Pinball and the power of product storytelling

I scaled down my conference attendance this year, but one that I didn’t want to miss was the Contently summit in San Francisco in May—and not just for the opportunity to pop into some of the city’s storied bookstores and record shops at night (though I did bring home a few souvenirs, naturally). We have a long relationship with Contently, and their publications and events are always good sources for content marketing news and trends.

Perhaps, then, it seems odd to write about a May conference in July; the norm with this sort of thing is to post a hasty recap and hope to leverage some real-time traffic with a trending hashtag, etc. In thinking about our own Collabosphere, which returns to LA at the end of September, we certainly hope to see some immediate engagement of that kind.

But what we really hope is that attendees will go home with information they can put into practice, with inspiration that lingers long after the tweets have been sent and the slides have been shared.

A few months later, what really stands out for me from my time at that conference:

  1. Hello founder/CEO Craig Dubitsky really, really hates illogical or sloppy design choices (note to speakers out on the circuit: audiences love to tweet quotes and stats, but they’ll actually remember passion)
  2. The game of pinball has a much more interesting and politically charged history than I ever realized

Contently CCO and co-founder Shane Snow told the story about pinball and how it was alternately reviled and beloved across the country due simply to, essentially, creative content marketing. Pinball was illegal for decades in America’s biggest cities. In Oakland, it was illegal until 2014. In the earliest incarnations of the game, a player could potentially win a bit of money with a high score, which led to pinball being branded as a gambling device. The charge stuck, even as the game evolved and became more like the game of skill we know today.

In the months after Pearl Harbor, perhaps eager for photo-ops that would convince the public that order was being restored, NYC mayor Fiorello La Guardia made his anti-pinball crusade a leading priority, then smashed a whole bunch of confiscated pinball machines with a hammer—yes, personally—and had them dumped into the river. This is a real thing that happened.

La Guardia’s fuel: a well-told story that pinball represented not just a form of gambling, but a degradation of our country’s fiber. The actual marketers at the pinball manufacturers were helpless against this powerful and pervasive anti-marketing. In some ways, the message became a self-fulfilling prophecy, as pinball tables popped up in shady places across those big cities.

The turning point, of course, also involved storytelling, this time a counter-narrative with a hero involved, a pinball wizard named Roger Sharpe who, as if in the climatic scene of some cheesy movie, played pinball in a courtroom and called his final shot, Babe Ruth-style, to prove that it was, indeed, a game of skill.

Sometimes the stories about a product have more impact on the product’s fate than the product itself.

At a content marketing conference, it’s typical for someone to get up and talk about how to emulate what they accomplished with a 50 billion dollar marketing budget for sports cars, while out in the audience, marketers who work on shoestring budgets to spread awareness of plumbing supplies sort of stew inwardly. Snow’s talk was different. Granted, most of the audience will never experience the challenge of having their product made illegal (please don’t criminalize project management software, Mayors Garcetti and De Blasio). But there is always an opportunity for marketers to tell a story that transcends the normal confines of a supposedly dry vertical or industry.

There’s also always the potential to tell stories in a way that don’t involve selling to customers. As Contently’s Sam Slaughter wrote in the recent Contently Quarterly, “Content is the currency companies use to communicate with the world; the marketing department is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Finally, Snow received bonus points because pinball wasn’t just a random example he plucked from history. The after-hours entertainment centered around a pinball tournament, which I sort of dismissed as arbitrary hipster-bait when I saw it on the agenda, but wound up being perfectly connected to the main event. (I am bad at pinball, but thanks for having me.)

Post by Adam McKibbin

Adam McKibbin is the content marketing manager for iMeet Central. His writing has been featured in Adweek, the Chicago Tribune and The Nation, and he’s produced content for some of the leading tech brands on the Fortune 500.