Getting to Act 2: Customer Engagement Lessons from the Movies
I’ve written about stories as frameworks for customer engagement and their specific applications to product management. I also dig deeper into different parts of the story framework; the first is about the heroes and their needs.
In this post I focus on three of those elements from the Hero’s Journey:
- the Call to Adventure,
- the Refusal of the Call, and
- Crossing the Threshold
and map them onto the customer journey. (I will deal with them out of sequence, because I’ll be writing more about the Refusal of the Call in a future post.)
The Call to Adventure
It’s a necessary milestone in just about any conventional narrative. The call to adventure is what gets the ball rolling after the introduction of the cast and the setup of the plot in the opening chapters of scenes.
“Come with me if you want to live,” says Kyle Reese to Sarah Connor in The Terminator, saving her from the machine that would later say the same line in a different context, and — ah, never mind.
In The Matrix, the Call to Adventure is meant literally: Neo gets a phone call from Morpheus, telling him how to escape the suited agents swarming the office.
And in The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf says it outright to Frodo:
You’ll notice that all three Calls to Adventure are made under different circumstances, mostly under duress. This is not a recommended product strategy tactic, by the way. At this point in The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo has no idea what lies ahead, other than his uncle Bilbo’s “eleventy-first” birthday bash. But Sarah Connor has no choice, since a homicidal android who looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger is tearing up the place. And Neo heeds the call from Morpheus, but balks at the last minute (more on this later) when he climbs out onto the ledge of his office building and decides to turn himself in.
So how does the Call to Adventure apply to customer engagement? In this case, it’s a direct connection: the Call to Adventure should be familiar to anyone with a little knowledge of marketing jargon. That’s the “call to action.” It even has the same initials: CTA.
The Buy Now icons here — just like some of the iconic movie scenes above, no pun intended — are immediately recognizable. They’re so familiar you can practically recognize which websites they come from just by looking at the button.
Iconic in its own way is the CTA of the deliberately jarring infomercial end panel, with a 1–800 phone number and prices (and snail-mail info for check writers), superimposed on a screen saturated with what I call “infomercial blue.”
And for product managers, it’s in the follow-up after the demo, or in the follow-up after sending the customer the proposal. Will our customers join us on this adventure? And before we sound the call to adventure — just like good screenwriters — we product managers would have already explored and understood the heroes’ needs, setting the stage for the heroes to heed the call.
Crossing the Threshold
The Call to Adventure defines the point just before protagonists enter a different world — Campbell calls that moment Crossing the Threshold — outside of the safety and comfort of the world they know. It’s a huge step. For Frodo, who answers Gandalf’s call, this means leaving the protective embrace of the Shire, and into an uncertain world that lies beyond the village’s borders.
A similar decisive moment happens in The Matrix. Morpheus asks Neo to choose between the red pill and the blue pill — probably the single most iconic scene of the film, letting a thousand memes spawn — and Neo’s world is changed forever.
In your traditional three-act novel or movie, Crossing the Threshold is usually the scene between acts, when all the setting up in Act 1 turns into the action-filled journey of Act 2. (Indeed, the Crossing the Threshold scene happens a second time in The Fellowship of the Ring, at the Council of Elrond where Frodo steps up and declares, amidst the squabbling members of the Fellowship: “I will take the ring to Mordor.”) A major plot point, the so-called “inciting incident” — that’s the first little red dot in the three-act structure above — propels the protagonist and the story itself into Act 2.
Crossing the Threshold marks the passage from the Ordinary World into a new one, which — depending on the story — is sometimes fraught with various perils. Ringwraiths. Henchmen with nicknames like Jaws and Oddjob. Dementors. Innocent-looking villagers practicing ritual sacrifice. Invaders from Mars.
But you can apply the story framework to narratives that aren’t just about adventures or quests. That new world that the heroes of the story enter, for instance, can be the terra incognita of parenthood. Or the dating scene, for the newly single. Or high school, or a new career, or a road trip with an annoying stranger. And those dangers they encounter can range anywhere from dirty diapers, scheming classmates, lost luggage, or a horrible boss — and heroes still need to muddle through them regardless.
Crossing the Threshold is when the customer, the hero of the story, commits to that journey with you as the guide.
So how does Crossing the Threshold apply to customer engagement? This is when the customer, the hero of the story, embarks on that journey — commits to that journey — with you as the guide. It marks the customer’s decision to move from the status quo to a new and better experience. It’s a shift from their ordinary world to a place where their problems are solved and their needs are met. After all the setup and introductions in Act 1, Act 2 is where you want to be with your customer.
That customer journey may not be fraught with peril, but there will be problems.
And sometimes, before the story really gets started, there’s an even bigger problem.
