I write this in the wee hours of the morning after a long day of conference calls, and to say I’m punchy is a bit of an understatement. I’m accompanied by the far end of my cable television service. On channel 357 I found, appropriately enough, a rerun of the 1963 TV show, “The Outer Limits.” For those who don’t recall the show, it features an iconic opening in which the announcer intones:

“There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter. We can change the focus to a soft blur … or sharpen it to crystal clarity. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: there is nothing wrong with your television set. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to ― The Outer Limits.”

Somehow, in the early morning hours, the paranoia is more palpable. Is the television set really in control? As long as I don’t grab for the remote, I am forced to concede it so.

In the same way, as long as you, my fellow marketer, don’t close this browser window, I’m in control of the discussion here. I could make the next paragraph about something completely irrelevant if I want to.

Did you know that there are 35 species of water lilies in the northern hemisphere? Additionally, there are numerous hybrid water lilies. One, the Mexican water lily, is an invasive species.

See what I did there? I told you I could.

Back to the subject at hand.

Jacques Lacan, the noted mid-twentieth century French intellectual psychoanalyst/ philosopher touched on this subject, but given that I know very little about psychology, philosophy, or paranoid French intellectuals, it’s of little help. The only thing I can tell you is this: He noted that when a child sees his reflection in a mirror for the first time, that child realizes that he can be regarded by others from an external perspective. In short, we are being watched. We are being judged.

But …

Can we be manipulated by the gaze of others?

Before the Age of Enlightenment, people believed in the “emission theory” of sight. It was thought that some sort of rays emanating from one’s eyes were responsible not only for sight, but also for the ability to affect the world around us. This is where the concepts of “the evil eye” or “the all-seeing eye” come from. Check out that freaky eyeball on the back of your dollar bill: are the rays going into the eye … or emanating from it? This idea is also responsible for phrases like “if looks could kill” and “he undressed her with his eyes.”

But now we’ve created a conflict. As marketers, we believe we’re controlling the message (and subsequently, our target audience) just as “The Outer Limits” is controlling my television and my thoughts (seriously, I need sleep). On the other hand, our target audience has a primitive superstitious belief (at least metaphorically) that they are controlling things with their eyes.

In fact, the audience can always close the browser window, hang up the phone, or delete an email. I routinely toss so-called junk mail into my garbage can with nary a glance. It’s a shame, really; marketers spend hours creating those messages only to have them go amiss. It’s not that our messages fail to reach our audiences; it’s that our messages fail to get through to our intended audience. So it follows that it would be optimal to allow the target audience to have some control over the messages they see.

Interactive media has made this more practical than ever. Microsites were a good start, but that idea has evolved into the “web documentary,” also known as the “interactive documentary,” or the “multimedia documentary.” It’s my firm belief that the marketing world will soon fully embrace what the documentary world has been experimenting with for a few years now: interactive, non-linear storytelling.

Imagine our marketing campaigns playing out like video games. (Viral much? Yes!) Our audience would be able to browse through content guided by their own interests and perhaps stop to see a very short video about a subject, request information, ask a question, get instructions, see reviews, look for events, peruse an infographic, run a calculator, manipulate data, peek in on a live-streaming camera, chat (!), and on and on.

Do me a favor.

Close your eyes.

No! Wait! You can’t read if you close your eyes.

Change of plans. Eyes open, but … as you read my words, try to hearken back to your childhood. Turn your gaze inward and recall going to a children’s museum with your parents. Try to feel the excitement. Once there, we were free to roam. To explore. Twist a knob. Lift a flap. We were allowed to touch and our eyes didn’t know where to land because we wanted to see it all!

Well, a web documentary can transport us to the outer limits of our childhood. It can inspire the marketer’s creativity and stimulate our audience’s curiosity. It can help us tell our story by making use of a full complement of multimedia tools.

A simple, albeit prosaic, analogy is this: Web documentaries are to microsites what Prezi is to PowerPoint.

Visitors learn about our history, our products, our services, our customers, our brand, our story. But they do it by clicking here, reading there, listening some other place, scrolling and hovering and watching.

And we can embed survey questions along the way. We’ll use those answers to create new “chapters” or “areas” for our web documentaries so that they’re not just a one-and-done tactic. They’ll live as long as we need them to do so.

AND! We can even have some of those survey questions unlock “hidden” content.

Web documentaries are … amazing. They’re interactive. They’re non-linear. They’re real time. They’re … live!

And since they’re interactive, the narrative advances through the actions taken by our visitors. Get it? The user determines the journey.

The whole point is that user participation is the key element that gives meaning to this new audiovisual genre. Each and every journey is unique because each and every member of our audience directs his own gaze.

Now, how stinking cool is that?

No. Sadly, I’ve not been able to infect my leadership team with my enthusiasm, so I have been to date unable to create what I see in my mind’s eye … a web documentary for commercial purposes.

But I have childlike certainty that I will prevail.

And so, having at last reached The Outer Limits, I will now re-seize control of my television set, turn it off, and go to bed, where I will likely have nightmares about being gazed upon by “the evil eye,” but at least I will do so with the confidence that we all are now better-inspired marketers.