Daniel Burstein

What Marketers Can Learn From The Onion: Interview with founding editor Scott Dikkers

September 28th, 2016

Change. Is. Scary.

There was a time, not very long ago, when marketers were the only ones that had the resources to get the message out about products. And they did it through print, TV, and radio ads.

And because of this one-sided power, advertisers would pretty much just say whatever ridiculous bunk they could come up with to sell their product. Like this ad from 1931, in which a “doctor” shills for cigarettes.

According to the Stanford School of Medicine, “The doctors depicted were never specific individuals, because physicians who engaged in advertising would risk losing their license. It was contrary to accepted medical ethics at the time for doctors to advertise, but that did not deter tobacco companies from hiring handsome talent, dressing them up to look like throat specialists, and printing their photographs alongside health claims or spurious doctor survey results. These images always presented an idealized physician wise, noble, and caring.”

Not surprisingly, customers became skeptical over time. And marketers’ jobs got harder. But that was nothing compared to what was about to happen.

dikkers interview blog pic

The digital revolution

In the year 2000, 50% of adult Americans were using the Internet, according to Pew Research Center. By 2013, that number hit 86%.

With the advent of the web, more and more customers were given an outlet to express their opinions about products and services. This exploded further with social media. No longer did marketers and brands have the market cornered on communication about products and services.

This was a massive change that made marketers’ jobs exponentially harder. Sure, there was the splintering of media. But the real challenge was in the change in brand voices. The Internet created the most skeptical generation yet. If marketers could no longer get away with ridiculous boasts, what should their voice be to customers? How could they convince and connect with customers in the age of the Internet?

“America’s Finest News Source”

While hands were wringing on Madison Avenue, one of the brands that figured out how to navigate this new digital world was making the transition from print to web in Madison, Wisconsin. The Onion emerged as one of the brands that “got it” in the early days of the Internet, whatever that elusive “it” was.

Since then, the satirical newspaper has grown into a brand that attracts 7.5 million unique visits per month and is worth as much as $500 million (based on the “less than $200 million” Univision Communications paid for a 40%  stake earlier this year).

To get some ideas on how marketers can develop authentic messaging and build relationships with skeptical digital consumers, I talked to Scott Dikkers, the founding editor and longest-serving editor-in-chief of The Onion. Scott is a featured speaker at MarketingSherpa Summit 2017 in Las Vegas, and will judge the MarketingSherpa funny marketing headline contest we’re running right now. (Just tweet a funny marketing headline using #Sherpa17 by Friday, September 30, 2016, and the creators of the two best headlines will each win a ticket to Summit. You can learn more in the blog post Millennials something Snapchat something something.)

Everything we talked about wouldn’t be a fit for the typical brand marketer. After all, at the end of the day, Scott and his team were writing jokes, not marketing copy. However, by seeing an example of ridiculously engaging content, and learning how it is created, marketers can get an outside-the-industry perspective on what resonates with people and how they can safely replicate some of these ideas within the confines of brand standards.

Here are some lessons for marketers from our conversation:

If you want customers to engage, do more than sell

Of course the main goal of marketers is to ultimately sell a product. However, for many types of purchases, having customers engage with your brand first is important. Over time they learn about your company, and ultimately you have served, informed, and won the trust of customers enough for them to make a purchase.

“It is always troubling when the core message of the marketing is ‘buy this product,’” Scott said.

To build trust over time, you must find the right voice for your brand. And that voice can’t simply be to sell, sell, sell. For The Onion, that voice was simple – be funny.

“We would belittle our own company because we knew that would be funny. The only rule for us was – it’s got to be funny,” he said.

Find out who your ideal customer is, and serve them as hard as you can

If your brand tries to be everything to everyone, it will end up being about nothing. Even with segmentation’s ability to craft different messages to different customers, you necessarily have to identify some people as not being the ideal customer for your product.

Scott’s version of this idea is, “I feel like there’s a certain segment that’s going to love what I’m doing and I just can’t spend time worrying about pissing off people who aren’t in that group.”

For your brand, you likely won’t take as extreme of an edge with your messaging. But you do have to focus sharply on your ideal customer(s) and not worry if your messages don’t appeal to people your product can’t serve.

