Louis C.K, Woody Harrelson, and New Models for Content Marketing and Distribution

by Jack Devlin

Louis C.K is a comedian renowned for his rants about new media. His take on Twitter? “It’s kind of awful and I hate it.”

Yet this is a man who singlehandedly edits and produced his own HBO series on a Macbook Pro, troche and has recently experimented with a radical business model of marketing and content distribution. Not quite the Luddite his pronouncements might suggest then. The prototype Louis C.K tested involved personally uploading his recent show, look ‘Live at the Beacon’ , stomach and offering it, cheap, direct to fans, with no digital restrictions, while also marketing  without the use of ‘old media’. The idea was to cut out the studio middle men and pass the savings on to the customer. The experiment was declared a success with C.K announcing strong sales. So, is this the future of content distribution or is it simply a one off that’s unlikely to be sustainable in the long term?

Louis C.K is something of a jack of all trades. Not only does he control all the creative and technical aspects of his work, he also does his own marketing. To promote the launch of ‘Live at the Beacon’, C.K turned to the popular social news site, Reddit. On Reddit, people with something to plug can do what’s called an ‘Ask Me Anything’ (AMA). In an AMA, the participant is expected to field questions from the sites users (redditors) about anything and everything. AMA’s can be done by anyone but artists and performers often use the site to publicise their work. Redditors are happy to participate in what is essentially a promotional exercise as long as the subject of the AMA is truly prepared to answer everything. If redditors feel that someone is using an AMA to plug their product without offering the Reddit community anything in return, things can turn nasty.

The publicity team behind the recent film release ‘Rampart’ learned this to their detriment. They set up an ‘I’m Woody Harrelson Ask Me Anything’ post on Reddit claiming that Harrelson would do a no holds barred Q& A session. In fact, a PR team, in the guise of Harrelson, was sent in to field the questions. Instead of directly answering the questions posed, the team related everything back to Rampart and instructed the users to “focus on the film, people!” The PR team’s cynicism and insincerity did not go down well with the Reddit community and what ensued was an embarrassing marketing debacle. Most of the responses were in a similar vein to this one by ‘Ghostvortex’: “Dear Sir, this marketing stunt is a piece of s**t, I hope this movie bombs. AMA is not a free ad for your movie, it means ASK ME ANYTHING.” As a community, they expressed their ire by continuously upvoting the question below, ensuring it stayed at the top of the page:

“I swear this is a true story. I went to a high school in LA and you crashed our prom after party (Universal Hilton). You ended up taking the virginity of a girl named Roseanna. You didn’t call her afterwards. She cried a lot. Do you remember any of this?

Louis C.K, however, knew his audience.  18-35, savvy and adept at sniffing out disingenuous marketing ploys. His AMA was a much more successful affair in which he explained the process that went into making the show and his reasoningfor promoting and distributing it in this manner,while also answering  the multitude of off-topic questions fired at him. He was funny, open and, above all, human, and people responded extremely positively. The digital media generation has grown accustomed to the idea of ‘free’(Free downloads, free streaming, etc.), so they can be difficult audience to sell to. But Louis C.K proved that, when targeted in the right way, this is a market that can be successfully tapped.

Good marketing is pretty useless, however, if the product you’re pushing is difficult to buy.  Louis C.K’s main aim with this experiment was to make the whole purchasing process as painless as possible.  He offered the download for $5, much cheaper than the comedy DVDs found in brick and mortar retailers (and a more palatable price to a generation who’ve grown out of the habit of paying $15 plus for content). He also ensured that the download was free of digital rights management software, allowing buyers to easily share the show and view it in any region. All he asked was that customers didn’t upload the show to be ‘torrented’ en masse, and by and large, they didn’t.

He even got the little aspects right. When purchasing online, customers often have to click a box to opt out of receiving related updates and special offers. Louis C.K requested that the box be automatically set to ‘I don’t want to receive’. Customers could tick the ‘I want to receive’ option but they would not be coerced into doing so. A number of redditors stated that they opted in to Louis C.K’s updates purely because he had not pressured them into it.  The project was a declared a great success. Within four days, the download had cleared 200,000 in profit.

This experiment shows the potential, made possible in the digital age, of direct-to-fans communication and sales. This form of dialogue, between an artist and his followers, creates a connection and an artist loyalty that gives customers ‘a reason to buy’, rather than simply download for free. It is also a relatively inexpensive model.

Marketing through new media differs from old media advertising because it allows the consumer to ‘talk back’. Advertisers cannot control this ‘feedback space’ so, if mishandled, the results can sometimes be negative. The recent #bashtag incident involving McDonalds shows the potential pitfalls of a poorly executed new media marketing strategy. In Louis C.K’s case, however, he properly engaged with his customers and the result was extremely positive. New media is constantly in flux and thrives on experimentation, both successful and failed, to remain relevant. While Louis C.K’s model may not be the singular future for marketing and content distribution, it is certainly a credible option, and one that may make traditional labels and studios that little bit more uncomfortable.

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