Monday, August 20, 2012

Social Media, the Good: Team Coco

Conan O’Brien, of course, was one of the casualties of what is now known as The Tonight Show Conflict. In 2004, NBC officially declared that O’Brien, the host of Late Night with Conan O’Brien, would replace Jay Leno as host of The Tonight Show in 2009. By 2008, however, reports emerged that Leno was still doing well in the ratings and was rethinking leaving the show.

In response, NBC announced that Leno would get an earlier timeslot for a new The Jay Leno Show, to precede O’Brien and The Tonight Show. About a year later, NBC decided to move Leno’s show to a later time, which would push Conan, now on The Tonight Show, back into a late-night position. After the dust settled, a disgusted O’Brien ended up signing a deal instead to leave the network.

As is common in such instances, O’Brien was contractually barred from any Internet, television, or radio appearances for almost a year, and he was prohibited from making any negative comments about the situation, NBC, or Leno during this period. In a move to prevent what could have been a disastrous blow to his fan base and career, O’Brien and his team ended up creating a live comedy stage show, The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour. And just how did O’Brien get out the word to his legion of fans? O’Brien turned to Twitter, using just a tweet to announce his 30-city live tour – many locations sold out within hours of the tweet, and additional shows had to be added to meet demand. (For more background on the tour, I suggest watching the documentary which followed the tour, entitled Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop.)

O’Brien announcing his new TBS show via Twitter
Shortly before his tour began, O’Brien took to Twitter again, this time to announce that he had signed a deal with TBS for a new late-night show, to begin once his obligations to NBC were complete. In discussing the decision to embrace the power of social media, O’Brien has since noted that even having a web page would have been a big deal at NBC at that time. “Clearly,” he said, “there was a little bit of a condescending attitude about the web for a long time: ‘It’s cute. The media like to talk about it, but it’s of no real consequences.’ Clearly, that’s changed.” Using Twitter combined with a live tour, O’Brien was able to stay relevant with his fans, during a time when he was under a contractual blackout. In the days before social media, such a blackout, as intended, could be a death knell to a career.

In the time since, the host of TBS’ Conan has been liked by millions on Facebook; has a presence on Tumblr, Flickr and other hot social media spots; has millions of followers on Twitter; and has millions of views on YouTube (although, as we have seen, these numbers can sometimes be questionable). And just how did this new-media strategy develop? O’Brien said it came about after his staff showed O’Brien that he indeed had a grass-roots following. What they realized about these fans was: “They’re very young, very smart, very savvy about technology. They use the Internet, and they’re fans of ours.” O’Brien says, “I was forced to embrace this world and learn how to use it. First thing I found is that it’s all about content....Funny content is funny content anywhere.”

O’Brien evolved in order to embrace his passionate following. Conventional wisdom, according to O’Brien, was that if you give away all your best bits before they have aired, you lose viewers. But O’Brien has since found the opposite to be the case, and that by putting out clips in advance, one can actually build an audience. Tweets and video clips now drive people to the show. And other things have changed as well, making allowances for the various ways in which people now interact with media. As O’Brien says, “The days of ‘I only want people to experience me at 11 on TBS’ are over. The audience is too fragmented, too distracted, and it doesn’t work that way anymore.” O’Brien has also suggested that he would never have changed the way that he did business had he not left NBC, a company entrenched in old thinking. As for now: “It’s not the way I watched television or the way my parents watched,” he added. “It’s a new world.”

Here are the components of the Team Coco social media machine: – features daily blog posts, comments, show tickets, and merchandise.

Flickr, Foursquare, and the Conan Blimp – to promote the show, O’Brien has periodically sent out an orange Conan Blimp to various parts of the country. The blimp is linked to GPS, allowing fans to follow it in real-time on Google Maps. It also features a live cam, has accompanying photos posted on Flickr, and sports a badge on Foursquare.

Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter – O’Brien and his staff pump out regular tweets, often highlighting recent show guest appearances, sometimes just featuring a quip for the day. Music and comedic acts also often send out their own tweets promoting their appearances.

YouTube – besides show clips, O’Brien has used YouTube to make announcements about the show, such as when he announced that old sidekick Andy Richter was coming back for the new TBS show.

Google+ – just this year, O’Brien fielded viewer questions during a live Google+ hangout.

Also see: Social Media, the Bad (and the Good)

With quotes and images from: and

Monday, August 13, 2012

Social Media, the Bad (and the Good)

One cannot be a designer nowadays (or many other things, for that matter) without being cognizant of the importance of social media. It can be a great way to connect with peers, mentors, clients, fans a great way to dig up new leads and build a support base.

There is a flip side, however, to a mentality that prizes sheer numbers of likes and friends and followers. It might be a great ego boost to have followers to the nth degree, but how many of those followers are real, and how many are active? I thought it would be good to explore some of the bad, and some of the good, when it comes to social media.

It was recently reported that both the Obama and the Romney campaigns may have bought a good portion of their Twitter followers, potentially about 30-40% each. Research scientist Jason Ding of Barracuda Labs noticed that Romney’s followers had increased by 17% during a single weekend in July, only to then see 10% of those accounts later suspended within weeks, and about a fourth of the accounts had never sent out a single tweet themselves. Now, this is not a partisan thing – Romney’s campaign is not the only one showing potentially fake followers, as Obamas does as well. And this is not just happening within the world of politics.

In fact, almost 50% of Twitter followers of companies with active profiles might be fake, according to a study by Marco Camisani Calzolari, a corporate communication and digital languages professor in Milan. Using software tools, one can now analyze accounts for activity indicative of a real, active person. Even performers like Lady Gaga are not immune to having apparently fake followers. And being that some people, such as Kim Kardashian, Snoop Dogg, and Charlie Sheen, are paid thousands for a tweeta tweet that is supposedly going out to millions of followers who will hopefully retweet and act on the tweetit is no small issue.

One cannot just blame Obama’s campaign, or Lady Gaga. Companies and celebrities and the like often delegate their public relations activities, including social media activities, to third parties. And sometimes these third parties choose to take shortcuts. But of course, it is ultimately not useful for companies to be sending out their messages to tons of fake followers who produce no results.

To be honest, however, the only thing really shocking about any of this is that people seem surprised at all. If things are made into purely a numbers game, someone is going to game the system. And even I have been blindly solicited by people offering to sell me followers – me, just a simple Twitter user. And in fact, awareness of the ability to buy followers has been around for at least a few years. Although it may seem that current technology and social media move at breakneck speeds, awareness still seems to take a while to trickle down.

All is not so bleak, though, when it comes to making use of social media. It can be a powerful and effective tool when skillfully wielded.

Coming up: Social Media, the Good: Team Coco