Real-time marketing is about preparation

Two weeks after the events of September 11, The Onion addressed the news head-on with stories like “American Life Turns into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie.”  This is an issue that The Poynter Institute now calls “legendary” and Yahoo! News says is “now classic.”

I personally remember this issue of The Onion very clearly. The nation was so sensitive following those attacks. And when the issue came out, it was almost like an official confirmation that it was okay to laugh again.

But it was a very daring issue to publish. While Scott was taking a hiatus as editor-in-chief at that time and his assistant editor, Rob Segal, was editor, he was in touch with them and had some unique insights to share. This was really  an impactful lesson for marketers, so I’m including an extended quote from Scott:

“I think one of the reasons that issue was so great was that by that time, The Onion writing staff culture had learned so much about when it’s appropriate to make certain types of jokes about certain types of things because of all the work we had done on ‘Our Dumb Century’ because it was a two-year long process working on that book and the book came out in 1999. We made jokes about the Titanic and we figured nothing felt inappropriate about that because it was 100 years ago and nobody from that was still alive. You could make any joke you wanted.

But as we got closer to the present day, we were making jokes about the Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City and stuff like that and then it started to feel like, ‘That’s interesting. Why is it different when you make a joke about this as opposed to the Titanic?’ And we decided we’re not going to have there be any difference because they’re all contained in the same book and they should all have the same context. We really learned that rule that you may have heard, comedy equals tragedy plus time.

We learned that the real rule is comedy equals tragedy period. The best jokes come from tragedy and humor is a great coping mechanism when there’s tragedy in the world. People need to laugh. Everybody is going to be able to laugh after a certain period after a tragedy, but even right away it can serve as a great release valve and a first step toward healing. It’s a really powerful thing. They used that 9/11 issue to do just that.

There was so much fan mail about people who were grateful for The Onion coming in and basically telling people it’s okay to laugh. That’s what makes us human. You’re not laughing at the victims. You’re not laughing at the tragedy, but there’s a lot to laugh at here in this world.”

There has been a lot of press about the success of brands like Oreo, and how its parent company Nabisco reacted quickly and cleverly when the power went out at the Super Bowl and reaped the social network and media rewards for doing so.

But there has been even more press about brands stumbling into using real-time events unartfully and alienating more customers than they attract.

The Onion’s team of writers were successful with their post-9/11 issue because they were prepared. How prepared is your team the next time a real-time marketing opportunity arises?

The best ideas come from a lot of ideas

All successful marketing campaigns are built off of an insightful initial concept. The Onion isn’t so different. They need a solid concept with a clear, concise headline to pay it off.

Asked about the creative process and how they get to those successful concepts, Scott explained, “Quality is all about quantity. So The Onion is well known for producing and reviewing hundreds of jokes, maybe a thousand or more jokes every week even though only a dozen or two will actually be used. So I believe that the best material can only be found when you generate just an exhaustive amount of material and can sift through that for the gems.”

Learn more from Scott at MarketingSherpa Summit 2017

As I mentioned, Scott will be a featured speaker at MarketingSherpa Summit in Las Vegas. When I asked him if there was anything else he wanted marketers to know, he did a little marketing for his own session:

“I guess my talk at the conference is the morning after the big party. So I would just urge people if they want to hear more, just take it easy on the booze and get up early and come and listen to me because I’ll have a lot of funny stories about some of the particular lessons learned on the journey of building up The Onion over the years.”

You can follow Daniel Burstein, Senior Director of Editorial Content, MarketingSherpa, on Twitter @DanielBurstein.

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Daniel Burstein

About Daniel Burstein

Daniel Burstein, Senior Director of Editorial Content, MECLABS. Daniel oversees all content and marketing coming from the MarketingExperiments and MarketingSherpa brands while helping to shape the editorial direction for MECLABS – digging for actionable information while serving as an advocate for the audience. Daniel is also a speaker and moderator at live events and on webinars. Previously, he was the main writer powering MarketingExperiments publishing engine – from Web clinics to Research Journals to the blog. Prior to joining the team, Daniel was Vice President of MindPulse Communications – a boutique communications consultancy specializing in IT clients such as IBM, VMware, and BEA Systems. Daniel has 18 years of experience in copywriting, editing, internal communications, sales enablement and field marketing communications.

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