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Louis C.K.’s lesson for marketers: Honesty is the best strategy

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Comedian Louis C.K. recently self-released a video of his stand-up special, “Live at the Beacon Theater,” for $5 online. He personally paid for the production costs up front in an experiment to see if this was a cheaper, more efficient, and less restrictive method of getting his content to his fans. In doing so, he cut out paying the middlemen — including the marketing team — and avoided the red tape of working with studio executives.

In twelve days, Louis C.K. earned more than $1 million from people downloading the special — far more than the $170,000 it cost to produce the video. Louis C.K. gave his thoughts in a post on his site:

“I would have been paid [less than $200,000] by a large company to simply perform the show and let them sell it to you, but they would have charged you about $20 for the video … This way, you only paid $5, you can use the video any way you want.”

Coming from the online marketing world of The Search Agency, I was particularly interested in how he was able to reap a significant ROI without using any of the traditional or online marketing efforts usually made on behalf of comedians and entertainers. Google “Jerry Seinfeld” or “Jay Leno” and you’ll see the paid AdWords links.

Instead, Louis C.K. announced the release of the special on his website and followed up with a personal plea from his Twitter account: “Please don’t torrent this video. I paid for the whole thing with my own stupid money.” He also participated in a Reddit Q&A session with his fans and he discussed his video on “Fresh Air” on NPR. He didn’t appear on Letterman or Leno, he didn’t do an interview with the New York Times. He didn’t do any of the more traditional publicity executed by the PR and marketing teams in the lead-up to a big media product release.

He let his fans do all of the PR.

An alternative comedian, Louis C.K. does not have a PR team or community manager to manage social media assets. He claims to have little knowledge of social media. He told Conan O’Brien that he “hates Twitter.”  There is no official Louis C.K. Facebook page, and he personally manages and occasionally engages his 897,707 Twitter followers. At the end of the day, Louis C.K. followed the most basic best practices of social media and promotions outreach and reaped all the benefits of a best-case scenario.

Let me reiterate something — Louis C.K. is not terribly famous.  He doesn’t have a built-in fan base that will buy anything he tweets.  He has been a successful writer behind the scenes, but has not had enough onscreen time to earn mainstream fame.  His TV show “Louie” on FX was very quietly nominated for two Emmys in 2011, but the show’s highest viewership in history was recorded at 1.57 million viewers.  This is just a fraction of reigning comedy The Big Bang Theory’s lowest rating of 7.34 million viewers. Even reruns of The Big Bang Theory on cable syndication regularly defeat Louie — just last week 4.3 million viewers turned in to TBS to watch a rerun.

Without the luxury of stardom, Louis C.K. sold $1 million of video downloads by trusting his audience. He showed this by selling DRM-free videos, then gently asking them to purchase, not pirate. This openness built a relationship of mutual trust and respect with his fans.  Companies looking to create successful online marketing campaigns should try to build similarly long-term relationships with customers based on trust and direct communication.

All this success happened in the middle of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) bill controversy. Louis C.K. promoted his own video and demonstrated innovative entrepreneurship without losing significant revenue to Internet piracy. And he did this without any legislative digital protection, proving that making original content available, convenient, and reasonably priced can be enough to quell illegal downloads. Louis C.K. said on his website that “if anybody stole it, it wasn’t many of you. Pretty much everybody bought it.” Perhaps the burden should fall on companies to create products that appeal to willing buyers instead of asking legislators for protection.

Here is my list of lessons from the success of Louis C.K.’s self-released video:

  1. Build relationships with customers using an approach that is engaging, personal, and honest.
  2. Work toward long-term relationships with your customers so that they will trust your brand as long as you deliver high quality content and products.
  3. Create a reasonable price. When the price point is attainable, both fans and people on the fence are willing to pay for the product rather than hunt for a pirated version.
  4. Read up on the Stop Online Piracy Act. Stay informed when the bill returns to the House of Representatives this year. Check out Sergey Brin’s Google+ post and I Work for the Internet.