The Refusal of the Call
In The Lion King, a teenage Simba refuses to return to Pride Rock and be the rightful king. “You wouldn’t understand,” he says to Nala. “Hakuna matata. It’s something I learned out here.”
And in Star Wars, right after Princess Leia appears as a hologram and tells Obi-Wan that he is her only hope — that’s a big flashing CTA in neon lights right there — Obi-Wan turns to Luke and tells him he has to go to Alderaan.
Luke basically says, “Nope.”
(Let’s give him a break here. After all, Luke’s a kid who only really just wanted to tool around on his speeder bike. And he was probably late for dinner.)
Campbell calls this section of the Hero’s Journey “the Refusal of the Call.” It “converts the adventure into its negative,” he writes. The hero rejects the call out of fear, or obligation, or a mere desire for things to stay the same.
So how does the Refusal of the Call apply to customer engagement? It’s a direct connection as well, and the similarities between fiction and real life end here.
On screen we always see the hero ultimately heed the call, willingly or not.
For after all, the story must go on. (Otherwise, you get this.)
In customer engagement, your customer can refuse the call through any number of ways: by walking out of the store, abandoning the shopping cart, opening a new browser tab, talking to a different company, you name it.
And the story ends.
And that’s something you don’t want to happen.
There’s another crucial difference in the way the Refusal works in writing fiction. The writer milks this refusal for all its worth, because it heightens the dramatic tension. The main character says, I don’t want to do it, or I can’t do it, or I don’t know how to do it — and then the writer ratchets up the stakes even higher with the inciting incident. The protagonist feels like they have no choice but to commit to the adventure and answer the call. Despite their fears. Despite what they think is their best judgement. Despite their disbelief.
It’s the criminal (or detective) coaxed out of retirement to do one last job. It’s the newly-single parent egged on by their children to go dating again, despite experiences that have made them sadder but wiser. It’s the washed-out boxer being told he has one more fight in him if he could only just lace up his gloves one more time.
Of course, in customer engagement you want the opposite. What works in writing doesn’t work the same way in marketing or customer engagement! No customer wants to feel pressured into making a decision. You don’t want an inciting incident; you want the prospect of an exciting one.
Either way, the idea of the story’s “catalyst” — to borrow another plotting term — remains relevant. You want to cause change, in the form of your customer taking a chance on your product to fulfill their need.
Christopher Vogler (whose book on screenwriting is a classic) has a shorthand description of the Mentor, or the Guide, another element of the Hero’s Journey (think: Yoda and Gandalf) and it’s particularly salient to the Refusal of the Call. The Mentor’s role, Vogler writes, is about overcoming reluctance.
So in customer engagement terms: who is the Guide, and how does the Guide do that? That’s the subject of my next piece.
Try this at home
The 10-minute task: Step back and think of a time when you sensed hesitation on the part of your customer. Ask yourself these questions:
- What stops your customers? (Was it because of confusion? Or was there a reluctance to commit because the journey seemed too arduous?)
- What are their fears?
- What are those negative consequences they’re trying to avoid?
The point of those ubiquitous Buy Now buttons is to make the shopping experience frictionless for the prospective customer. So how frictionless can we make that initial engagement?
The 30-minute task: When you did the exercise above, you might have been momentarily afflicted by a sense of panic. Why did a customer walk out? Why did they open another tab? You may say to yourself, All the surveys in the world may never extract that customer feedback, and you, alas, would be right.
So other than exit surveys and/or feeling ghosted, what would be at your disposal?
Because my customers, prospective or current, are all internal, i.e. they’re coworkers, I have been fortunate to have been given the rare opportunity to ask. So why did you go with a third-party vendor?
It’ll be uncomfortable, trust me. And it will likely be a little awkward for the other person as well because people generally don’t like saying “no” or having to explain the reasoning behind their “no.” Sometimes you’ll hear about budget constraints. Sometimes it’ll be about the intuitiveness of the user interface. Sometimes the comment will be brutally honest, like (actual quotation coming up) “I didn’t get the sense they were listening to us.”
Every bit of customer feedback helps. So intentionally place yourself in a position to receive that (negative) feedback — because it may very well be about something that’s within your power to change — and listen.
On frictionlessness: In her important article on the limitations of user-centered design, Alexis Lloyd writes about how ease of use has offloaded “friction” onto the backs of underpaid labor. For instance, we have apps that make it easy for food to arrive at your doorstep — and I deliberately use passive construction here to underscore who is obscured: the prep cooks, the kitchen cleaners, the drivers, and so on.
And if you’re in an industry where you try to make your customers act against their best judgement, or forcing people to opt out of donations preselected by default, then hiding the disclaimer under a wall of text, well… As Cliff Kuang writes, “It’s friction that makes us question whether we do in fact need the thing we want.”