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.
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.
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)