This image enthrals me. Why? Because it doesn’t just tell a story. It also doesn’t tell the story: are these two people talking, or have they just met? What are they meeting for? What is that moon-like thing? What does this image mean and stand for? By mentally filling in the gaps, I look at this longer than I would at an image that told the whole story.
I’m sucker for a story. I’m the type of guy who watches the trailer, and wants to watch the film just to find out what happens. Hence I often save myself money by jumping on Wikipedia. I just have to find out what happens, to the point that I almost don’t care about the acting and special effects.
But I’m a bigger sucker for a mystery – and I think that really, that’s just what a good story is full of – continual mysteries, twists and nuances that when you discover and work out what they are, provide an incredible sense of satisfaction. No wonder that Lost is so engaging – it’s so full of mysteries that you just have to know the answers too – and it keeps you hooked week in, week out.
J.J. Abrams, in his TED appearance last year, called this the ‘Mystery Box‘ – which I recommend you go and watch. His premise is that finding out what’s in the mystery box is what keeps the viewer hooked, and the job of the story teller is to slowly describe what’s in the box, revealing a little more each time, without ever giving away the full contents.
I saw a copywriter say on Twitter a few months ago that “every advert should tell the complete story”, to which I wholeheartedly disagree, and I think Abrams would too. Abrams would say that it is the fact that the story is incomplete that compels you to want to see the next advert, and the next one, and the next one. In my opinion, providing the whole story robs you of a great experience asset: suspense.
Using Brand Mystery and Suspense
When I was about nine or ten, I heard about a brand called Nike. I saw some boys wearing these trainers with ticks (what I later learnt were ‘swooshes’), and from that moment I became enthralled with this mysterious brand. Slowly, over the years, I pieced parts of the puzzle together. I learnt that Nike did various types of sport shoe, with different exotic names, and even did a shoe that had some kind of awesome air in called ‘Air Max’. This knowledge kept incrementing as I gathered my information from friends and other sources, correcting my incorrect assumptions, until the wonderful day came when my parents bought me my first pair of Nike trainers. Even to this day there is something apocryphal about that moment – as if it almost didn’t exist, such was the overwhelming significance of the gesture.
Now, of course, I’m pretty up to speed on Nike, and don’t have the same galactic emotions about it. But whenever I purchase something from Nike I do go back to those early teen days and momentarily relive that time of discovery: because that’s what it was, discovery. I was piecing together the parts of the brand mystery, and the fact that I didn’t know the whole story made the process all the more exciting.
That game still gets played today. I went through the same thing with Louis Vuitton (Is he still alive? Are these bags new, or old? Is he a she?). When I started in business, I had the same discover process with learning how to run a business – and experienced the joy when I discovered what ‘ROI’ meant amongst other things. People around the world are experiencing this with Twitter – the first time you work out what a RT is, the first time you get RT’d, and so on.
The secret to this all, as I’ve said, is suspense.
Suspense is the experience of anticipating an experience. It’s a unique thing, because whereas most experience involves some kind of touch point, suspense is all in the mind, and only requires the smallest of nudges to provoke it. In fact, the smaller the nudge, the more hidden the future experience is, can often produce far larger forms of suspense. It is also a longer experience, because it grows in the mind as the anticipation increases. You begin thinking up possible ideas of what the experience will feel like, look like, sound like, etc – creating a mental space all for something that hasn’t even happened yet.
I’ve been creating suspense for years. When you run events, it’s one of your greatest marketing tools, especially if you marketing launch is months or even a year before the event, like I did at the Touch conference this year. Suspense is what makes people come back for more of your online content. Suspense is what people are feeling right now about Like Minds in February.
Some quick takeaways on suspense and brand mystery:
- Make your brand multi-faceted, and don’t explain everything fully at every turn. Hint at things, and let your audience enjoy discovering more about you. This of course, requires you to do this well – otherwise they may just drop off. Where the balance is at is what I get paid to consult on.
- Stage suspense by planing what mysteries will be solved when in your timeline. Whenever you solve one mystery, create a new one.
- You need to manage suspense. It is not an upward curve. Consider that suspense for a film is very high after watching the initial trailer, but then it dips down, until the film posters are in the streets and TV spots come on. Then suspense builds up, and peaks right before the film starts.
- Don’t cause an overdose on suspense. Let the lows be low. Allow time for mental rest.
- Develop the ability to walk through your experience like a complete newbie. Go through your website like you know nothing. Go through your retail space like you know nothing. It’s hard work, but once you get into the frame of mind, it is an invaluable ability.