Conan O'Brien is a marketing genius.
During the long dispute earlier this year over the fate of the "Tonight Show," the lanky redhead has exhibited an uncommon and highly effective understanding of his audience and a mastery of social media and marketing savvy.
On Jan. 10, O'Brien's team registered the Internet domain teamcoco.com. Two days later, O'Brien fired off that famous kiss-off open letter to NBC (the one that began "People of Earth ... "). On Jan. 13, Mike Mitchell, a 20-something O'Brien fan, created the iconic "I'm with Coco" image and started a Facebook group supporting the beleaguered host. Five days later, O'Brien kicked off a brilliantly inventive and wildly funny final week on the "Tonight Show," ending with a promise that he would continue to perform, even if he had to travel around the country and do it in 7-Eleven parking lots.
A month of speculation on Conan's options followed — would he go to ABC? Fox? Comedy Central? — while the comic remained out of the spotlight. Then suddenly on Feb. 24, O'Brien hit the Internet in a big way — via Twitter.
"Today I interviewed a squirrel in my backyard and then threw to commercial," he wrote. "Somebody help me."
Everybody from Perez Hilton to the Christian Science Monitor to social-media news site Mashable.com announced his arrival. Within his first 10 minutes on Twitter, O'Brien had garnered a few thousand followers. About four hours after his first tweet, he had more than 129,000 (Jay Leno, who had been tweeting for substantially longer, and whose tweets — such as "Jay shows you Goofy Products from Around the World" — often read as corporate promos, had only 30,000 at that point). O'Brien currently has around 895,000 Twitter fans.
O'Brien's 16th tweet, which he posted on March 11, set off another online frenzy: He was going on tour.
Most shows on the 30-date "Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television" tour, which kicked off April 12 in Eugene, Ore., and makes a stop at the Austin Music Hall on Friday, sold out within hours, with no Team Conan promotion beyond that single tweet.
Finally, O'Brien used Twitter to announce — on the opening date of his tour — that he had secured a deal with cable network TBS to host a late-night show beginning in November.
"Hey," you ask yourself, "I have a Twitter account. I have a website. I'm at least as good a jewelry-maker as Conan O'Brien is a comic (and way better than Jay Leno). Why can't I get millions of fans to my Etsy page?"
OK, so you've never asked yourself that. Still, the question is valid: Conan O'Brien was, for all intents and purposes, a loser. He took over the No. 1 "Tonight Show" and — for reasons at least partially beyond his control — ran the ratings into the ground. He was routinely getting clobbered by David Letterman, whereas former "Tonight Show" host Leno had bested the CBS "Late Show" host for years. O'Brien whined when NBC decided to return Leno to late nights and kick his show back half an hour. And he went on "60 Minutes" a week ago and whined some more — even though he was paid millions to leave and now has a sold-out tour and new show. What does this loser know that you don't?
Short answer? His audience.
According to John D'Acierno, vice president and associate director of marketplace planning for Austin's GSD&M Idea City, O'Brien's youngish viewers are likely heavy users of social media, so the approach makes perfect sense. But he says Conan's savvy marketing sense goes beyond demographics.
"He was really wise to use social media because it's also in many ways an activist media," D'Acierno explains. "If you think about how the Iranian protests were really broadcast throughout the world, it was via social media. You look at what happened on the Academy Awards, where the winners of ‘The Cove' — you know, they whipped out that banner that had that text message attached to it and that was part of their social media agenda. Haiti relief efforts have really utilized social media. So I think that because it's this activist media, it really helped Conan become ‘Conan the cause.' "
D'Acierno says O'Brien positioned himself as the little guy, the upstart underdog fighting the monolithic corporate agenda and big-dog Leno. "The whole ‘I'm with Coco' was probably the part where it really kind of exploded and, you know, touched a nerve," he says.
This desire to support O'Brien resulted in some surprising fan-based initiatives. First there was Mitchell's Facebook page and the "I'm with Coco" image (O'Brien's team wisely contacted Mitchell and negotiated rights to use the image). That page has almost a million fans. In April, Lamar Advertising — on its own dime — posted O'Brien's Twitter musings in real time to 225 electronic billboards around the nation. And, D'Acierno says, Jay Leno's profile page on online video site Hulu.com was tagged with derogatory (and humorous) descriptions such as "sell-out," "grandpa," "corporate shill" and his favorite, "Lenodict Arnold."
"That's the beauty of social media," D'Acierno says. "Your fans do your work for you. But it only really works if you have something that is really motivating to people."
Finally, O'Brien's guerrilla online campaign has been so successful because it rings true.
"Everything that's coming out sounds like it is directly from Conan, rather than a marketing message or an advertising message," D'Acierno explains. "Now, obviously, he's got a whole team of advisers and he's obviously very marketing and media savvy. But everything felt very genuine and authentic — it had that typical Conan sense of humor and a little bit of caustic, biting humor as well, so it just seemed very, very real."
Had O'Brien gone the traditional (and often ridiculed) route of, say, taking out full-page ads in Variety, D'Acierno suggests his position would have come across as artificial and manufactured. But by hitting his fan (and potential fan) base where they live — online — and by exploiting his own caustic sense of humor, "he could take out his pound of flesh in this very believable way."
The jury's out on whether the swelling of O'Brien's fan base will pay off in Nielsen numbers when he returns to TV, but D'Acierno — a casual fan — is hopeful.
"It's going to bring in some new viewers. Whether that will be something that they can maintain, you know, that's in question," he says. "I think the big question will be, did people join on because it's ‘Conan the cause' or were they truly Conan show fans? If these new people who joined the cause like his humor and his show — and what the exact format of his show is going to be remains to be seen — then it will be a big win for TBS. If not, it will probably be a comparable audience to what he had at NBC."
We'll find out in November. In the mean time, lucky fans can catch O'Brien on Friday at the sold-out Austin Music Hall show (we'll have a review and tweets from the event). And if you missed out on tickets, there's always the comic's own tweets, such as this gem from April 26: "We've added a show in Michigan. Finally I get to perform in a state shaped like a fat guy's hand."