When free broadcast television was much more relevant, programs from The Ed Sullivan Show to The Cosby Show and from M*A*S*H to Seinfeld had massive audiences. But there was a late night talk show whose host actually built a comedy community without the Internet: NBC’s The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. If you were a comedian or simply appreciated humor, you were in.
At the peak of his career, Johnny Carson was a strong brand, and his love of comedy was his “why.” He didn’t stage comedy contests with million-dollar prizes. He built his brand, as well as his network’s, by building a community of people who loved comedy and/or simply wanted to be entertained. And his medium, The Tonight Show, provided an opportunity to do more than sell TV commercials that translated into a hefty, multimillion dollar salary. It provided Johnny a way to launch and nurture careers, make people laugh, improve the comedy genre, and solidify his legacy. In return, Johnny, NBC and its advertisers all benefited.
But “Here’s Johnny!” almost didn’t happen. Already successful in early 60s TV, Carson was asked to replace Tonight Show host Jack Paar, who had replaced Steve Allen. But, Carson declined; word has it that he felt interviewing celebrities for nearly two hours a night would be impossible. And get this: Jackie Gleason, Groucho Marx, Bob Newhart and Joey Bishop also declined. So NBC targeted Carson again, and history was made when Carson debuted in October 1962.
For 30 years–he retired in 1992–Carson was masterful. His on-camera charisma and wit were off the charts. When it came to comedians, Carson could literally make or break them. It was a fact: getting on The Tonight Show could launched comedians’ careers: David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres, Tim Allen, Drew Carey and countless others. It could also spell doom if the act went south. And if you got invited to the guest chair after a performance, or got a laugh and thumbs up from Carson, you were on your way.
Fortunately, building a community today doesn’t demand owning an expensive piece of real estate on broadcast TV, cable or radio. It does, however, demand a clear reason for being. For Carson, it was about his true passion for the craft of comedy. So, what’s your company or product’s reason for being? What’s your “why?”
Think about your brand. You can continue to only “rent” your audience at an ever-increasing investment via traditional media marketing. Or, you can add to your mix by building an organic community of prospects and customers who not only want to buy your product(s), but they also actually care that you’re in business. You could even ask some of them to create commercials and testimonials for you.
This is not about the future–it’s about NOW. It’s about building a community in which members are truly connected to your brand. They understand why you’re in business, and the content you create for your community is real, relevant and valuable to them. Building a community is about letting people know why you’re in business, why your products matter, and how your customers matter to you. In other words, give a damn about the people who buy from you, or who may pass along information to a friend or colleague. Don’t you owe them that, at least?
Think of your marketing campaign this way: Next time you send invitations for a party, don’t share what food and drink you’re having, or the names of others who may attend. Instead, tell your guests how you appreciate their friendship, and that you are looking forward to sharing time with them. Those who show up are members of your community. And for those who don’t attend, invite them to another party or two. If they don’t attend, you might want to assume that they haven’t bought into why you are bothering them. Get the picture?
Carson hosted a party five late nights a week for 30 years. He didn’t pay the audience (his community) to attend, and he didn’t offer prizes. Johnny offered solutions. For comedians, it was a road to possible career success. For viewers, it was the guarantee of entertainment. For advertisers, it was the lure of a loyal audience. For NBC, it was ratings. Today, communities built around entertainment continue to thrive via TV, cable, radio, YouTube and podcasts thanks to Ellen, Conan, Letterman, Bob and Tom, Pollak, Kimmel, Chappelle, Carolla, Pardo, Stewart, Harvey, Fallon, Burr, Leno, Ferguson, and many others. And almost all of them tell you: Johnny Carson was the king of the comedy community. He built it. The entertainers he inspired are simply nurturing it.
Build it right…and they will come. Thanks, Johnny.
To get started building your own online community, download our Increasing Conversions with Social Media guide.