Using MacGuffins In Your Content Marketing

Despite what it sounds like, a MacGuffin is not a golf term. It’s a writing term used in movies, TV shows, and books.

A MacGuffin is a plot device used to motivate the protagonist to action. It’s something the protagonist pursues or protects, but there’s no real explanation of why it’s important. In fact, the object itself isn’t even important to the plot. It’s just the thing the protagonist and antagonist fight over, one of them trying to take it, the other trying to save it.

It could be a sandwich for all we care. All we know is that the good guy and bad guy are going to beat the crap out of each other trying to get it.

The MacGuffin usually follows one of two themes:

Protagonist: I have the thing.
Antagonist: I want the thing.

or

Antagonist: I’m going to steal the thing.
Protagonist: I have to save the thing.

The most common types of MacGuffins are objects or sometimes a person. Other times, they’re more abstract concepts, like love or survival. TVTropes.com has a great list of MacGuffin sub-tropes, like the Clingy MacGuffin, the Hostage MacGuffin, or the Egg MacGuffin.

The One Ring is a perfect MacGuffin

One MacGuffin to rule them all and in the darkness bind them.

Some famous MacGuffins are things like the plans for the Death Star, the Ark of the Covenant, or the One Ring. Even Private Ryan in Saving Private Ryan and the baby from Ice Age are MacGuffins. In all cases, the MacGuffin was important to the characters, but it didn’t matter as much to us. We care more about the pursuit of the thing, but not the thing itself.

Most importantly, says TV Tropes, do not confuse a MacGuffin for a plot device. The Death Star plans was not the plot of Star Wars, and the thing inside Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase was not the plot of Pulp Fiction. The plot was about people trying to get/save/deliver the plans and the what-was-undoubtedly-a-human-soul.

How Do MacGuffins Figure in to Content Marketing

In content marketing, the MacGuffin is usually the product you create or the service you offer. But you’re not going to talk about your product or service, because that’s boring.

How boring would Star Wars be if they spent several minutes on the construction timeline of the Death Star, its propulsion system and fuel consumption ratings, or the magnetic tape the plans were on? (Seriously? You have faster-than-light travel, but you store information on cassette tapes?)

That’s how people feel about your product. They don’t want to know about the materials it was made with, or the manufacturing process behind it. They want to know what your product will do for them.

Will it make them work better or faster? Can it help them make more money? Will it make them attractive to men or women? Will it prevent heart disease or male pattern baldness?

This is the old “features versus benefits” marketing discussion we’ve all heard. Don’t tell us what it does, tell us what it does for us.

In short, your product is the MacGuffin. It drives your content marketing story forward, but it’s not the thing you talk about.

What’s Your Content Marketing MacGuffin?

If you’re a marketing automation company, the MacGuffin is your software. If you’re a barbecue grill maker, it’s your grills. And if you’re a luggage company, the MacGuffin is your bags.

Which means your readers want to know more about travel. . . with your bags. They want to know about cooking outside. . . with your grill. And they want to know how they can get more leads. . . with your software. But they don’t want you to talk about your bags, grill, or software.

Just like the movies, we don’t actually care about the thing, we care about the pursuit of the thing, the relationships that form around it, and how the thing will change our lives. But the MacGuffin will always remain there as a silent part of everything you do.

The marketing automation company will write about “how white papers generate more leads” and “five best email newsletter headlines.” The assumption is the readers will track all the information on your software, but your articles shouldn’t discuss the software. It’s just implied.

Similarly, our grill manufacturer should talk about things like “gas versus charcoal grills” and “preventing grease fires,” but they should also share articles on new summer recipes and how to use a motorized rotisserie. Again, the grill is important — “I want to use the thing” — but we’re not focused on BTUs or the gauge thickness of the lid.

And the luggage company should write about vacation travel, packing tips, and the activities that necessitate carrying a suitcase. But they shouldn’t focus on the construction of the suitcase, its materials, or the manufacturing process.

