RELEVANCE FOR EVERYONE
The cynical side of me thinks about OdysseyWorks and reacts, “it can’t scale.” It’s true. They can’t make millions of personalized experiences for the millions of people walking through our doors each day.
But their approach does scale. It scales on the human level, one to one, with individuals learning about the people who matter most in their lives and then sculpting new doors for them. Any time we personalize something for someone—based on what they want to receive, not what we want to offer—this happens. This is the love letter model. It’s scalable to all the people and all the connections in the world.
These human connections aren’t just about love. Building relationships through personalization can be big business, too. Just ask Coca-Cola.
Coke’s “Share a Coke” campaign was their most successful marketing campaign in decades, reversing a ten-year slide in sales. The campaign, which started in 2011, is simple. Instead of each bottle just featuring the Coca-Cola brand, the bottles say SHARE A COKE WITH followed by a name or symbolic title. Share a Coke with Mike. Share a Coke with Dad. Share a Coke with a Dreamer. You get the idea.
The campaign works because it’s personal. There is nothing as personal as your own name. And while it may not be a love letter, seeing your name on a bottle of Coke in a drugstore can elicit the same kind of emotional jolt. It accommodates that deep desire to be seen, to be noticed, to be valued.
It also works because it’s interpersonal. The idea is to share the Coke. And share people do. They buy bottles as mementos for friends of a given name. They snap photos to send to friends overseas. On holidays like Mother’s Day and Veterans’ Day, they buy tons of bottles to honor that special someone.
Coke made a universal product personally relevant to individuals. They made it a vehicle for building relationships. Simple. Brilliant.
There are ways for institutions to use this technique without buying the world a Coke. It just requires that we change the constraints we work from, the starting points for our work. Instead of asking: “how should we script the experience?” we could ask: “What do our visitors most desire? What’s in their hearts? How could we start by getting to know them, and then build an experience based on that?”
Take the guided tour. Like a lot of people, I dread museum tours. They’re often one-way dronefests. I hate the feeling of being trapped in someone else’s perspective, their pace, their stories, without regard for what I care to know or learn.
But Vi Mar’s tour was different. Vi is a tour guide at the Wing Luke Asian Museum in Seattle. When I visited in 2010, Vi launched her tour by getting to know our group personally. She had us all sit down and introduce ourselves to each other. There were eleven of us on the tour, all adults, mostly strangers. Vi started joking with us about our relationships and hometowns while making sure we all remembered each other’s names. She made it clear from the start that we were expected to address each other by name and have fun with each other. She knitted us into a short-term community, connected through the tour together.
Whenever possible, Vi lightly personalized the tour to individuals in the group. She frequently directed information towards individuals in the group based on their background, gender, or occupation, which made us feel like she was customizing the experience for us. At one point, when talking about the Chinese men who had built the railroads in the Western US, she asked each man in the group how tall he is. 5’11”. 6’1″. 5’10”. “You’re all giants,” she said. “The men who built the railroad were only 5’1″, 5’3″ max.”
Vi drew us personally into the stories again and again, asking us to compare our own and our ancestors’ experiences to the stories she told. She went back and forth between empathizing with us and asking us to empathize with the historic Chinese people she was describing. The result was a tour that was enjoyable in the taking and unforgettable afterwards.
Research supports Vi’s approach. In a 2009 study at Hebrew University’s Nature Park in Jerusalem, researchers found that even a few minutes spent learning about participants at the beginning of a tour can significantly enhance visitors’ experiences.
The researchers worked with a guide who had been leading “Discovery Walk Tree Tours” for two years at the nature park. The guide made a simple change to how she started the tour. Before heading out, she asked the tour group: “When you think of trees, what comes to mind?” For three minutes, people shared their own starting points, or “entrance narratives.” The guide asked follow-up questions about each one: “Where did you plant that tree?” “What did it smell like?” Wherever she could, the guide identified a potential link to the tour, saying something like “how high up was that tree house? Make sure to stop me when we get to the Sequoia. There’s an amazing story I’d love to share about a woman who stayed in a primitive tree house 300 feet up in a Sequoia for two years…”
These pre-tour conversations lasted only three minutes. And then, as the tour progressed, the guide would point out these links and re-engage the group based on their personal entrance narratives. On average, the guide would reference three to five of the visitors’ entrance narratives in an hour-long tour.
The researchers tested this approach against a control group—led by the same guide—who started their tour with a few minutes of friendly chatting, but not about trees.
The outcomes of the study were dramatic. The entrance narratives made the tours more interesting, educational, and memorable. Researchers found that during the tours that incorporated entrance narratives, people were much more engaged. They asked and answered more questions, discussed the content more often, wrote things down, squirmed less, even touched the trees more. And after the tours, the entrance narrative groups reported higher levels of enjoyment and learning when reflecting on the experience.
The tour guide didn’t have to dumb down her tour—or even change its route—to make this effective. She just had to start with three minutes learning where her people were coming from, their context for trees, the stories and memories they held dear. She lightly wove their stories into hers. The relevance grew from there.
This principle doesn’t only hold true on guided tours. You can elicit someone’s entrance narrative anytime they walk through your doors. This is a simple two-step process. First, find a way to ask the person what brought them in. Then, find a way to affirm and build on their response. You might provide a special recommendation for something to see or do based on their interests. You might seat them in a particular area, help them take a group photo, or invite them to another event.
This sounds easy. But it’s not easy to retrain yourself if you’ve spent years rattling off your offerings to each new person who approaches the desk. It’s not easy to stop, ask, and listen before you speak.
We build relevance when we learn about people and connect with them on their terms. Many institutions do the first step but not the second. We ask, “what brings you here?” to better understand our marketing effectiveness and relevance outside our walls. But then we forget to build on their entrance narratives. We miss the opportunity to be more relevant inside our walls, too.