Commentary

Tell Me A Person

There is nothing quite like teen SMS drama at 1 a.m.

"Dad, Sarah* says she won't fill in for me at work tomorrow after all, so I have to go in. But this is so unfair, and now I can't even get text service." I am not sure that I understand all of the details, so I won't even try to complete the back story here. But my daughter bursts into my bedroom last week in high teen torpor just as I am about to drop off. The formula was simple: altercation with co-worker frenemy, a favor of filling in for my daughter at work extended and then rescinded at 1 a.m., Verizon tower seems to go dead in the middle of a bitter exchange... equals daughter in tears.

But something about my bedroom, which she rarely has cause to enter, has stopped her in her tracks. "Dad, what's with all the 'Little Orphan Annie; and 'Tales from the Crypt' books?" Okay, so I am a little obsessed with the mid-century period in American comics history, and I unwind at night with archives of the old EC comics, Dick Tracy and The Spirit. Doesn't everyone? "You must have 50 books here. Got anything left to pay for my college?"

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This is one of those rare instances where I want to get her back on the teen angst track. It's late, though, so I apply the parental template: commiserate and instruct. "It is unfair. Horribly, terribly unfair. But stick up for yourself and don't let her get away with this."

"But my text isn't working. I can't believe this! ...And who is Buck Rogers? What is a Little Nemo in Slumberland? Dad, you're 51. This is just weird that you read this stuff."

"Can we get beyond Dick Tracy, please? It's a hobby. Here, use my phone to text Sarah." We then get a long cellular comedy of my daughter juggling two phones, instant-messaging another friend, a voice call to her college-aged store manager (apparently drunk at a party) and feverish texting on my phone to the detestable Sarah. Meanwhile, she is mumbling that my comic archives collection is "creepier than a hobby, Dad."

The strange product of this night of teen terror (aside from un-closeting my comics-aholism) is a compelling tale of woe left on my cell phone. At some point in the drama, my daughter's Verizon service reawakened in and she swapped back to her own phone, but Sarah was still sending impassioned messages to her via my phone.

Ordinarily, when my daughter uses my phone I deliberately delete the messages she leaves behind to avoid snooping, but this girl Sarah's missives were popping up on the screen, so I got a dose of them before handing them back over to my daughter. I was struck immediately by how effectively SMS communicates character. In just a few short text bursts, I immediately got a sense of this girl's voice and her family drama (for reasons of their own, her parents were commanding her not to work that day). I actually became curious about this girl.

If I weren't already vying for "creepy Dad of the year" I would have asked my daughter for a bit more back story on Sarah, but she is still having trouble getting over my stack of "Two-Fisted Tales" and "Haunt of Fear" archives she happened upon that night. "Really, Dad. Prozac, ya know?"

What struck me was how little else in my SMS inbox even approached these few messages from Sarah to my daughter. No marketer or media company I have covered has leveraged the real conversational and characterization powers of SMS that our own teenagers demonstrate every day. The half-told back stories, the oblique references to offline conversations and events, the one-word expressions of dramatic (nay, melodramatic) angst add up to remarkably effective narrative hooks because they beckon you to fill in the story.

I know that others in Asia and Europe have tried to create "SMS novels" out of a series of short messages over time, but why aren't media companies jumping at the chance to craft daily stories or character sidelines? I know we have seen reality shows put some of their "characters" on separate SMS feeds to work as parallel commentary on a show, and this is promising. But the best example we have of this short-short form personality theater working effectively are the fictional character feeds now popping up on Twitter. Social media marketing specialist Carri Bugbee became the voice of "Mad Men"'s Peggy Olson on Twitter  and some colleagues picked up other characters from the show.

The brilliance of this simple move should be clear. Rather than use these conversational media to "subscribe" or "friend" or "follow" a media brand, this project lets us follow a person. The combination of short bursts of commentary and reflection with the high frequency Twitter and SMS allow produces a unique character-telling medium. This medium is less about plot and story than perhaps it is about voice and persona and slowly creating a fleshed-out character over time.

