RonAmok!

The adventures of an analog engineer and digital storyteller who studies emerging networks and their impact on the great game of business.

For the past year, I’ve been focusing my research on the power of networked resources. I’ve written blog posts that have demonstrated how both companies and individuals have used digital network technologies to innovate, solve problems, or even spread marketing messages. In each case, I’ve tried to quantify the monetary value created through such access.

Last week, I experienced an “Ah-hah!” moment after reading a MarketingProfs article that demonstrated the monetary value a story can add  to cheap knickknacks. The goal of the Significant Objects experiment wasn’t to mislead. According to its rules, misleading would have voided the test. Instead, the experiment involved writing knickknack-inspired stories that future owners could appreciate and therefore pay a premium.

According to the website, the experiment “…sold $128.74 worth of thrift-store junk for $3,612.51,” simply by attaching a story to each item. Doing the math, storytelling increased the average monetary value of each object by 2,806%.

The X 28 Factor

Twenty Thirty years ago, my uncle gave me a three-inch stack of early 1900s post cards. Here’s an example, circa 1915, called “The Great White Way,” Broadway, New York City:

I’ve always known that these cards carried some monetary value. A quick glance at eBay reveals that their average price tag is about $5 per card, bringing the stack’s estimated value to about $500. However, after reading the results of the Significant Objects experiment, I considered the upside of adding a story to the collection. Would it be possible to increase the stack’s value twenty-eight fold too? Could adding a story to these old postcards increase their total value to $14,000?

Meet Elizabeth

What if I told you that the majority of these postcards were addressed to a woman named Elizabeth who lived in the greater Boston area over one hundred years ago? What if I told you that the cards contained clues to her life? For example, we know that she was married but we don’t know much about her husband. We know that she had a son named Eddie, she worked at a Boston-based Cigar Factory, and she vacationed on Peaks Island in Maine? Do any these tidbits make the postcards sound a little more interesting?

For twenty thirty years, I’d always viewed this stack of postcards as antiques to be sold-off piece-wise. However, after transcribing ninety-nine postcard messages and entering them into a spreadsheet last weekend, I saw them as something very different: a century-old mystery.

I wondered. Who was Elizabeth? What was her life like? Did she have to work in a Cigar Factory, or was it her choice? Who were Nellie, Sadie, Annie, Frank, Ella, Tom, Joe, Ruthie, Margaret, Debby, Mamie, and Kathryn? Why did so many of the messages end with “give my love to the girls?” Who were they? Her daughters? Her sisters? Something more…hmm…interesting?

Could a mystery centered around a woman who lived a century ago multiply the monetary value of these cards? Could the story become a book? A movie? Or, what if the story was less about Elizabeth and more about a quest to eventually return these cards to Elizabeth’s family? Would you watch a documentary of such a quest unfolding?

An Open Source Mystery

If we published all of these postcards online, could we harness the power of the network to help solve this mystery? Would participants from around the globe be willing to use the resources available to them to collectively piece together Elizabeth’s story, with the ultimate goal of delivering it with her postcards to her great-great (great?) grandchildren?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  • Kay

    Sounds a lot like something “This American Life” would do. I know they’ve done some before, and I always find those ones very interesting, like the one where someone found some boxes of paper along the roadside and then finally managed to trace them to the people they belonged to. Can’t remember which one it was, but it was very interesting.

  • http://ronamok.com/ ronploof

    Thanks, Kay. It’s funny, my podcast, “Griddlecakes Radio” has been compared with This American Life. It must be the storyteller-thing:-)

  • Joan

    After the first exciting hour of our yard sale, ennui set in. To amuse myself, I started telling potential customers little anecdotes about the objects they picked up. “I took that book on a backpacking trip all over Europe.” “We bought that stack of chairs for our first 4th of July party!” “I can’t tell you how many thousands of leaves that rake put into the green bin.” Stories really can add monetary value!

  • Ron Ploof

    Hi Joan,

    I love this example. Not only did you get to amuse yourself, but you also boosted sales through your stories. I can just imagine the following dialog.

    Customer: How much are you asking for this?

    Joan: $10. I used it to fight off a mugger in Brussels.

    Customer: I’ll give you $5.

    Joan: Really? $5? It saved my life and it just might save yours. Isn’t your life worth $10?

    R~

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