Baratunde Thurston, former Director of Digital at The Onion and author of How to Be Black will be the opening keynote speaker at our B2B Forum in October (register before August 8 and save $300!). He will be talking about creative digital strategy there, so I invited him to Marketing Smarts to talk about, among other things, what he had learned from his experience focusing on digital strategy for one of the Web's most popular humor sites. (You can hear our entire conversation above.)

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Regarding his work at The Onion, I first wanted to know what the "Director of Digital" actually did there. At first he demurred, explaining that he held on to the job so long precisely by NOT providing an answer to that question, adding, "There is a certain longevity in obscurity."

Marketing a Comedy Site Is Serious Business 

All kidding aside (Baratunde is a trained and lethal stand-up comic), being director of digital was indeed a serious and complex job. He was originally hired as Political Editor in the run-up to the 2008 election; one thing led to another, and he soon found himself charged with figuring out how The Onion could best take advantage of the broad range of new digital platforms at its disposal. It already had a loyal audience, what would it have to do to keep and grow that audience on the rapidly evolving, social Web?

That question invited a host of others: "How do we articulate and tell our story on these new digital platforms?" he asked. "What does it mean for The Onion to be on Facebook and Twitter versus Foursquare? What does it mean for us to have an iPhone app and an iPad app and an Android app, other than to have an RSS feed automatically pumped out through all these different screens? That's not creative; it's not interesting; it's not engaging; and, most importantly, it's not fun!"

The challenge thus became, across all these digital channels, "How do we—for ourselves and for our readers, viewers, listeners—make it fun and maintain that voice but apply it through this different language."

Maintaining the Brand Voice 

In other words, serving as director of digital was a daunting task that required devising ways to effectively tie together the print edition, the website, the TV shows, and The Onion's merchandising efforts into one diversified yet coherent online whole. To top it all off, throughout it all he had to maintain the voice that The Onion had so studiously cultivated as the "real" fake authority on current events and "America's Finest News Source." 

Maintaining that voice was complicated by the fact that in the world of social media everyone has not only an opinion but also numerous avenues through which to express it.

"Adjusting that condescending, all-seeing eye [of The Onion] to a participatory internet culture," Baratunde says, "isn't an obvious leap. [Attempting] to preserve that authority while acknowledging the new reality...took a lot of work."

That's Not Funny 

And the work didn't stop there. In addition to figuring out how to incorporate numerous channels into The Onion's media empire and keeping  the voice intact while allowing the masses to chime in, Baratunde also had to attend to the needs of the advertisers. 

This itself required a kind of dance.

On the one hand, advertisers wanted to get into the game and tie their wares more directly to the content. The problem was, The Onion's game is humor and the vast majority of the advertisers just weren't funny, so expectations and limits on that front had to be diplomatically managed.

On the other hand, ironically, some advertisers didn't exactly share The Onion's sense of humor.

"They think they want to be associated with The Onion," Baratunde said, "but they don't. They've never really paid attention to what we do, and then they find themselves offended by something and it's like, 'Well, you don't really know what The Onion is.'"

For these advertisers, Baratunde's advice was pretty straightforward, "Maybe before you start talking about throwing millions of dollars, you should do basic research."

Learn More at the B2B Forum! 

If you'd like to hear Baratunde share "a bevy of war stories" about "digitally marketing fake news" and the power of comedy to "cut through noise" and how "new digital platforms are really great for more engaged storytelling," come on out to the B2B Forum, October 3-5. It's going to be awesome! (Did I mention you can save $300 if you sign up by August 8?)

If you'd like to hear him talk about his book, about why "we need an Ab Blaster for racism,"  and about the risks (and rewards) of using satire to get a political message across, listen to the podcast!

You can listen to the podcast above or download the mp3 and listen at your leisure. We also invite you to subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS. That way, you'll never miss an episode!

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