This post originally appeared on the Upriver Solutions blog.
Since the first hamster danced, people have been trying to decode the bottled lightning of the Internet meme and how it can be leveraged to spread information widely and quickly. And yet, the concept of something going “viral” wasn’t born with the Internet. The Internet just sped up the process. Good stories have always managed to get around. If you want to share an idea with someone and, in turn, have that person share the idea with others, it’s best to start with a story.
You may have read that seven-year-old Luka Apps lost one of his favorite Lego minifigures, JayZX. He then wrote a letter to the toy company and received not only a replacement Jay ZX but also extra pieces and an excellent note from a very thoughtful consumer services rep named Richard.
“Normally we would ask that you pay for a new one if you lose one of your minifigures and need to have it replaced,” Richard wrote. “My bosses told me that I could not send you one out for free because you lost it but, I decided that I would put a call into Sensei Wu to see if he could help me.”
Sensei Wu is a character from Lego’s Ninjago series. Richard wisely clarifies, both to Luka and those of us reading his letter on the web, that the company isn’t in the habit of sending out free toys to every kid who loses one. Then, appealing to the higher wisdom of the fictional Wu, he replaces Luka’s toy anyway. It’s a powerful investment. Even if the story hadn’t gone viral, Lego certainly would have assured that Luka was a fan for life simply by engaging with him and showing that he matters to the company.
Of course, the whole thing did go viral, because the Internet loves kids who do cute things and companies that Don’t Forget to Be Awesome, and also because most of us probably wish that we could still play with toys all day. (And have tree forts. And complain about nap time but then fall asleep and dream about fantastical things and wake up with a refreshed sense of wonder.)
But it wasn’t just cute kids and cool companies that made this pebble bounce merrily across the social pond. It was also the fact that it’s a great story. You see, Luka didn’t just lose his Lego minifigure. In his letter to Lego, he writes, “My Daddy just took me to Sainsburys and told me to leave the people at home but I took them and I lost Jay ZX at the shop as it fell out of my coat.”
Drama! Intrigue! Innocence lost! Pinocchio has disobeyed Geppetto and absconded to the circus. What a hook!
So, Richard—and, by extension, Sensei Wu—plays his part in the story by doing Luka a kindness and giving him a bit of advice: ”Just remember, what Sensei Wu said: keep your minifigures protected like the Weapons of Spinjitzu! And of course, always listen to your dad.”
Whatever your job may be—customer service, marketing, advertising, public relations—if you spend your days fretting over follower counts and page rankings and how to make things “go viral,” always keep in mind that people love a good story. Ancient humans used stories in cave drawings to make sense of mysteries: “Atouk speared a mammoth! The clan will eat, and with this sacrifice we ensure that the sun can rise in the morning!” Today, we use them in modern crossmedia marketing campaigns: “The sun just came up, and you’ve got to go to work. Scan the QR code in this TV commercial and show your phone to a Café Nervosa barista for a free cup of coffee! Show that sun who’s boss!” We relate to, engage with, learn from, and thrive on stories, from the gods atop Mount Olympus to Harry Potter living under the stairs.
If you want to know more about how to engage people, read a popular novel. Go to the cinema and watch this week’s box office champ. Acquaint yourself with Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey. Spend a few minutes pondering why theater companies still love William Shakespeare, who is long dead, and continue to stage his plays, which are very much alive.
Huffington Post blogger Sarah Medina writes that the Lego consumer services department should “run the world” after the way they responded to Luka Apps’s letter. That would be quite a promotion, but they should certainly be applauded for tapping into something that is at the very core of our humanity: a good story.