How to Kill It: What Marketers Can Learn From True Crime

Jenell Abram

By: Jenell Abram

Bundy, Kaczynski, Holmes and more. In this blog, we explore five marketing lessons you can learn from some of the most famous and chilling true crime stories.

Before we get into the meat of this article, let’s bond for a second over something we all share: browser history. We all have one. It might be full of cat videos or symptom checkers or local news. Or — if you’re like me — it might be riddled with searches for serial killers, evidence gathering techniques and the latest discoveries in forensic science.

Now, before you go and report me to the local authorities, remember that I have two intersecting interests that regularly prompt me to look for this stuff. I’m a writer who favors thrillers, and I’m a true crime junkie.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the cherry on top of that strange banana split is that I’m also a marketer. So, one day, as I listened to my favorite true crime podcast while writing some digital ads, I suddenly realized that there were takeaways for marketers buried deep in the chilling stories coming from my headphones.

Five True Crime Takeaways for Marketers

1. Have a type.

For Jane Toppan, it was the patients in her care. For Juan Corona, it was farmhands. And of course, Ted Bundy was known for singling out women with long, dark hair parted in the middle. Their victims were chosen based on a combination of factors, from accessibility to desirability. Bundy understood that his ideal audience was empathetic and would be willing to help him, which led to one infamous incident when he used a broken arm ruse to lure a woman to his car.

As marketers, it’s important for us to know our audience and appeal to the people we wish to target. That’s where personas come in. Create a persona to identify your ideal customer, including their buying motivations, shopping habits, preferred communication style and pain points. Then, use this information to influence your marketing messages and to evaluate potential ROI on your marketing efforts.

2. Have a plan.

Casing someone’s house, sound-proofing a room, creating a “kit” — most serial killers don’t act without some kind of plan or agenda they wish to fulfill. Sometimes they even go so far as to release a detailed manifesto like the one written by Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber. (Never mind that his manifesto was a key factor in tracking him down and making an arrest.)

Putting together a sound strategy, including well-defined goals, is key when developing a new marketing campaign. Decide what KPIs you want to measure, and then work backward to identify the tactics that will help you achieve them. Develop editorial calendars to keep your content organized from topic creation to distribution. When you do this type of legwork up front, you help everyone in your organization understand not only what you plan to do, but how you define success. Was the Unabomber successful? Well, his anti-technology, anti-government ideas did reach an audience, but different methods of disseminating that information would have been better received.

3. Don’t dispose of the body.

During the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, there was something sinister going on right around the corner from where George Ferris debuted his now-famous wheel. A man named H.H. Holmes had outfitted a building he owned to be a place where people came to visit and never left. Not only that, but he turned his macabre pastime into a side hustle by selling skeletons to nearby schools and medical labs.

There’s a lesson here. Content you’ve created can always be repurposed to save you time and help you reach a new audience. Break a long video down into several short clips. Chop up an infographic into micrographics to be used on social media. Rewrite your best-performing blog post as a podcast. Holmes understood the value of what he had, and he leveraged his medical expertise to create something that was in demand. You can use your expertise to do the same thing with your content.

4. Be an evidence expert.

Sometimes it’s the smallest thing that leads to an arrest. For David Berkowitz, dubbed “Son of Sam,” it was a parking ticket. For Dennis Nilsen, it was a plugged drain. Thanks to DNA and emerging forensic technologies (looking at you, pollen biomarkers), it’s become harder and harder for criminals to cover their tracks.

Likewise, with so much noise in our everyday lives, it’s become harder and harder for marketing campaigns to stand out. But when you do stand out, you want to do it for the right reasons. Remember this famous ad that was pulled just a day after its release? There’s a long list of ads that have come under fire on social media recently, making it more important than ever to vet your marketing for sensitive content. While it’s okay to purposefully and responsibly create content that might not appeal to everyone, it’s not okay to create content with no regard to cultural differences.

5. Have a signature.

The devil is in the details, as they say. Many serial killers leave behind a unique signature that ultimately helps the police link their murders together. For example, the I-5 Strangler used his mother’s scissors to leave strange cuts in his victims’ clothing. BTK regularly communicated with the police and developed a symbol he used as an actual signature on his letters. The Zodiac Killer was known for taunting police and writing in code.

Determine what makes your company unique. Chances are you offer something to customers that they can’t get anywhere else. It might be an innovative product, your responsive customer service or even a personal touch. Whatever it is, lean into it. Chewy is a great example of a brand that’s built its entire following on outstanding customer service, including sending handwritten condolence letters when a pet passes away and sending personalized gifts to mark special occasions in a pet’s life.

BONUS: Labels to Avoid

  1. Spree Killer: You have a great idea. It’s relevant. It’s timely. It goes viral and then … it fizzles. Remember that great campaigns have legs. They’re built on repeatable ideas. It may be tempting to jump on the bandwagon, but bandwagons lose their wheels eventually. Meaningful marketing based on a sound strategy will always win out in the long-term.
  2. Mass Murderer: You’ve created a great piece of content. Everyone will love it. Everyone. Are you sure? Is everyone your target audience? Keep your personas top of mind during content creation. You can also try mapping each piece of content to the audience it will most appeal to so you can better inform your distribution channels.
  3. Revenge Killer: I’m not here to discourage you from doing a competitive audit. It’s helpful to know what your competition is doing and how your marketing efforts stack up. However, be careful that you don’t fall into the “me too” category. Keep an eye on your competition, but don’t lose sight of the unique value your company brings to customers.
  4. “Crimes of Passion” Killer: Although good marketing should tap into your audience’s emotions, it shouldn’t be a product of your emotions. Gone are the days of shouting into the void with no idea what your audience responds to. Using data, you can continually optimize your marketing while simultaneously demonstrating ROI.

Whether you’re a fellow true crime consumer or an unassuming marketer who ended up here by mistake, these tips can help you develop a robust marketing program from persona creation through implementation. Good luck out there, and may your audience return a positive verdict.


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