April 10, 2015
What Marketers Can Learn From John Oliver
By James G. Brooks, Jr., Founder & CEO of GlassView

Since it launched in the spring of last year, “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” has been a resounding success for HBO. The show has gained loads of media attention, and averaged a gross audience of four million viewers in its first season, already comparable with HBO’s more legacy late-night program, “Real Time with Bill Maher.”

What is perhaps more interesting is how the show is being promoted online. Each week, the show takes full segments from the previously televised program and posts them on YouTube— all 10-20 minutes of them. This flies in the face of conventional wisdom, redefining the standards for the length of what can be shared.

Marketers looking to make an impact with social videos should take note of John Oliver’s success. Here are four lessons marketers can learn from his show.

1. Television and online go hand-in-hand.

For years, networks were afraid to feature their content on sites like YouTube, because they believed that people would watch them instead of tuning in to the actual show. However, shows like “Key & Peele” and “Saturday Night Live” have only raised their profiles after releasing official, high-quality sketches shortly after they air on television.

Oliver’s videos are a logical extension of that, disseminating the best material from the show online to entice more viewers to tune in to the next episode. Even if it doesn’t have a direct monetary impact, “Last Week Tonight”’s success thoroughly debunks the notion that posting full segments online decreases consumption of the original product. Marketers should be similarly unafraid to spread unrestricted portions of content online to draw attention.

2. Take a strong position.

A lot of the reason Oliver’s videos get so thoroughly circulated online is because they are scathing. Just a look at any part of his recent piece on the NCAA shows that the comedian takes a side and never lets up, making for clear and outstandingly engaging material.

Though Oliver vehemently denies that “Last Week Tonight” is investigative journalism, the show goes out of its way to support its arguments, from analyzing the tax documents of beauty pageants to employing a New York Times writer as its “journalistic fact checker.” Clearly, making “Last Week Tonight” is hard work, but it pays off immensely, with unambiguous, well-researched material to keep readers engaged over the length of 200 Vines. For marketers, a bit of (smart, judicious) controversy can be a key to online video success.

3. Encourage audience participation.

For a particularly scornful piece on cigarette corporation Philip Morris International, Oliver suggested that the company have a more realistic mascot, such as Jeff the Diseased Lung, a sullen, cowboy hat-wearing caricature of the Marlboro Man. The video suggested people post images of Jeff on social media accompanied by the hashtag #JeffWeCan. The result? Jeff trended worldwide. This kind of reaction is ideal for any marketing campaign.

4. Leave ’em laughing.

Oliver’s political and social outreach would not be nearly as effective if each video wasn’t utterly hilarious. It’s simple: Laughter is a massive motivator for engagement, and, with Oliver peppering his diatribes with funny asides and gut-busting quips, those 10-20 minutes go by like nothing.

Bottom line: “Last Week Tonight”’s consistent online popularity shows that audiences are still interested in detailed videos or long-watches. By being unafraid to feature televised content online, taking a strong position, encouraging participation, and putting a humorous spin on their campaigns, marketers can learn from the show’s success.

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