5 marketing lessons from “The Walking Dead”

I love zombies.

(Well, that’s not entire true, I guess. I love movies and TV shows about zombies. And I wrote a free ebook about how zombies can help us be more productive. But in a zombie apocalypse, I’d definitely be anti-zombie).

AMC’s The Walking Dead is a great show about zombies and I confess that I’m addicted.

The show is in the middle of a very riveting second season. (I just saw this episode earlier this evening, which is why it’s on my mind and why I’m writing about it right now).

To be honest, very few shows draw me in like this. And as I thought about why that was, I realized that part of it is the marketing geniuses behind the show. Here are 5 lessons we can learn about marketing from The Walking Dead.

LESSON #1: DEVELOP A STORY WITH DEPTH

In The Walking Dead, each character has a detailed backstory and well-developed personality that clearly influences their decision-making. The main character, Rick Grimes, is a sheriff who carries the weight of the group’s survival on his shoulders and he fights to do the right thing… and often he fights just to figure out what the right thing is. His best friend (and main rival), Shane, is a headstrong character who does what he thinks needs to be done to protect the group… (spoiler alert: and specific members of the group). This depth and backstory is true The characters; they all do things that are consistent with who they are because the story was written with some depth.

The marketing lesson: Too many businesses create low-quality products and paint them with a veneer of value, and then try to pump up that value with hype and exclamation marks. Unfortunately, this is a losing proposition for the business owner: The prospects in their sales funnel will do one of 3 things: They will sniff out BS and avoid making the purchase, they will make the purchase then demand a refund, or they will make the purchase, become jaded at the lack of value, and share their dissatisfaction with the world. Either way, the entrepreneur gets little or no money for the effort put in.

LESSON #2: INVEST IN QUALITY

There are bad zombie movies. You can always tell bad zombie movies because the zombies basically look like a handful of people (probably family of the crew members) were told to show up on the set with uncombed hair and wearing tomorrow-is-laundry-day clothes… and then stumble around on the set with arms outstretched. Not so with The Walking Dead. The sets are interesting (such as a big traffic jam or a farm where a major part of the story takes place, or a nearby small town where key events take place) and the zombies themselves are “realistic” (and by that I mean: They are dripping with gore and intestines and you can almost smell the putrid flesh through the TV). I was recently doing some research about the making of the show (because I’m a nerd that way) and learned that all the zombies had to go through a special zombie college designed to make them act like the undead rather than a B-movie version of the undead.

The marketing lesson: Marketing seems expensive and entrepreneurs (especially start-ups) struggle with lots of money going out but not a lot of money coming in. While there are some places to cut corners, marketing and sales is not one of them. A lot of online marketing is somewhat permanent on the web and you want it to continue working for you for years to come. Paying a non-English-speaking writer to keyword stuff an autospun article is potentially going to do you more harm than good.

True story: One company called me up because their business had been hurt by exactly this situation. And now whenever someone types their name into the search engine, they see the business website in the first spot and the rest of the 9 search results are totally nonsensical articles “about” the company. We’ve been working together for a while to chip away at that situation. Unfortunately, they initially traded value for volume and we have a lot of work to do.

Hey, I’m not saying that you should spend a fortune on marketing. Heck, my YouTube videos aren’t going to win Academy Awards for production excellence. (I made a few different types to test and see what kinds of video I’m interested in doing and whether the effort to create a video is viable). You need to pick a few marketing channels that work for you and do them well.

LESSON #3: DON’T BE AFRAID OF CONFLICT. JUST MAKE SURE IT’S THE RIGHT CONFLICT

.
In The Walking Dead, there is a lot of conflict. But if the conflict was ONLY between the group of survivors and the undead, the show wouldn’t last that long. It would be better off as a movie about survivors who stand off against zombies. But that’s already been done… most frequently by George Romero. Instead, the show sustains its entertainment value by showing the conflict between different people.

In your business, it’s okay to embrace and highlight conflict but make sure that you are an advocate on the side of your prospects… and highlight the conflict or pain that your prospects feel because they don’t own the product or service you sell. (Check out related blog post: Why you should annoy your prospects to grow your sales funnel).

LESSON #4: SURPRISE

In a lot of movies, you never really feel the tension that the director wants you to feel because you know that the main characters are going to turn out okay. They only SEEM to have skin in the game but you know they will come out relatively unscathed. In The Walking Dead, key characters are killed off fairly frequently, which disrupts the viewer’s complacency and helps them feel the level of anxiety and disruption that the director really wants to achieve.

