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

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