The thing is — Louis C.K.’s online marketing campaign wasn’t really a campaign. It was a public agreement that he made with his audience. He promised to create and release an honest product, and the audience promised to continue supporting his future projects. The consumers didn’t just buy a DRM-free download of Louis C.K.’s standup special — they bought into a trusted relationship with the comedian.

Jessica Lee is a SEO specialist with The Search Agency, an established search marketing firm with expertise in search, display and social media. 

17 Responses to “Louis C.K.’s lesson for marketers: Honesty is the best strategy”

  1. Most of the commentators have already addressed the points of passionate engagement and logical pricepoint. Louis C.K. is amongst the vanguard of content creators (writers and musicians are amongst them) who are going down a path which, in a rather prophetic post last year, I called ‘Truth Marketing’ Jennifer’s analysis here is spot on.

  2. Corey S Vecchiarino

    Louis CK should be invited to testify to congress about why SOPA is unnecessary if content producers just adjusted to the free market as well as he did. Rather than strong armed their customers though the government by bribing them.

  3. As a followup comment I saw him on a recent J Fallon show where he humbly thanked his fans for their honest support; advised Jimmy he had made more money than planned or wanted, and listed the staff and charities that benefitted. He gave away more than 75% if I remember correctly.

  4. AsSeeOnTV

    If I’m not mistaken, he did appear on Leno where he did a bit with an old 99¢ or so marked, Leno DVD, taking out the Leno liner and saying that you could DL his show and put his liner on the old case and put his show in the case that the Leno video was in.

  5. not famous? No fanbase? You’re wrong. Louis ck often said worldwide touring more than paid the bills — the show on fx was just a fun project he’d only do if there was no meddling. 800,000+ followers is a strong fanbase. He built his recognition thanks to “the machine” and that’s how he was able to pull this off. It will not work for people who started on the internet.

  6. It should be remembered that Louis CK, while not quite mainstream, has a passionate following. The people who like him, love him, so they are prepared to pay (as I did). I don’t know how well this would work for someone who a lot of people enjoy but aren’t passionate about.

    This is not a bad thing though. There is enough content out there that we should pay for what we “love” and artists should aim to build a passionate following.

  7. statingtheobvious

    This is beyond asinine. Honestly whoever wrote this should find another line of work. The reason Louis CK could build this relationship with his “consumers” is because he is a he, not an it. That is, Louis CK is a human being, not a corporation, and more specifically, a human being whom his fans feel they know intimately as a result of his very self-revealing writing and performance. Fans know and love Louis in the way one can only love and know a person. This has zero applicability to corporate marketing.

  8. Brandon

    There are a lot of factors, I think, that made this initiative successful, many of which were mentioned in the article. However, one that I haven’t seen mentioned before is the fact the Louis CK is a well known guy even before all this.

    It is easier for somebody like him, that already has had a lot of success in show business, to ask his fans to pay a few bucks to see him perform.

    I think that is an important factor that is overlooked when crediting the success of his initiative.

    • Of course you have to be somewhat well known to sell something well. When in history has someone sold a product successfully that nobody knew about or wanted? That doesn’t make sense.
      In fact the article points out he isn’t very well known comparatively to others. Maybe I’m not seeing what your trying to say?

  9. The reason he was successful was twofold:
    He sold the product at a very reasonable price. $20 for a DVD in this day and age when the cost of everything else is dropping is ridiculous. It’s a biproduct of the second point:

    He produced it “himself”. There was no big studio taking 90% of the profits. I can almost guarantee he got sales from that fact alone from people who want more artists to follow in his footsteps. I’ll take DRM free content that pays the artist all day long over anything that supports the MAFIAA’s. I’ve yet to even watch the video but I purchased it day 1 just to counter-act anyone who may be pirating it. I do like louis CK anyways, but I also wanted to support his cause.