The fourth wall. The imaginary barrier between the actors and the audience. The constructed divide between the audience’s reality and their ability to suspend disbelief. The understanding that the audience is watching the drama occur but are unable to participate in the drama itself. It’s a very old dramatic concept and is very much part of the magic that happens when you’re sucked in to a beautiful, yet artificial construct. And every once in a while it breaks. An actor stares in to the camera and winks at you. For that moment, for that second, you become part of the story. It’s that moment when they know that you know that they are watching you. It’s incredibly powerful because it adds a level of reality and involvement that you did not expect and relish simultaneously. When the fourth wall breaks the drama becomes slightly more engaging and exponentially more real for the audience.
Businesses can learn from the intimate transformation that occurs when the fourth wall is broken. It’s a radical idea–permitting the customers, the audience, to participate in a business’ plot line. After all, the business of business (especially sales) is rooted in the notion of creating products, establishing a story that surrounds the product value, and then extending the story yet again to the selling points. In typical small business sales models the customer is the passive recipient–forced to endure, forced to be a silent audience, and ultimately given a conclusion that they very well may not care about even slightly. The fourth wall has divided them from the actor and their willingness to accept a conclusion is contingent upon that actor’s ability to fabricate a story that compels empathy and hopefully action. If the story ends well a sale may occur. If the story in not engaging the curtain will fall and people will silently shuffle out of the theater complaining about wasted time and money. It doesn’t have to be this way. Instead, the question that businesses must now start asking is: ‘Does the audience even care about the plot, the characters, or the resolution? What will happen if we break the fourth wall? What will happen if we let them on-stage with us?”
We are living in an evolving experience economy. We have mechanisms now that better allow us to break the fourth wall with our customers. In so doing, we have the ability to share the narrative with our customers. Brand building across progressive industries are learning to capture consumer loyalty by involving their opinion in the brand story. Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest are simple ways to penetrate this wall by inviting customers to aide in brand development. Philanthropic outreach is a perfect invitation for customers to involve themselves in the business identity. In the home, up-front pricing models and open-platform sales models create a natural invitation for active customer participation rather than passive top-down observations. In other words, we’re living in an era in which business, product, and sales value is no longer inherent in the presentation of each.
There is an inherent risk in allowing your customers to break the imaginary wall between a business construct and themselves. Call it The Great and Powerful Oz Syndrome. Every business must face up to the fact that it may easily create a beautiful exterior that is controlled not by a wizard but by an ordinary, clumsy fool. There is also the risk in learning that the story or sales model itself is so deeply out of touch with the audience’s desire to participate that the cost of the ticket is disproportionate with the quality of the show. And that’s ok. It really is. By forcing these issues to the surface a smart business will learn that they can enrich their model, and that audience participation is synonymous with an improved level of quality and accountability. I can’t see anything wrong with that.