The marketing lesson: Please don’t kill anyone.

Just joking, there’s a better lesson than that: Surprise your sales funnel contacts. Surprise your target market to capture attention and turn people into leads. Surprise leads with bold headlines that promise big, true benefits but also shock them a little. Surprise leads to turn into prospects with an avalanche of value. Surprise prospects with bonuses, freebies, benefits, and value. Surprise customers with fast delivery, great service, and even more value than you promised. Surprise your ongoing customers with additional benefits that they never would dream of getting from any competitor.

LESSON #5: TELL A STORY AND KEEP PEOPLE HANGING ON SO THEY COME BACK FOR MORE

There are really two kinds of TV shows out there: series and serials. A series is basically a show where each episode is a standalone episode. (Law and Order is all about this). You could theoretically watch a series in almost any order and it would barely matter. But a serial, which is what The Walking Dead is, is a story told in order. And at the end of each episode there is usually some kind of cliffhanger. It’s not always a cheezy cliffhanger (like the ones where Batman and Robin were tied up in the Riddler’s lair and you had to tune in to the same bat-time and same bat-channel to find out if they escaped). In this serial, you sometimes are left with an action cliffhanger (will Rick and Herschel get out from being pinned down by gunfire?) but sometimes it’s an emotional cliffhanger (what will happen to the group now that this key character died?)

The marketing lesson: All marketing should have cliffhangers to compel the sales funnel contact to keep moving further and further into your sales funnel. Your marketing efforts should never fully be resolved on their own; they should have an explicit or implicit call to action that pushes the reader to move forward for further resolution.

I love zombies and I love The Walking Dead. Even if you’re not a fan of the undead or AMC’s take on the undead story, there are still some valuable lessons we can learn from all that shuffling and moaning and stumbling around.

Aaron Hoos

Aaron Hoos is a writer, strategist, and investor who builds and optimizes profitable sales funnels. He is the author of The Sales Funnel Bible and he's a real estate investor and a copywriter for real estate investors.

2 thoughts on “5 marketing lessons from “The Walking Dead”

  1. That is one of the things I love about you Aaron, you’re able to look at anything and pull a marketing analysis out of it. I still use the example that I got from you regarding Country Style pulling customers away from Tim Horton’s

    :)

    Regarding your Videos As you know I’ve been slow (read scared) to start using video (well making them anyway).
    Have you monitored the results as far as traffic is concerned?
    I for one have never seen YouTube as a referrer but perhaps I’ll get a move on here soon!

    1. Haha, thanks for the comment, Warren!

      I’d love to know if Country Style’s campaign was successful. It’s a great idea, in my opinion, but Tim Hortons is such a strong, magnetic brand that it’s hard to see Country Style winning customers for the long-term.

      Video: I was scared of video at first, too, which is why I decided to shoot a couple of crappy videos on my Blackberry and on PowerPoint to see what it was like. The first few were awkward and I reshot them a dozen times each. (Yes, the ones I posted were the best of the batch; hard to believe). And the first ones took a loooong time (even if you don’t count the reshoots). But as I got comfortable with it, I realized a few things: They were A LOT of fun, they didn’t take so long once you got used to it, and it’s a great medium for some topics and not for others.

      You already record podcasts, right? (I think you do… you read your blog posts, right?). So why not start by just doing the same thing in front of a video camera?

      Here’s my advice: Why not plan to shoot 2 or 3 videos… as a dress rehearsal. Spend the time to write a script, record the video, and edit it… but don’t ever plan to post those 2 or 3 videos. That will alleviate the “fear” of videos and show you what it’s like. If it turns out that you like doing video, then think of those first view videos as a dress rehearsal and plan to post new, better videos later.

      YouTube Traffic: I haven’t seen a lot of YouTube referrals of any significance but that’s only small reason why I recorded the video. The other reasons are: My clients are increasingly asking for me to contribute script content for their videos so I need to understand the process. Plus, I have a joint venture related to video squeeze pages and I really didn’t know enough about video so I wanted a quick-and-dirty education. But most significantly, my business model is different than yours: I (of course) love traffic to my website but my business model isn’t dependent on traffic to my site because people hire me who have never seen my website. So video still works for me as a positioning tool even if it’s not a site-driving tool. I realize it might be different for you. But those are my thoughts on YouTube traffic.

Leave a Reply