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Magic in Marketing: 5 Lessons Marketers Can Learn from Harry Houdini

By Michael McNichols

“No prison can hold me; no hand or leg irons or steel locks can shackle me. No ropes or chains can keep me from my freedom.” – Harry Houdini

Marketers can learn a lot from a master self-marketer, such as Harry Houdini was.

In his time, they called Harry Houdini the greatest escape artist in the world. He was the Handcuff King, able to escape any set of cuffs under any circumstances, whether he was hanging upside down, on top of a building, or off a bridge. He found his way out of straitjackets, chains, ropes, and even the infamous Water Torture Cell.

To this day, he remains a household name, and why?

Because he was the ultimate showman. He took audiences on a roller coaster ride of emotions that captured their imaginations. He set a standard few can ever meet.

Yet, he also marketed himself. He built up his mystique and reputation. In a world without social media and digital marketing, he had people everywhere talking about him and sold out show after show. He intrigued, dazzled, and mystified audiences —the same as any marketer should do.

Magicians still learn lessons from the greatest of all time, so why shouldn’t marketers also see what takeaways they can get from one of the greatest self-promoters who ever lived?

Dazzle Them

“An old trick well done is far better than a new trick with no effect.” – Harry Houdini

Magic is about showmanship. It doesn’t matter if you’re using old tricks, so long you can present them in a new way and add some new type of flare to them. Everyone has seen a card trick, but can you do one in a different way? Can you play on people’s expectations and turn everything around on them?

Sawing someone in half, levitation, making objects disappear, catching a bullet, you can see this all at any magic show, but it’s the presentation that matters. Is the magician able to get you to suspend your disbelief and play along? Even if you think you know the secret in how to do the trick? Do they make you not care because you’ve enjoyed yourself so much?

Marketers need to think the same way. Yes, businesses have been sending marketing emails for years. Every company has a social media presence that need constant status updates, photos, and tweets that keep their customer base interested. Everybody has a website with how-to guides, tips and tricks, case studies, and a blog.

It can all be an old hat, but that doesn’t mean you have to just go through the motions.

How can you make your emails and social tweets stand out? Wit? Intriguing factoids and trivia?

What about your how-to guides? Are they well-written? Do they provide useful information? Do they have an eye-catching design? And your blog? Is it engaging? Are you trying to stand out with it in any way? Is there a strong voice to each blog?

Almost anyone can write an email, social post, blog, or some type of content. Marketers, however, know how to put some flare into the words, design, and message. They can make it light up like the stars at night.

Tell a Story

“Some say I do it this way, some say I do it that way, but I say I do it the other way.” – Harry Houdini

Houdini’s older brother was actually a magician and escape artist as well, who went by the name of the Great Hardeen. Most historians think that Hardeen was actually a much better technical magician than Houdini, but he was nowhere near as big a star.


Because Houdini was a better showman and had more presence and star power to him. How did he develop it? He told stories, about himself, his shows, and his escapes. He made himself out to be larger than life, always performing a greater escape than the last, always defying death and even greater danger, and always coming out on top in a more spectacular way.

In fact, Houdini and Hardeen even pretended to feud over who was a better magician in public for years. They were both in on it, but Houdini truly relished the attention and how he got the newspapers talking. A brother rivalry was a story nobody could turn down.

What about you? When you write a marketing email, what story are you trying to tell? Even when doing a social post or microcopy, despite the very small amount of space you have available, you can still tell a story. Marketing is always offering something of value to a customer. You’re providing a solution to a problem they might not even know they had. That’s a story right there.

What is the story of your brand? How are you communicating it? How are you getting your messaging across?

It’s all storytelling. You get people hooked on the intrigue, and you use emotion to keep them invested and interested in the outcome, as the story (and their customer journey) proceeds.

Listen to Your Audience

“Magic is the sole science not accepted by scientists, because they can’t understand it.” – Harry Houdini

As a live performer, Houdini received instant feedback on his shows. He saw firsthand how invested the crowds were and if they were reacting with the suspense, release, wonder, and joy he was expecting. However, he could also read reviews in the papers, and he knew the bottom line was always how many tickets he sold. He could get people talking, but that was pointless unless they paid to see him.

Modern marketers have far more tools than even Houdini could ever have dreamed to reach and connect with their audiences but also measure how well their marketing campaigns are doing.

You have digital analytics you can study, you can count the number of subscribers to your newsletter, the number of followers you have on social media, your web traffic, how many views your blog gets, how many of your emails are opened and clicked through on. And, yes, conversions are your ultimate metric, just as sales were to Houdini.

You might even have real-time data to work off of, meaning you can respond right away to what audiences are receptive to and tweak what isn’t working. Houdini didn’t have that, but he listened well and fine-tuned his act for years, always adding a new test or wrinkle, a new trick or escape, because he knew what kept the crowds coming back. They told him so by coming back.

Always Have a Plan

“The secret of showmanship consists not of what you really do, but what the mystery-loving public thinks you do.” – Harry Houdini

Houdini certainly put himself into danger at every show, but he always had a plan or method to get himself out of it. He knew how to escape a straitjacket and had his Water Torture Cell set up so that he could escape it with little difficulty (well, little difficulty after he had some practice at it_. When he was handcuffed, he knew how to snap the cuffs open or had a key hidden somewhere he could get to.

Ironically, they say Houdini died because he told a young fan that he could a punch to the gut. So, the fan rammed his fist into Houdini’s stomach before he had a chance to tense it up. The blow ruptured his appendix and led to his death, so he certainly paid a price for being caught off guard.

Marketers, of course, should always have a plan. They should have a content strategy put together to guide them and a content calendar to let them know when each project is due. They should have an overall plan in place of how they are going to reach their audiences, interest and intrigue them, and cause them to take action.

It helps you measure your results and change course when you need to as well have your team all work together as they will all know their roles and responsibilities and the larger picture.

Take Risks

“My brain is the key that sets me free.” – Harry Houdini

The most obvious lesson to take from Houdini was to not shy away from taking calculated risks. Marketers can try new things and approaches. They might see how a new design looks or how having more humor and lightheartedness injected into their content works. They might send out an email with messaging that they don’t have much analytics on, but they like and think it will make the right type of impact.

They could try being somewhat provocative with an email subject line. They could publish or send out content at a different time than they usually do (maybe even on the weekend). They could even create a cartoon or comic strip or get more creative than they ever have before.

The key is to keep imagining, learning, and taking in feedback. You have your plan and know how the trick works. You just have to pull it off for your marketing audience, and they want you to. They want to be dazzled and amazed, and, you have the means to do it.

Houdini and all great showmen use emotion and empathy in storytelling to win over audiences. Content marketers need to do the same thing. Find out how with “Emotion and Empathy: The Storytelling Keys to Content Marketing.”

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