the "slow-burn" effect

Holding back key nuggets of information, and "drip-feeding" your story over a series of content pieces can help build anticipation and drive audience engagement 


What have Nike and Buckingham Palace got in common?

No, the Queen has not called for a swoosh on her go-faster wellies...

But full marks to anyone who said they are both PR innovators who recently used a “slow burn” technique to build anticipation and drive public interest.

The early morning media missive from the palace last week was intriguing in its lack of clarity.

All members of the royal household were called to a mysterious “emergency meeting”. A vague “no cause for concern” message was released, but otherwise no information was given. What it DID do, was cause the world’s media to hotfoot up the Mall and set up shop on the edge of Green Park. I counted more than 50 crews jostling for position and twice as many fidgety reporters tossing their hair and babbling about… well, nothing.

Twitter was abuzz with furtive speculation: Abdication? Harry to marry? Prince Charles to run as the Greens candidate for Kensington and Chelsea in the General Election?

By the time 10am came about, the country had ground to a halt.

Eventually, the announcement came: Prince Philip was stepping down from royal duties. Effective from… er… September.

The country trudged back to work grudgingly, muttering to itself that a 95-year-old man retiring in four months’ time did not constitute an “emergency”.

Intentional or not, it demonstrates the power of teasing a story out. If the message is strong, it pays to hold back crucial nuggets of information to leave your audience hanging and hungry for more.

Later that same day, Nike were dropping another teaser across their social media channels. Though they had been working on the “Breaking2” campaign for over two years, and the athletics community had been eagerly anticipating it for months, Nike’s main media launch content consisted of a single one-minute videosimply stating that the sportswear giant was going to smash the marathon world record by four clear minutes.

It didn’t say where, it didn’t say when, it didn’t say how. It didn’t even name the athletes who were going to be doing it.

If you think about it, that is astonishing. It breaks all the traditional tenets of corporate communication. It deconstructs the press release. It’s the ultimate brash “if we build it, they will come!” sentiment. And it worked.

Despite the ultimate failureof the attempt (Kenyan runner Eliud Kipchoge missed out on the two hour mark by 25 seconds), Nike’s gimmicky and thoroughly commercial publicity campaign had gatecrashed the mainstream media and was was live-streamed by thousands of consumers who all no doubt went out and splurged £200 on some trainers later that afternoon.

In PR terms, it was a complete triumph.

It’s not a new idea, of course. Stealth or guerilla marketing has been around for years. I’ve often  come across strange, indecipherable stickers on the escalators of the tube. Stopped and furrowed my brow. I guess that is the point: If I am trying to decipher something, I am at least engaging with it - and that is half the battle.

I confess, my own approach to PR content has always been a touch more traditional. I usually advocate clean and efficient transparency - quenching the journalistic thirst for knowledge right from the off:

Who? What? When? Where? Why?

The Breaking2 campaign barely covered the “What?”

But then, of course, not all firms are 

blessed with the captive audiences enjoyed by Nike - or indeed, the royal family.

You have to earn the right to be enigmatic.

It got me thinking about it though. 

There is definitely something to be said for building excitement over a series of strategically-released content pieces. Holding back some of the critical information and keeping your audience guessing.  

Some thoughts:

  • Make sure your story is appropriate - Drip-feeding news of your annual results will not endear you to the financial community
  • Dangle the carrot - Incentivise your audience with promises of being rewarded if they tune back in
  • Take people on a journey - As pretentious as it sounds, each piece should contain new and unexpected information to maintain interest  
  • Have a worthy pay-off - Make sure your “big reveal” is worth the investment of time and energy

It is bold and not without risk. You need to be fairly confident you have a compelling story before you employ the “slow burn” strategy. But if you can pull it off, your audience will inevitably be more deeply engaged and ready to connect.

And Nike, if you are reading this and are interested in kicking around some ideas about the Queen’s wellies, you know where to find me.


"It deconstructs the press release. It’s the ultimate brash “if we build it, they will come!” sentiment."