The marketing genius of Louis C.K.
Columnist Patrick Armitage believes Louis C.K. is a great marketer not just because the comic violates every rule in email marketing, but because he knows exactly what his audience needs.
It started in 2012 with an innocuous subject line: “I’m going on the road.”
What followed was a marketing strategy the likes of which had never been seen before. An artist. Selling his own tickets. On his own website. For one price.
In one move, Louis C.K. changed the economics and promotion of ticketing for his fans. In the email, sent September 25, 2012, he explained:
By selling the tickets exclusively on my site, I’ve cut the ticket charges way down and absorbed them into the ticket price. To buy a ticket, you join NOTHING. Just use your credit card and buy the damn thing. opt in to the email list if you want, and
you’ll only get emails from me. [sic]
Read the full email here. (Warning: Contains strong language, obviously.)
He sold his tickets for $45 across the board. The guy in the first row and the guy in the last row? They’ll both pay 45 bucks.
The comic warned scalpers, too.
Also, you’ll see that if you try to sell the ticket anywhere for anything above the original price, we have the right to cancel your ticket (and refund your money). this is something I intend to enforce. [sic] There are some other rules you may find annoying but they are meant to prevent someone who has no intention of seeing the show from buying the ticket and just flipping it for twice the price from a thousand miles away.
If you bought a ticket from a scalper, there was a chance the ticket wouldn’t be honored at the door. Louis C.K. said in other interviews that he had people monitoring third-party ticketing sites looking to cancel any scalped tickets.
This discouraged fans from buying tickets through sites like StubHub. Why risk paying double or triple face value with the fear the ticket would be canceled by the comic’s people?
And here’s the crazed genius of this one email. He violated every rule in email marketing despite the magnitude of the announcement.
- The subject line wasn’t specific.
- The email content was too long, addressing too many things, without a big, flashy call to action.
- The email didn’t have any catchy images or GIFs.
- There were massive spelling, spacing and punctuation errors throughout. For example: “Not also paying an exhorbanant fee for the privalege of buying a ticket.”
- There was zero branding whatsoever (although you could argue that is his brand).
- As mentioned earlier, the language is terrifically obscene (notably the call to action for opting into his newsletter — you’ll have to read that yourself).
This new way of selling tickets was a big deal. And yet, if I looked at this email the way I read other “promotional” emails (just glancing at that subject line and scanning the content), I would’ve missed all of it. I had to read the whole email to understand the magnitude of his announcement.
I learned a lot from this one email — the paradigm-shifting ticketing process notwithstanding.
What “knowing your audience” really looks like
That email is the finest example of knowing your audience.
Louis C.K.’s comedy act is that of an imperfect, flawed man. And this email personifies him.
This email is the fat, sweaty guy in a black T-shirt and jeans of marketing emails. Very few, if any, comedians or companies could get away with an email like this.
Marketing emails work so hard at being these sparkly, gussied-up and cheeky attempts to get your attention that they all start looking the same.
Authentic is such a cliched marketing word, but this email is authentic Louis C.K. It’s his voice. It’s raw. It’s honest. This is what his fans want and expect.
Knowing your audience trumps every single marketing best practice out there. That’s it.
Know your audience, and you, too, can send expletive-laden emails without running it through spellcheck (or whatever is the equivalent to your audience). Knowing your audience gives you license to take risks.
But there’s more…
I look forward to, and read, every single Louis C.K. email. I give his email more time and attention than those I get from family. Not proud of this, but it’s true.
Never pass up an opportunity to surprise
Don’t be fooled: Louis C.K.’s marketing isn’t slipshod either.
For example, I forgot my password to louisck.net. Here’s the password retrieval email I received.
Apparently you forgot your password? Ok, so here’s your new one, stupid:
EMAIL: [My email]
Here’s the login page in case you forgot that too:
He nailed it. The attention to detail, the humor, everything rolled into the password retrieval email, of all places.
And what about emails to fix an error? Yet another opportunity to surprise and delight (two cliched, but apt, marketing words) his fans. It reads:
It’s been pointed out to me by literally tens of thousands of people that I failed to provide a link to my website within my last email regarding “Todd Barry the Crowd Work Tour” being for sale on my site louisck.net for 5 dollars. So here is the link. http://louisck.net.
That’s really it. But, while I have your attention, lets chat for a minute.
So. How ARE you???? Can you believe all this stuff going on? I KNOW! What is HER problem?? Oh my god. Seriously? I heard he died. He didnt die? that’s WEIRD.
Yeah. Yeah. So. Cool. Here’s the link one more time. http://louisck.net.
Okay. Have a great day. Try your best and get home safe.
Your annoying person,
Great, right? He’s essentially ad-libbing in an email that goes out to thousands of people. And it feels personal — like he’s sending it just to me.
Keep it simple
In the always-on, multi-channel marketing communication world of brands, Louis C.K. uses one channel: email. He dropped Twitter. He’s not on Instagram. And why would he be? These channels couldn’t be more at odds with his character and perspective on technology.
