I’m trying to race through Michael Lewis’ ‘Moneyball’ before the Brad Pitt film comes out later this month. It’s creating a lot of interest in the UK press, like this piece by the always readable Simon Kuper in last weekend’s FT.
Moneyball tells how Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s baseball team, enlisted the help of Paul DePodesta, a Harvard graduate statistician, to use computer-generated analysis to challenge previously accepted factors for choosing players. Together, they transformed the success of the team, and the approach has been adopted across the MLB and in other sports, including by the England cricket team, who now employ a full-time statistician, Cambridge maths graduate, Nathan Leamon, to analyse where best to bowl to opposition batsmen.
All very interesting, but why has a book about statistical analysis become a worldwide hit? Yes its author, Michael Lewis, has a track record with books like Liar’s Poker, and yes, it’s about a sport so would attract a crossover audience. But statistics is an odd subject for a mainstream bestseller, let alone a Brad Pitt film.
Maybe we’re witness to a backlash against spoon-feeding mass audiences entertainment they don’t need to think about too much? Maybe we’re starting to give audiences a bit more credit? Moneyball’s screenplay was written by Aaron Sorkin, a year after his Oscar for The Social Network, a film that attracted huge audiences despite (or maybe because of) requiring them to concentrate for two hours. The film asked the audience to think and fill in some of the gaps themselves.
There’s a lesson here for how to engage with audiences in business. Consumers and customers now find it easier to opt out of direct communication – they skip through the ads on their Sky+, they block pop-ups on their lap-tops, they opt-out of cold calls and direct mail. So brands and businesses are using more indirect forms of communication to reach them, going through third party journalists, tweeters and bloggers, for example. To do this, they have to be more subtle in what they communicate. They develop broader brand platforms and ideas that naturally engage, rather than force overt sales messages that won’t get past the third party, independent filter. And the best of these allow the consumer to fill in the gaps for themselves.
Greenpeace used this to great effect in their DeTox campaign, drawing viewers in with a highly engaging piece of film, but leaving them to work out what was going on. When you let people fill in the gaps, they become more engaged in the story and what you’re trying to communicate.
The alternative view, as The Guardian argued last week, is rather more depressing: “A mind-numbing cultural diet of Downton Abbey, Adele, home-baking, crafts à la Kirstie Allsopp and novelty knitwear is crushing the spirit of the nation.”
Either way, if you think your audience is intelligent and worth investing in, it might be better to treat them as such in the way you communicate with them.