Why John Oliver's Digital Strategy Is Winning the Internet

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It's a great time to be doing political satire when the world is on a knife edge. - John Oliver

Chances are, you’ve seen a clip of Last Week Tonight pop up in your Facebook news feed. HBO’s new weekly late-nighter, hosted by British comedian and Daily Show alum John Oliver already has an average audience of four million, equal to HBO’s other weekly talk show Real Time With Bill Maher and fast gaining ground on primetime darling Girls.

The volume of easy inbound traffic and social referrals generated by Oliver’s YouTube clips has been a gold mine for click-starved Web publishers.

“Each week, the Content industry observes a sacred ritual: Together, but not quite in sync, dozens of websites embed and then post the longest segment from John Oliver’s HBO show, Last Week Tonight,” dryly wrote The Awl, in a post which included a handy chart detailing the top ten publishers who milk Last Week Tonight clips for social engagement. “That John Oliver’s weekly video(s) will go viral is, at this time, a given. Whether or not the posts that embed those videos will go viral is another matter altogether.”

An Upworthy post titled “John Oliver Goes Off On An Epic, Fact-Checked, Mic-Dropping Rant For 13 Minutes That You Need To See” scored 358,069 interactions, Mother Jones reaped 86,064 interactions from Oliver’s rant about the Scottish independence vote, and The Huffington Post regularly harvests 15,000-20,000+ Facebook interactions per post that aggregates Oliver & Company. Many publishers become aggregators instead of creators, even though they should treat their products as assets instead of commodities.

HBO’s savvy digital strategy of posting full clips on YouTube is working to spark conversation and spread John Oliver's clips virally. Of course, the reason the strategy works so well is because Oliver’s shrewd social commentaries and slick segments are undeniably entertaining and thought-provoking, but also because HBO, a premium cable provider, isn’t gating all of Oliver’s content behind its subscription-only services.

Uploading full clips each week from the best moment of Oliver’s long-form segments to an owned YouTube channel is a brilliant strategic move, markedly different from HBO’s previous and current hit shows (The Sopranos came before YouTube, and you’ll still have to pony up if you wanna watch Game of Thrones or Boardwalk Empire), but it shows a keen understanding of how content sharing on the social Web works.

Traditional publishers and media companies have the hardest time with this. Their woefully-antiquated digital strategy (if they have one) usually centers around a paywall. A “hard” paywall requires readers to pay for yearly or monthly subscription to access most or all premium digital content. A "soft" (or metered) paywall permits readers to view a limited number of free articles before prompting them to buy a paid subscription to access the rest.

NewsCycle, an enterprise marketing software company for the news media industry, polled 45 print publishers, and found that nearly three out of four newspapers surveyed charge for online content, and almost half erected a "hard" paywall. The newspapers with hard paywalls reported retention rates as low as 15 to 20 percent, while metered paywalls averaged 58 percent - with some reporting as high as 90 percent reader retention.

Even prestige publishers who create original content and do original reporting instead of aggregating fail to see the power of giving some good stuff away for free. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, Reuters, Bloomberg, Advertising Age, among others, keep digital content behind some form of hard or soft paywall.

The New York Times (which charges $455 a year to access all content on their website, smartphone, and tablet) has seen some success with the metered paywall. Since instituting a paywall in 2011, the Times generated $91 million in 2012 from digital subscriptions and made roughly $360 million in digital revenue. (Although the once-torrid growth hit a slowdown in 2013, the paper-of-record still adds digital subscribers at a rate of about 100,000 a year, and went from zero to 699,000 subscribers in just nine quarters.)

But unless you’re The New York Times (and even if you are), most casual Internet consumers will just not bother. Finding content and information for free is only a few Google searches away. The plain truth for most publishers is most people just won’t pay $455 a year to view your content –– but they will watch a two-minute YouTube clip for free.

Conventional industry wisdom would warn that if people can consume premium content for free now, why would they want to pay for it later? HBO’s end-game for Last Week Tonight is not necessarily new subscribers. HBO could easily keep all of John Oliver behind the paywall of premium cable or its streaming service, HBO GO. But they don’t. Why? Because they understand the power of a strong product paired with a strong headline. The very-soft paywall of Oliver’s publicly-available clips doesn't cannibalize HBO’s existing products, and raises brand awareness for a new product. And Oliver’s numbers and ratings only validate the strategy

Brands only enjoy cultural relevance when they create quality content, and quality content only enjoys cultural relevance when it can be discussed, debated, and freely passed along. It’s digital democracy in action. John Oliver understands that.

So instead of keeping fresh, quality content behind subscription-only paywalls, publishers should act more like a premium brand: invest in both high-value original content creation and open content delivery. Make it good, then make it shareable. Don’t be stingy with your products. Set your content free. Publishers often grapple with advertising revenues, and paywalls seems like a logical revenue stream. But when the public talks about your content organically, new audiences and advertisers are organically attracted to your platform. And that, my fellow Americans, is the trick.

Matthew Bryan Beck is a New York-based writer, strategist, and advertising creative and a contributor to ReadWrite. Follow him on Twitter @ibeck.