Jim Morrison and the importance of relevance

What are the most important factors to consider when you’re communicating ideas to people? How do you get your message across successfully?

From my days as a journalist writing for newspapers and magazines through to my current work presenting digital marketing messages or lecturing to students, a few common themes have emerged in terms of what works consistently.

Actually, I exaggerate – there is really just one fundamental rule in successful communication: make your concept relevant to your target audience.

This is expressed as a couple of acronyms:

• WIFFM – what’s in it for me?
• WSIC – why should I care?

If you can understand what matters to your audience and work out how to relate your message to their concerns, you’ll get your point across.

This principle isn’t limited to written, visual, or verbal communication messages: it extends to the communication of ideas and can include the dissemination of those ideas through a variety of media.

Take music, for example. My favorite band of all time is the Doors, led by the late great Jim Morrison. The Doors tapped into the Zeitgeist of the 1960s with music that protested against traditional mores.

Their sometimes dark messages about love, fitting in, and pushing back against parental barriers struck a chord with young Baby Boomers who were just starting to flex their muscles and question the structures of the world that they were inheriting.

A generation of students studying pop psychology grooved to the Oedipal overtones of The End. You’ll have to listen to this 12-minute song yourself to see what I mean, as some of the lyrics can’t be repeated on a family-friendly blog, but suffice to say that it reflected the Freud-inspired messages that were being taught in American universities in the 1960s.

When US variety show host Ed Sullivan, worried about the veiled drug reference, told them not to sing the line “girl we couldn’t get much higher” from Light My Fire when they performed on his TV show, Morrison ignored him and sang it anyway.

As well as being bloody-minded, Morrison, no doubt had his target audience in mind. He knew that if he bowed to the mainstream older generation standards represented by the septuagenarian Sullivan and changed the lyrics, that the Doors’ hard-core fans would see that as a sell-out. Sullivan famously banned the Doors from ever appearing on his show again, but 40 years later the Doors are still selling millions of records, while Ed Sullivan is only remembered on a few archival clips on YouTube.

A couple of years later, opposition to the Vietnam War had emerged as a touchstone issue. With bands such as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young gaining notice for their anti-war message-laden songs, the Doors decided to expand their repertoire to include songs like The Unknown Soldier, where Jim Morrison enacted a court-martial by firing squad in live performances. Some critics said this was a cynical response to a market need, but the fact was that it regenerated interest in the group at a time when its audience was starting to drift to more politically oriented acts.

Sadly, despite these musical and marketing successes, the story of The Doors doesn’t have a happy ending. Overwhelmed by the burden of being a messenger of his generation, Morrison drank, snorted, and smoked his way to early death in a bathtub in 1971, aged 27. (Some people say he is still alive, traveling the world with Elvis, but that’s another story…)

Regardless, like other successful musical groups at the time and since, the Doors crafted their communications in a way that touched the psyche of their audience. Their evocative messages about finding your way in the world have kept the band popular with the generations that followed, with a strong following amongst Gen Y listeners today.

Keeping your message relevant to your audience is even more important today than it was in the Doors’ heyday – faced with a tsunami of information from all sides, we out of necessity filter out messages that we can’t relate to.

You need to break on through the cacophony of data with a personalized message that will light your customers’ fire, so they will love you two times (or more). (Sorry, couldn’t help myself!)

Dr. Ray Welling is Director of Digital Strategy & Communications for healthcare communications consultancy Vivacity Health. He also manages a small digital content agency and strategic consultancy, and lectures in marketing at Macquarie University.

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