Social Signals


noun /inˈsepSHən/ 
inceptions, plural

The establishment or starting point of an institution or activity.


The poster is a handy visual summary for the complex narrative served up by Christopher Nolan in the 2010 science fiction film. You can find the plot here.

I was intrigued by the thought of creating a different starting point or committing an act of inception by way of raising the emotional stakes.

In the movie that means planting an idea within the person's subconscious mind.

To complete their mission, at each stage, the member of the team who is creating the dream remains to generate the "kick", while the other team members fall asleep within the dream to travel further down into their target's subconscious.

What intrigued me even more, however, was how Nolan came up with the concept, the length of time he worked on it, and how he eventually traded the assets he had into the final product. 

He used many assets in combination to deliver the experience of a shared dream space.

  • The one in the movie,
  • the one that got people into the theaters (at a budget of $100 million),
  • then what they experienced in theaters, and
  • the subsequent discussions about the plot.

I'm pretty sure there would be many takers if I declared I've come up with a way to plant a seed in your prospects (many more, I assume) or customers minds that would make them believe what you want them to believe.

Inception grossed $292 million in the United States and Canada and $531 million overseas. In total, the film has grossed $823 million worldwide. And the critics mostly liked it.

Deconstructing the narrative

The story worked because it became a narrative — it combined subplots (the five levels) into one plot and provided an experience worth talking about.

When marketers think about their content strategy, this is the part that speaks to the content itself. For it to generate involvement, it needs to be substantive enough to be read.

Warner Brothers invested considerable marketing budgets to get people into that experience. Getting attention on the Web takes patience.

Your site, white paper, eBook, guide, etc. is perceived value until what the reader learns can be used, alone or in combination, in an original activity or story.

The impressions and interpretations of readers then contribute to the narrative.

Reading social signals

When things work out great and people feel it was a good use of their time, their experience becomes a direct recommendation to a friend — you've got to see that movie.

The brand promise is now extended from the movie, in your case your story and copy, to the promise of the person making the recommendation. This is as good as it gets in the social sphere. Online or offline, private or public are secondary to the strength of the signal.

When the experience is one of many cool ones, it becomes a four-to-five start review. In this case, it becomes a social signal, usually public, for expertise, knowledge, interest, being in tune with fashions, etc.

The write ups read something non committal like this (from Rotten Tomatoes):

a boldly constructed wonder with plenty of — as one character describes it — "paradoxical architecture"

It's intentionally, thrillingly, disorienting

Taken at theatrical value, director/writer Christopher Nolan's tale of purposeful memory-travel is a fun and exciting trip into the creative subconscious

…an action thriller, a psychological drama, a con game, and a puzzle picture, with wonderful visual delights

None of which says: go see it. All they say is, I was there. This signal, including a sprinkle of negative reviews, is there to provide some way to rationalize whether to give it a shot or not. All those people were there helps you hedge the risk.

Closing the gap

To close the gap between reality and limbo, you need the right clues that what you're experiencing is valuable — that the director delivers upon the promise made (perceived value).

The same happens with your content.

Thanks to the acceleration in social signals, people are starting to think more carefully about what they're trading — trust, credibility, reputation, etc. — and they're not giving those away unwittingly anymore.


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