Why? Because his end product is so good that he’s in the advantageous position to simplify his promotional strategy. You want news from Louis C.K.? You opt in to his email. That’s it. Simple.
Just recently, he released a show through his site called “Horace and Pete.” Again, his strategy ran at odds with marketing convention. An email went out at 10:20 ET on January 30, 2016 (that’s a Saturday morning, BTW).
A cursory search for “what’s the best time to send an email” returns a deluge of facts, figures, conjectures, opinion and best practices… that Louis C.K. didn’t read. He just sent it out.
And the first email “promoting” the show had the subject line: “A brand new thing from Louis C.K.” and read:
Horace and Pete episode one is available for download. $5.
We hope you like it.
That was it. No clever turn of phrase. No discount to subscribers. No long lead-in about how this was his passion project and how he spent all his time and money going toward something he believed in… blah blah blah.
This was simple. And the beauty was that it was a stark difference from the first email of his I referenced earlier.
Remove every objection to purchase
Now, did I go out and download it? I did not. I waited. I hemmed and hawed. I read reviews and think pieces on it. I discussed it with friends. Notably this exchange:
Me: just one ep
Me: think of all the time and effort he put in
and we scoff at 5 bucks
would spend that on one cup of coffee
Friend: totally re $
i think about that all the time
the things i scoff at
Friend: and then spend MORE on trivial stuff without a second thought
Me: and that’s a singular artistic vision
“ONE COFFEE PLEEEEZ”
FLAT WHITE PLEEEZZ
And then a couple of days later, an email, from Louis. You can read the whole thing here. It’s poetry. And this goes back to that whole knowing your audience thing.
I charged five dollars because I need to recoup some of the cost in order for us to stay in production.
Also, it’s interesting. The value of any set amount of money is mercurial (I’m showing off because i just learned that word. It means it changes and shifts a lot). Some people say “Five dollars is a cup of coffee”. Some people say “Hey! Five dollars?? What the f***!” Some people say “What are you guys talking about?” Some people say “Nothing. don’t enter a conversation in the middle”.
Anyway, I’m leaving the first episode at 5 dollars. I’m lowering the next episode to 2 dollars and the rest will be 3 dollars after that. I hope you feel that’s fair. If you don’t, please tell everyone in the world.
At that point, I had no choice. He removed the one barrier standing in my way of purchase. So I bought it.
Louis C.K. also knows the importance of mindshare. I haven’t bought the second episode. Not because the first one wasn’t enjoyable, it’s just because I get busy and distracted by the next shiny thing in my inbox.
Since the first email promoting “Horace and Pete” went out, Louis has sent out six more. For modern marketers, that’s not a lot. Some brands I subscribe to send me six emails in a couple of days (Looking at you, LinkedIn). But for Louis C.K., that’s bordering on spamming.
In fact, Louis addressed this spate of communication in his recent email — one more reason he’s a great marketer. He listens to his customers.
I know that some of you on this list don’t want to get this email every week. And I know that some of you really like getting this email every week. I know this because I get emails from both of you. Some people write me and they say “Hey, you promised not to write me all the time. This is REALLY unfair! This is SPAM!” and some of you write me to say “Hey man. I love getting these emails. And thanks for reminding me about the show this week.”
And later in the email, he goes on:
You may be asking yourselves, or asking me, though within yourselves, “Why don’t you just let some people opt out of the Horace and Pete email list?” Well, the fact is that I did tell my web guys to create some category options for the email list. And to be fair for them, they did that very thing. And they emailed me a few days ago, showing me those options and asking me to review and approve them. And I haven’t looked at it. Because I’m very busy right now doing lots of things like, for instance, taking my kids to school in the mornings, picking them up later, politely asking the dog not to chew things, building a Trump shelter like everyone else, creating and paying for a whole television series and distributing it to you directly. So yeah, I’m f*****g busy. Sorry for cursing.
But here’s the thing. It took the fifth email for me to buy the second episode. Why? I wasn’t ready to buy episode 2 when I got the previous four emails.
But by email five, I was at home, on a Saturday, with time on my hands. He finally got to me. Even a big Louis C.K. fan needs to be reminded by the man himself.
Louis C.K. even admits that reminding people to buy the show works:
Also, whenever we delay the email for a while, to see if maybe people will come out of habit to watch the show, some do. But not many. And then I send out the email and boom. There’s an explosion of sales on the new episode and even the old ones. And the explosion reverberates though the week. So. I’m gonna keep sending the emails.[sic]
That’s it. There’s no secret sauce behind successful marketing. Louis C.K. knows his audience, listens to them, and responds with transparency and honesty.
Traditional marketing tactics are followed by those who don’t have a clue about who their audience is or what they need. Following the status quo and reading best practice articles are a safety net for the marketers who don’t know their audience, and as a result, are afraid to color outside the lines.
Louis C.K.’s emails don’t feel contrived or sales-y. And his acute understanding of his audience gives him license to violate every traditional marketing tactic, drop the occasional “F-bomb,” and still be a great marketer.