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When Marketers Break the Fourth Wall

Like Kevin Spacey’s eye-rolling comments in “House of Cards” or anytime a stage actor pulls an audience member on stage, breaking the fourth wall has its time and place. For marketers, this may be more frequent than you think.

Defining the fourth wall for social media and content marketing is easy: It’s the line between “promotion” and “engagement.” When was the last time you were drawn into a billboard ad, anyway? Shows and movies have the advantage of not selling you things, so their fourth wall breaks are either for humor or to share information on plot points like a Shakespearian aside.

The fourth wall I’m referring to is mainly for social media. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter (and LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest to an extent, Google+, etc.) allow marketers for the first time ever (discounting the teenagers with headphones who hold signs outside of furniture stores) to efficiently interact with potential consumers. TV commercials let us interact, too, though it’s mostly to fast-forward through them.

What the Fourth Wall Does

Let’s take a Facebook page as an example: Brand XYZ is all about promoting a specific product and service. This is all the page admins do — “Buy Me! Here’s a Coupon Code!” There are no posts speaking directly to followers or even room for a follower to justify sharing a post to hundreds of personal friends.

This page is like being chained down in a seat and watching the world’s worst mimes act in the world’s worst play.

The fourth wall forces you to interact with your followers as customers, not people.

How to Punch Through

The trick is to find the right moment to turn to your audience, wink, and make a quip about the situation (a joke in a movie or play, that is, not your Facebook page). You know what I like to see on Facebook from the brands I follow? Cool stuff made and shared by interesting people. You can’t do this by promoting your boring products, candy bars, and hardware supplies.

Here are a few effective ways to break the fourth wall to increase engagement:

  • Ask questions to your followers. Like, “Has anyone seen Product XYZ do this before? (Insert picture of Product XYZ in some ridiculous situation).
  • Raise interesting points and ideas that have room for response, as in not rhetorical “You should buy this!” posts.
  • Don’t only talk about you! Find interesting things on the Internet or share your thoughts on a current event. You’re a brand, after all, not a vending machine.

It’s hard to define ways to break the fourth wall, though we all know when we see it done well.

As this is a newer idea of mine and one I couldn’t really find anything on, I’m interested to hear your thoughts on the fourth wall of marketing and why it matters to content writers, social media analysts, bloggers, and the rest of us who tend to turn generic ideas into theatrical ones.

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