Sunday, May 27, 2012

Sunday Night Live

In our dizzying world of text messages and virtually constant electronic connections, people still crave live human contact. Perhaps now more than ever. And that’s an important lesson for marketers.

My wife, Ellen, and I spent the afternoon in Ann Arbor, Michigan enjoying a paddleboat ride on the Huron River and working up an appetite. So, we headed to South Main Street for a meal at a sidewalk cafĂ©. Afterward we strolled over to Kilwin’s so Ellen could grab an ice cream. I would only taste it, of course. And to our surprise, there was a show in the window. One young woman crafting waffle cones and the other making caramel and peanut butter fudge on a chilly slab of white marble. It was quite entertaining to watch scrumptious delights handmade the old fashioned way. And people stopped on the sidewalk to enjoy the artisans at work.

We went off looking for a cup of coffee and stumbled across two street entertainers near the corner of South Main and East Liberty. On the east side of Main, a mime performed, a delightfully cute woman in a white bobbed wig and white face mesmerized pedestrians. People stared and then dropped a buck or two in her beaded basket.

But across the street in front of the now shuttered Parthenon Restaurant was the main attraction. Twenty or thirty people formed a semicircle around a willowy character, a tall, dark Ichabod Crane of magic man. His name is Alexander the Magician and he says he’s performed his street show around the world, from France and Italy to Tunisia in the Arab Spring and New Orleans, Louisiana.

Alexander captivated families, young couples, toddlers and seniors with his slight of hand. His close-up magic was flawless and he involved a number of volunteers including kids. At the end of his 45-minute act he passed a hat.

“How much money do you typically get?” I asked.

“Enough,” Alexander replied. Enough for him to work about two days a week and make a living. He’s been plying his craft as a street performer for 10 years. After attending Central Michigan University and the University of Michigan, Alexander earned degrees in Philosophy and Drama. And he’s proud to work for himself.

“So, you’re an entrepreneur,” I declared.

“I’m a free man,” he replied.

Besides his magic, which is genuinely impressive, Alexander’s ability to grab audience attention and hold it in the midst of a bustling urban community speaks volumes. No microphone, no lighting, no set or staging other than a few props like coins, handkerchiefs, playing cards and dollar bills. He had people smiling, laughing, gawking, clapping and cheering for 45 minutes. The audience was eating out of his hand. And then they dug into their pockets and paid him for a show they never planned to see. One guy came by five minutes after the act ended to drop a couple bucks in the hat because he had stepped away to take a phone call.  

Alexander’s act occurs spontaneously when he finds an open corner where merchants and proprietors will allow him to perform in front of their establishments. He calls out to people as they pass and the show begins. Soon the crowd gathers.

For a few minutes, the pressures of the world melt away. No signs of a bad economy. Just priceless moments with awestruck little kids and parents laughing out loud. Not via text, but real belly laughs.

You can find this talented guy at and you might stumble across a video of him on YouTube. But it’s nothing like the real thing. He’s available for hire.

Ironically, amidst the explosion of Web advertising, marketers have discovered that the best way to really reach people is through experiences. And experiential and guerilla marketing are gaining importance. Market research demonstrates that people will spend 15 to 30 minutes engaged in a brand when their invited to participate in an experience. It’s the value of a test drive, a taste test or an open house or plant tour.

So, if you’re looking for a little magic in your marketing, get up close and personal with your audience and put on a show. They just might fill your hat with dough.

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