In some cases, the MacGuffin is going to be a little more abstract (wealth management, plumbing), or it might be a particular person (a lawyer, a realtor, or an orthodontist). And in some cases, there’s no real MacGuffin at all. Not every movie has a MacGuffin, and not every company is going to be able to use one either.

But if you can identify yours, use it to drive your content marketing story forward, even if you never actually discuss the MacGuffin directly. It will always be there, always present. And in the end, it will become the most important thing of all.

Photo credit: Jorge Arimany (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 3.0)

How to Use a Fiction Throughline in Your Content Marketing

In novel writing, there are certain elements or themes that run through the book like a thread. You can find this thread in movies as well. They’re common themes like “Debbie is afraid of commitment,” “William wants Scotland to be free,” or “Captain America hates bullies.”

This is the throughline.

It’s the running theme, a character’s reason for being, a plot or sub-plot, or even the language that’s used in the story.

Every few scenes, we’re reminded of the throughline once again, though only a touch, as the author or screenwriter tugs on it once in a while to remind us it’s there.

When scrawny Steve Rogers stands up to the bully. When he dives on a hand grenade during basic training to save his squadron. When he ignores Colonel Tommy Lee Jones and rescues his best friend, Bucky.

As Chuck Wendig of Terrible Minds says:

The throughline is an invisible thread that binds your story together. It comprises those elements that are critical to the very heart of your tale — these elements needn’t be the same for every story you tell but should remain the same throughout a given story.

Basically, Chuck says, it’s “the rope that the audience will use to pull itself through the story.”

Find Your Throughlines

What is the thing your company wants to be known for?

Not your mission statement. Nobody talks like that. Besides, most mission statements suck. Hard.

We will operationalize bleeding-edge strategies in order to maximize our core competencies to that we may holistically leverage best-of-breed solutions.

That’s not a throughline. That’s complete crap. (I sure hope that’s not someone’s actual mission statement. I made it up, and I had to shower afterward.)

Every kind of content marketing should use a throughline. Even solar panel manufacturers.

Instead, what do your salespeople and marketing staff brag about? What excites you about what your work? Why does your company do what it does?

That’s your throughline. If you’re a pharmaceutical company, your throughline is saving lives. (Or helping old men get erections. I’m not judging.) If you make solar panels, your throughline is saving the earth and reducing our dependence on coal. If you’re a business improvement consultant, like my friend Robby, your throughline is helping others be more efficient.

Once you know your throughlines, you’re ready to weave them into your story.

What Do Throughlines Have to Do With Content Marketing?

In content marketing, your throughline runs through your company’s overall story.

Your story is made up of chapters — blog articles, white papers, videos, podcasts — and your throughline should pull potential customers through on their buyer’s journey.

Your company’s throughline are those things you stand for and can truly deliver. If you know your company’s USP, a unique selling proposition, that’s your throughline. It’s the top benefit you offer your customers.

For Chick-fil-A, their throughline is chicken-not-beef. Their advertising is all about the cows telling us to eat more chicken. For Apple computers, it’s thinking different(ly). Their computer ads are about doing great things with the right side of your brain. For Pro Blog Service, it’s about providing high-level professional writing. So I write articles about advanced writing skills.

Not everything Chick-fil-A does is about their cows. Not everything Apple promotes is about being a creative professional. And at Pro Blog Service, we write about things other than writing.

But every so often, you’ll find that theme, that element, that throughline to pull you through their stories, on to the next chapter.

For our solar panel manufacturer, they can spend most of their time talking about the quality of their panels, their low cost, available financing, ease of use, money saved, and benefits over wind power.

But every so often, they need to tug on their throughline to remind us it’s there: “if we can use more solar power, we use less coal to create electricity. And less coal means a cleaner tomorrow.”

Content marketers like to call themselves storytellers, so here’s a real story element they can use. Novelists and screenwriters use them all the time, and so can you.

If you can weave your throughline into your content marketing, it will tell you what comes next, and it will move your customer down the right path. You can more easily plan your content schedule if you can follow the golden thread that’s waiting for you to wrap a story around it.

Photo credit: Gray Watson (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 3.0)