Dare I say (and you could see this one coming, couldn't you?) that as a tale-telling device, the 140-160 character platform most closely resembles the comic strip in its frequency/brevity. The serialized comic strip is a character-driven medium that builds in the tiniest four panel increments day by day, over months and years. Perhaps we don't' need an SMS "novel" so much as an SMS Joe Palooka or Mary Worth.

Don't text me a brand. Text me a character. Don't tell me a story. Tell me a person.

* Not her real name

7 comments about "Tell Me A Person".
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  1. Steven Siegel from Brand Networks, August 4, 2009 at 2:13 p.m.

    Steve, comments are dead on as usual. Marketers need to embrace the "personal" nature of mobile. SMS is perfect way to create a character dialog with the consumer so they feel a kindred to a brand. We tried this a few years ago with A&E Dog The Bounty Hunter and sent messages "from" DOG. It worked great. So great in fact we received hundreds of "shout outs" to Dog and his crew. We wound up posting them all to A&E message boards online.

  2. Steve Smith from Mediapost, August 4, 2009 at 2:39 p.m.

    Steven

    Thanks for that. Yeah, I am curious why media especially haven't let users subscribe to "people" rather than "brands." The top "brands" on Twitter are people. Users are telling us something.

  3. Michael Gourzis from Fierce.com, August 4, 2009 at 3:42 p.m.

    Brilliant article and yet more gas for SMS and social media platforms like Twitter and why they will (ok..should) succeed. Frequent ,brief meaningful bursts have an audience.

  4. Brian Moore from Varolii Communications, August 4, 2009 at 4:02 p.m.

    Several of the biggest names in poker were tweeting from the World Series last month. The most interesting was the very engaging Daniel Negreanu who gave his followers a sense of the emotional ups and downs of the million dollar tournaments rather than dry chip counts. In the process, he built his brand even when he got knocked out of the money.

  5. Hugh Simpson from WOW! Presentation, August 5, 2009 at 10:14 a.m.

    Steve, I see a part of the problem is that today and even into the past 20 years or so they have not taught young people how to write with character at the high school or even college level.

    We (I'm 63) were not only taught how to use correct English with the famous Warner Handbook in my high school but also how to take what we learned in that handbook and through reading Dickens, Faulkner, Hemingway, etc. create character in our own short stories were REQUIRED to write!

    Still think you are finnier than Dave Barry!

    Hugh

  6. Thom Kennon from Free Radicals, August 5, 2009 at 5:29 p.m.

    You raise a serious and tricky puzzle for marketers: if our brands don't (can't?) have real stories of their own for us marketers to tell, who (where?) are these persons whose stories we can tell as proxies for the brand.

    Thinking aloud here, but two things come to mind.

    We've already got a model for branded characters or personas, e.g. the Maytag man, Madge the manicurist ("You're soaking in it!...") and more recently "Frank" from Comcast.

    But these stories either exhaust pretty quickly, and are increasingly difficult to infuse with riveting narratives that keep us, as consumers, interested. (Dickens figured out your cartoon serialization power away back when...).

    But there is another way, and it's about our current stabbing into dark marketplace with some level of controlled brand stories released into the wild. Let's call it "social media".

    The best, early examples, are of of people, self-igniting fanboys, who spontaneously bloom into champions because they had a great experience with our products or services ---- and they become, fleetingly, this new persona, our story tellers, of the brand.

    Although they come ready-made with tons of back-story and life narrative, they are only effective when left to be authentic and unmanaged, unruled and, well, wild...we call it 'viral' lovingly but it can turn quickly into one twisted sister.

    The bravery required of a brand to tap into and capture these 'stories' as extensions of their own is daunting. But thrilling. [I just got a chill. Did you guys get a chill?....]

    The results, if we're guessing correctly, can get it even half right and learn how to learn from it, will change product marketing, brand management and corporate identity forever.

    Steve, of course way interested in what you think about all this, but, more importantly: you got any original Spidey in those stacks?...

  7. Steve Smith from Mediapost, August 6, 2009 at 12:40 p.m.

    @Thom

    That is exactly the kind of thinking and experimentation I would love to see brands do more of. There are no easy answers, but looking for some kind of character proxy for a brand, a voice, a storyteller, seems like a puzzle worth solving, at least for some.

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