Some video marketers might leap to the conclusion that the public’s passion for professional wrestling explains why the WWE generated 660 million views across the main social video platforms in January 2017. But, they would be wrong. As with its live professional wrestling events, WWE’s videos aren’t really legitimate contests. They’re purely entertainment-based sagas, featuring storyline-driven, scripted, and choreographed matches. It’s true that they often include moves that could put less skillful performers at risk of injury if they aren’t performed correctly. But, the raw ingredient to WWE’s smackdown success isn’t professional wrestling; it’s epic storytelling.
If you doubt the veracity of this strategic insight, then ask yourself the following question: If professional wrestling really has such a large and fervent fan base, then why do amateur wrestling matches attract such small and quiet crowds in high school, college, and even the Olympics? Yes, I know that WWE stands for World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. But, WWE’s videos and playlists feature sports entertainment, not competitive wrestling.
WWE Videos = Entertainment
And WWE’s talent aren’t referred to as “wrestlers.” They’re called “WWE Superstars” until they retire, and then they’re called “WWE Legends.” Hey, you wouldn’t call historical figures like John Henry an average railroad worker or fictional characters like Paul Bunyan a typical lumberjack, would you? So, even if some fool double-dares you, don’t ever describe WWE Superstars like Dwayne Johnson, aka “The Rock,” and John Cena as just as couple of professional wrestlers. Why? Because they’re also actors, producers, and singers, too.
And, WWE’s talent often works in pairs. Typically, one is a heroic character, who wrestles with a villainous character. For example, WWE Hall of Famer “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan was frequently matched with his rival, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. It’s worth noting that Hogan, who is regarded by many as the greatest professional wrestler of all time, held complete creative control over his storylines. Meanwhile, Piper, who is regarded by many as the greatest wrestling villain of all time, earned the nickname “Hot Rod” by displaying his trademark “Scottish” rage and rowdy behavior.
So, WWE’s talent isn’t made up of mere mortals. They are larger-than-life action figures. And their fan base wouldn’t appreciate the satire in The Onion post entitled, “You Will Suffer Humiliation When the Sports Team from My Area Defeats the Sports Team from Your Area.” Why? Because they aren’t supporters of the team from a mere region. They are “the WWE Universe.”
For example, watch “41-Man Battle Royal for a Championship Match of Winner’s Choosing: SmackDown, October 14, 2011.” The largest Battle Royal in WWE history between WWE Superstars from WWE’s live shows, Raw and SmackDown, is also the most-watched WWE video of all time with 58.8 million views and 263,000 engagements. And, yes, this epic is more than 34 minutes long!
Which brings us to the elements of epic storytelling that are used by the WWE as the raw ingredients for its smackdown success. They are as classic as the hero’s journey. Also called the monomyth, it is the shared template of a broad category of tales that involve a hero who goes on an adventure, wins a victory in a decisive crisis, and then comes home changed or transformed.
The concept was introduced back in 1949 in the 432-page book entitled, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell, who described the basic narrative pattern this way: A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. Now, the deliberate use of Campbell’s monomyth theory by George Lucas in the making of the first three Star Wars movies – Episodes IV, V, and VI – is well documented. Lucas himself has said, “In the three decades since I discovered The Hero with a Thousand Faces, it has continued to fascinate and inspire me. Joseph Campbell peers through centuries and shows us that we are all connected by a basic need to hear stories and understand ourselves. As a book, it is wonderful to read; as illumination into the human condition, it is a revelation.”
It’s also well documented that Christopher Vogler, a Hollywood film producer and writer, wrote a legendary memo for Disney Studios on the use of The Hero with a Thousand Faces as a guide for scriptwriters. His memo influenced the creation of such films as Beauty and the Beast in 1991, Aladdin in 1992, and The Lion King in 1994. In 2016, the film Moana, which features the voice of Dwayne Johnson, followed the hero’s journey. The protagonist finds out as a kid that she is special, then embarks on an adventure to achieve a difficult task, and finally saves her people. Vogler later expanded the memo and published it as the 300-page book entitled, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, which became the inspiration for a number of other successful Hollywood films and is believed to have been used in the development of the Matrix series.
WWE Heroes and Villains
Now, Video marketers should understand that the WWE isn’t blindly following all 17 stages of Campbell’s monomyth theory. But, since each match is storyline-driven, scripted, and choreographed, they do appear to be borrowing heavily from Vogler’s eight major character archetypes – especially the hero. And they also seem to be closely tracking the 12 stages in Vogler’s version of the Hero’s journey, especially the last one: Return with the Elixir. That’s when the hero returns with something to improve the ordinary world. Hey, WWE events aren’t like high school, college, or even Olympic wrestling matches, which are unplanned, unscripted, and unchoreographed. We’re talking about a clash of titans! So, the video content shamelessly exploits the powerful relationship between mythology and storytelling in order to get the WWE Universe to return to watch the next episode.
For example, watch “Shane McMahon returns to WWE: Raw, February 22, 2016.” In one of the most shocking moments in WWE history, Shane McMahon returned to confront his family and make a historic demand. There’s absolutely no wrestling in this WWE video, whatsoever. But, this family confrontation happens to be the most-commented video on WWE’s YouTube channel.
How well is the formula working? Well, according to Tubular Labs, the average number of views which each of the WWE’s videos receive in the first 30 days after publishing is 1,154,596. And WWE’s Engagement Rating, which is an average first 30-day engagements per view compared to a platform baseline, is 1.2x. This benchmarks audience engagement across YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. And a score greater than 1.0x is better than average. And WWE’s YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and other accounts now have almost 72 million followers.
WWE’s Epic Storytelling is Working.
And, since WWE is a publicly traded company, we also know the company just reported “strong” results. According to WWE Chairman & CEO Vince McMahon, “During the past year, we continued to successfully execute our content strategy, which resulted in significant operational achievements and generated record revenue. We grew WWE Network to an average of more than 1.5 million subscribers, attracted record attendance of 101,763 fans at WrestleMania, and strengthened the global reach of our television programs, completing distribution deals in in China, Australia, Germany and Spain, among other countries.” He added, “The increased engagement with our brands across multiple platforms provides a foundation for achieving our 2017 and long-term financial objectives.”
So, yes, I’d say that WWE’s use of the hero’s journey is a smackdown success. The net-net: Don’t stereotype creators of other video genres. There are at least a dozen powerful lessons that video marketers can learn by carefully examining the raw ingredient to WWE’s smackdown success. It isn’t professional wrestling; it’s epic storytelling.