Speculative Fiction and Engagement Marketing

I think it’s fair to say that speculative fiction has been hitting the “convincing people to vote for stuff using futuristic means” trope for a few decades now. From stories about voting how to kill people (or whether or not they should be killed) to more contemporary pieces about putting oneself up on the internet and taking votes and commentary on one’s entire day, the very concept isn’t exactly new.

However, as often happens, reality is outstripping fiction at an alarming rate. How long can you go without someone on your Twitter stream or in your Facebook friends list asking you to click something, retweet something, or vote for something?

The real question is: how often do you actually do it?

I VotedCase in point: about a week ago, I submitted an entry to the American Gods contest, whereby regular people like you and me can audition for a role in an upcoming audio version of the book. (If you’d like to hear my entry, here it is.) The first round is open to anyone, and the winners of that round must garner the most votes from friends, family, and other folks they can convince either of (a) their narrative awesomeness or (b) their vote-worthiness. The 20 top vote-getters move on to round two, which I believe means that Neil Gaiman himself listens to their auditions and selects an indeterminate number of winners to actually appear in the publication.

One might think that, with my nearly-300 Twitter followers and 430-ish Facebook friends, I’d have at least 100 votes by now.

As of this writing, I have 23. I’m about 310 votes behind the #20 person (according to the 4/20/11 leaderboard). The odds of me overcoming that deficit aren’t all that great unless I manage to get retweeted by someone with about 10,000 followers*. I mean, my mom can only vote once a day, and the first round ends May 2.

So why isn’t this working like it does in fiction? Why can’t I just blast out a message and have people flocking to my URL to log in?

Let’s look at engagement marketing (what people sometimes call “viral marketing”). Engagement marketing is the concept of getting people to participate in the marketing of a brand. Thing is, I don’t really have a brand. If you’ve read my fiction or heard me perform an audio story, or you enjoy my articles and reviews here on the Escape Pod blog, you may have some passing knowledge of who I am**. Otherwise, my personal brand, as far as you know, is just this guy asking for you to vote for him.

Sometimes that’s enough — every now and then a co-worker says “oh, by the way, I voted for you”. To them, my personal brand is “the guy who gets the work done fastest and most accurately”, and I’m trading on that as hard as I can. I can engage my co-workers using that brand. But beyond that, yeah… just “that guy”.

There are more than six billion “that guy”s*** on the planet. “That guy” simply isn’t enough.

And that, I think, is one of the major reason people don’t vote for their friends or people they see posting calls to action on Facebook and Twitter. There’s just not enough engagement.

On a macro scale, my day job is in digital advertising, and I see this a lot: companies ask potential customers to engage with their brand by liking them on Facebook. The thing is, more and more articles like this one are saying that that doesn’t really create brand engagement. I mean, I like plenty of things, but I don’t Like them on Facebook because, to be honest, all a Like means to me is more spam in my feed. There’s no value.

Just like there’s really no value to being “that guy” and asking someone to vote for you for some random contest. I don’t bring anything to the table for you, and you don’t benefit. I’m not going to give you money or free gifts for voting. You’d be doing it out of the goodness of your heart.

Some social media short-stories (including one I can’t remember the title of right now, but may have been by LaShawn Wanak) focus on people who do have something else that benefits the voter. And of course there are those stories that are about sex, where sex is the benefit — seeing it, experiencing it, etc.

Much to my regret, I am not sexy and cannot offer that as a benefit.

While speculative fiction gets a lot of things right, I believe that “getting people to vote for stuff” trope will continue to live on in the fictional realm. As we become more and more social online, the concept of engagement marketing will continue to evolve, and if Moore’s Law is any sort of a predictor, the concept of clicking the Like button being what marketers consider the be-all and end-all of brand engagement will fall by the wayside****.

But because it won’t actually have happened, the stories will continue to be written. And I’ll keep on reading them.

* Posit 23 individual votes out of 700 friends/followers = 3%. To get 300 more votes, I divided 300 by .03 and came up with 10,000 people being exposed to my message. I’m sure my math isn’t accurate, so please don’t call me on it. I’m just spitballing. And that’s kind of a disgusting phrase, if you think about it.

** And if you’ve heard how effusive Tony C. Smith is in his praise on Starship Sofa, my name might stick a little more. Every time he introduces me, I blush a little — I’ve never been good at taking compliments.

*** For the purposes of this example, a girl can be “that guy” too.

**** So, how did I do? Did I successfully camouflage a “please vote for me” message in a piece about speculative fiction and present-day marketing? Did my brand engage you enough to get you to cast a vote? Or am I going to have to write an article about site registrations and barriers to entry? Because I totally can. Don’t think I can’t. Hey, maybe that’s my next story idea — vote for me to prevent me from doing something. Might be something to that…