Recently, writing about the death of the incomparable Capt. Lou Albano, journalist Phil Reisman with The Journal News wrote: "Somebody once said that to understand America, you have to understand pro wrestling." If you're looking for the quote, it's inexplicably now removed from his story. Maybe his editor didn't agree with that statement from "somebody," but Phil thought it sounded about right, and I concur.
If we buy into the fact that corporate America needs to understand popular culture to really be able to relate to its audiences and communicate effectively—Grant McCracken's idea of the "chief culture officer" that I wrote about last week—then what better place to start than pro wrestling? It's very existence feels like an anomaly, with fans loading arenas by the thousands and gathering around television sets by the millions to watch (primarily) men performing the illusion of one-on-one sporting competition, while most fans know that what they are watching is for show.
I've spent most of my life watching pro wrestling. I wrote my honors thesis at Western Kentucky University on understanding the business model of World Wrestling Entertainment, studying how and why fans engage with the show at live events and how wrestling demonstrates shifts in American masculinity over time. I taught classes at WKU and at MIT on the cultural history of pro wrestling, the latter of which World Wrestling Entertainment partnered with me on. And I've even participated in quite a few pro wrestling shows myself, playing the self-involved owner of a small-town Kentucky wrestling promotion who found greater riches on the East Coast.
Through that work, I've found wrestling often acts as a carnival mirror to our culture, stretching and magnifying the underlying fears, prejudices and tension points amongst us. However, I think wrestling provides all sorts of learning that corporate America should pay attention to as well. So, without further ado, here's a list of what we as corporate communicators can learn from the world of professional wrestling:
- An Appropriate Level of Spectacle Is Crucial: In pro wrestling, steel cages are always 15 feet high. Tall competitors are nearly 7 feet tall. Crowds are always "hanging from the rafters." Wrestling shows pull out all the stops to make their shows as dramatic as possible. On the other hand, wrestling promoters can't overdo it. Case-in-point: the now defunct-World Championship Wrestling put on a live three-hour television show every week, with the announcers constantly proclaiming it was "the biggest main event in the history of the show." Eventually, nothing they did could feel special anymore. While corporate communicators may not want to be so guilty of exaggeration and hyperbole, big events should always be conducted with a dramatic flair. However, it's also crucial to save that drama for the particularly "big" moments (in the case of the WWE, big pay-per-view events like Wrestlemania) so that it will be truly effective.
- Humor and Charisma Always Make a Connection: Many a wrestling villain has suddenly become a hero because of his gift of gab on the microphone. Even when audiences don't want to, they often can't help but be won over. Likewise, many wrestlers pushed to be fan favorites, or "faces" in wrestling parlance, are met with silence if they don't have that natural connection. Corporate communicators have to value that human connection and cannot underestimate the importance of wit, charm and authenticity. As they say in WWE, the best performers are those who "play themselves, with the volume turned up."
- Create a Serialized Connection with Your Audience: With the WWE, every experience seems to be pushing to the next one. The television show promotes the pay-per-view event. The PPV pushes fans to interact through the Web site. Add in the DVDs, the video games, the magazines, the books, etc. Each experience is designed to be satisfying in and of itself, but it's always pushing the audience for deeper interaction. In short, there is no one-off campaign; the experience is most successful when the wrestling promotion focuses on developing a long-term relationship with the audience.
- "Shiny New Objects" Don't Last: In the "old days" of regional wrestling, big attractions like the 600-plus-pound Haystacks Calhoun would be brought into the local promotion on rare occasion. Anytime a promotion tried to use these gimmicks as a full-time draw, though, audiences quickly tired of seeing something just because it was new or different. Companies must learn the same. Sales gimmicks, bold statements and new digital platforms may gain some momentary interest, but if there's no deep thought, skill or strategy behind it, the interest will wane quickly.
- Your Audience Uses You as an Excuse to Build Community: Wrestling promotions thrive on a regional level by bringing local fans together as much to talk to one another as to watch the show. National wrestling promotions like WWE draw on this by encouraging fans to see themselves as a group and connect with one another. Similarly, companies have to think about how their brand and their products resonate in people's lives and act as fuel in their relationships.
- Your Audience Is Always Performing: My research has found that wrestling fans almost always openly indicate they know wrestling is scripted, yet many of them come to arenas to perform as if they are sports fans watching a legitimate competition. Coleridge called this element of theater "the willing suspension of disbelief." As a performer at pro wrestling shows myself, I've often been astounded by the performers in the stands, those fans who often get so into their roles that they put those of us "on stage" to shame. As brands listen to what their audiences are saying online, it's important to always be cognizant that anyone writing or speaking about your brand or your products are performing and trying to draw an audience for their own purposes.
- Take Every Opportunity to Listen to Your Focus Group: WWE kingpin Vince McMahon has famously said that he didn't need to conduct focus groups because he had his focus group in the arena several nights a week. While wrestling fans will widely debate just how much Vince listens to his "WWE Universe," that sentiment is crucial for brands to think about: especially in a digital age, there are more opportunities than ever to listen into what audiences are saying about your brand and the topics that are important to you.
- Your Audience Will Tell You What They Think: Wrestling fans aren't shy. WWE fans are famous for chanting "boring" when their attention fades even a little. Fans of Philadelphia-based Extreme Championship Wrestling regularly chanted "you f***ed up" anytime a wrestler botched his performance. Brands who have active audiences online have probably learned the hard way how often passionate customers will tell everyone around them, and the brand, what they think. The key is to understand that this feedback is crucial and, if anything, should be encouraged, if your goal is to develop a long-term and transparent relationship with your target audiences.
- Don't Ignore Surplus Audiences: Wrestling has alternatively been seen as programming for male children, teens and adults through the years, but its draw has always expanded well beyond the target demographic of the day. The WWE has had some success moving with cultural trends and capitalizing on a rise in female fans, Hispanic viewers or international audiences over time. Likewise, brands should never become so focused on one niche that they ignore significant new opportunities.
- Listening Could Lead to New Business Models: For years, wrestling fans recorded weekly television shows in their area, archived them and traded them with other fans across the country. Over time, the WWE took note of this interest and built a business model around it, buying up the archives of the wrestling promotions of yesteryear and building DVD releases and a subscription-only video-on-demand channel based on this massive backlog. The lesson for all brands is that audiences are often vocal about new products or modifications they need, and the most successful brands are the ones who listen closely to those needs and seek to address them rather than admonish or discourage innovation or modifications from their customer base.
In partnership with the ARF
Sam Ford is a research affiliate with MIT's Convergence Culture Consortium and Director of Customer Insights for Peppercom, a PR agency, in their Manhattan office. Ford was previously the Consortium's project manager and part of the team who launched the project in 2005. He holds a Master of Science degree in Comparative Media Studies from MIT (2007) and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Western Kentucky University (2005), where he majored in English (writing), news/editorial journalism, mass communication, and communication studies, with a minor in film studies. Ford has taught courses on professional journalism, pro wrestling, and soap operas at MIT and WKU and has published work on these and other areas of U.S. popular culture and television. His work focuses on media audiences and immersive story worlds. Ford has also worked as a professional journalist, winning a Kentucky Press Association award for his work with The Greenville Leader-News and publishing a weekly column entitled "From Beaver Dam to Brooklyn" in The Ohio County Times-News. He also blogs for Peppercom's Pepper Digital. Follow him on Twitter @sam_ford.
In partnership with the ARF