Although the odds are pretty good you'll never read a fiction review on this blog, I can't help but tell y'all about J.C. Hutchins' forthcoming novel Personal Effects: Dark Art. It's a supernatural thriller that pits an art therapist at a psychiatric institute against a blind serial killer/patient -- it may or may not be your cup of tea, and the actual content of the book isn't why I'm telling you about it.
The thing that probably will interest you is the way (ways plural, really) J.C. has taken what he has learned through years of social media self-publishing to create a work that goes well beyond the printed page, encompassing digital, mobile and the physical world to create a fully participatory multimedia narrative. In many ways, Personal Effects is a novel custom-designed for digital natives (although J.C. and his publisher may not think of it that way) and it just might offer a glimpse at the future of storytelling.
And the future of storytelling should matter to you no matter what products your company produces or promotes because, as marketers, our success often rides on both our ability to tell compelling stories and our customers' willingness and ability to spread their own stories about their experiences with our brands.
Of course, everything begins with the book itself. Let's assume it's good -- I haven't read it yet, but look forward to digging into the advance copy I received over the weekend (thanks J.C.)
But Personal Effects really gets interesting when it gets innovative. If you aren't familiar with J.C. Hutchins (frankly, I only knew of him through some mutual contacts and from hearing his name bandied about in social media circles), he is a good example of what I have called a "whatever expert" -- someone who is good at what he does and has found a way to succeed at it through smart, effective use of social media. Although Personal Effects is his first published novel, he has been writing for years, releasing his work as free audiobooks and using the web and social media to build a loyal audience.
J.C. isn't a marketer by training or trade, but the digital and multimedia components of his project offer a practical blueprint for any marketer looking to transform their brand storytelling into an active, participatory experience that is fueled by community and optimized for customer-to-consumer word of mouth. Readers can enter the world of Personal Effects in a variety of ways:
- Technology-Fueled Calls-to-Action: Clues peppered throughout the novel and in the killer's personal effects packaged with the novel (e.g., a drivers license, photos, hospital paperwork) drive readers to companion websites, forums, onto email lists, into mobile phone voicemail systems and opt-in text messaging programs and more where they can find and explore additional layers of narrative.
- A Distributed, Online Experience: Readers can get inside the heads of key characters through their social network profiles, personal blogs and Twitter streams.
- Original, Distributable Content: Tapping into his heritage as a popular and well-established podcaster, J.C. has produced an exclusive audio-only novella prequel, as well as a series of YouTube-friendly video promos featuring well known horror personalities.
- Seamless Integration with Relevant Third Party Sites: One of the characters (yes, a fictional character from the book) has written columns for Suicide Girls, a site (some content NSFW) whose readership seems to be well aligned with J.C.'s audience, and there is a planned deep integration that brings Suicide Girl models into the novel's fictional world and provides readers with an additional web-only subplot.
- A Fan Community: Readers can 'commit themselves to the Brink' (aka Brinkvale Psychiatric, where the novel takes place), submit their own artwork for display in the community gallery (a logical tie-in with the fact that the book's protagonist is an art therapist at the Brink) and receive personalized intake paperwork. In other words, readers don't just consume the story; they become part of it.
- Creative, Innovative Influencer Outreach: This is how I became aware of the book in the first place and may bear some of the most relevant lessons for social media marketers. Over the weekend, the mailman delivered an unexpected package, a good-sized box that contained materials that immediately piqued my interest, earned my attention and (true to the spirit of Personal Effects) drew me directly into the fictional world of Brinkvale Psychiatric. Containing not only a reviewer's copy of the book and the obligatory media kit, the package was filled with my personal effects from my own stay at the Brink. Everything was hyper-personalized and it was impossible not to dive in (and just as impossible not to tell others about it -- and last time I checked, that's what influencer outreach is all about.) Here are a couple of photos and you can check out more on Flickr -- but be warned, you're bound to dismiss your run-of-the-mill blogger outreach emails as downright asinine...
So what's the bottom line? J.C. is tapping into the power of digital and the potential of social to turn the lay-back (and some might say dying) act of reading a novel into a fully immersive lean-forward experience. It's equal parts fiction and alternate reality game, powered by a healthy dose of practical Web 2.0 know-how. Followers of pop culture may draw parallels between Personal Effects and the similarly rich multimedia storytelling approaches used to fuel films like Blair Witch Project, television shows like Lost, video games like Halo 2 and even a recent album release by Nine Inch Nails. Brands have occassionally tapped into this form of multimedia storytelling to do cool and interesting things -- see Audi's Art of the Heist, for example. But to my knowledge, this is the first time an author has undertaken something so ambitious in association with a novel -- and it just might get digital natives to pick up a plain old printed book.
Am I gushing? Sorry. It's pretty cool and makes me want to curl up with Personal Effects, my laptop and my iPhone right now.
Barring that though (damn you, workload, damn you), I'd love to hear from you. Which of J.C.'s approaches do you think you can apply to get your customers involved in your brand's story?