the producers of Lost asked many of the same questions some of my customers asking before beginning a social media program: “Will customer empowerment hurt my brand?” “What if people say negative things about my brand?” “What if we build a site or community online and no one shows up or no one participates?” “What if this doesn’t draw any buzz or achieve any of our stated objectives?”  “Did we target the right people?”  The key for them was embracing the risk and remaining confident the programs would be effective.

After you finish reading this post ask yourself if their are ways you can make your marketing stand out?  What is the competition doing and how can you take it to the next level?

5. Don’t be afraid to give up control

Lost producers encourage fans to build sites, foster conversations and spread the message and by doing this they gave up an incredible amount of control.  They no longer controlled the messaging on fan sites and forums or whether the conversations were positive or negative.  Television marketing has been based on the broadcast model which is the idea that you have one person who has something to say and you want to minimize the cost of having that message reach the most number of people.  As opposed to marketing to faceless masses, the Lost producers said, “we see you as important assets for this show.  You’re our audience and we need to enable you to help make this successful.  We think it would be great to have you join up with one another and discuss the show in your own voice.”

Since season 1 the producers have made it clear that they pay attention to the conversations of fans and take the time to enter into dialog with them.  On several occasions the producers have highlighted fan theories during their podcast and rated them and incorporated fan discussions into episodes.

As you think about your own marketing don’t be afraid to give up control to your fans.  Think about how they can help drive you messaging and create buzz.

What do you think?  Is there anything else I missed that might be good takeaway from Lost?

  • http://samuraivirtualtours.com Anthony

    Thanks Mike, I enjoyed this post. My wife and I really enjoy LOST and are continually considering how to better market our business. This article is a nice mix of two great interests.
    Do you think these principles can as easily be applied to a B2B type company? How might you suggest tweeking these tips for a B2B business.

  • Pingback: Lessons in Marketing from LOST | CaniCule

  • http://blog.socialepisodes.com Mike Lewis

    Hey Anthony, Thanks for commenting! My wife and both work long hours but we also make time each week for Lost. We are dreading the hiatus to season 6.

    Actually, I wouldn’t tweak the tips for B2B. I think they hold up well whether you are targeting B2C or B2B. In my day job I am a B2B marketer and I try to employ these tips where ever and whenever I can. That said, I do believe B2B marketers struggle all of the concepts above because, frankly, most B2B marketers are inherently anti-social. Think about it, we have grown accustomed to delivering our message when we want, how we want and through very specific channels. Because we know the “good” and “bad” response rates for email (for example) we stick with that vehicle, test lists and use it as the primary vehicle for marketing things like white papers and webinars. Because of how how many of us were trained it’s difficult to take risks, give up control, empower our audience and even identify influencers. In my opinion this is one of the main reasons why social media has taken longer to adopt in B2B than in B2C… but I digress…

    Let me provide a quick B2B example of success using the tips above. In my opinion, Salesforce.com is a great example of a B2B marketing company that has effectively employed all the tips above. First, they took a major risk launching their “No Software” campaign in 2000 which helped to define the SaaS software space. This was an incredibly aggressive program aimed specifically Siebel that employed both print and digital vehicles to spread the message. One of the ways they went to market was targeting influncers to help spread the word. In their case it was the early adopters who preached about the cost savings of the SaaS model over typical client-server installs. Second, in 2006, Salesforce.com began to experience a series of major outages and downtime. This led to a flurry of flaming blog posts criticizing Salesforce for a lack of communication (google “gripeforce” when you have a time). They took the time to listen to their customers and responded with Trustforce.com (a round the clock monitoring system that provided real-time updates on uptime). The flaming stopped and customers were satisfied that they were being kept in the loop. In doing this they proved that they were listening and took the time to know their audience. Finally, they have given up control and empowered their audience to contribute to their communities (which are some of the most active communities in B2B) which provide open commentary from users.

    B2C types of businesses (like Lost) often provide the best examples because they have deeper pockets and are marketing to a broader audience. Does this help?

  • http://DCincome.com/blog Gerald Cotley

    Understanding the competition in the field of marketing today will give you some insights that there are some risk you should take in order to be successful.