How Funny or Die Landed the Obama Interview (and Why It Matters to Brands and Media)

The president's appearance on 'Between Two Ferns' is the kind of thing some might be tempted to dismiss as just another viral phenomenon. Instead, the story behind it offers very valuable lessons about the substantial link between smart content marketing and real-world success.

    How Funny or Die Landed Obama (and Why That Matters to Brands and Media)

    By Stephen Zorio

    American presidents are no strangers to the world of comedy.

    Editorial cartoons have long used them as fodder, even creating caricatures that survived well after a president's tenure (or even lifespan).

    Clifford Berryman's 1902 political cartoon in The Washington Post spawned the Teddy bear. (Source: Wikimedia Commons) 

    Some modern presidents -- along with former presidents and those with presidential aspirations -- have appeared on talk shows hosted by comedians (and even used them as a platform to make major announcements.)

    But make no mistake, Funny or Die managed to break from the pack when President Barack Obama sat down with Zack Galifianakis for 'Between Two Ferns.' Not only did the comedy site score a major win, it did so in a way that was mutually beneficial both to the site and the White House. 

    Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis: President Barack Obama
    by Funny Or Die via YouTube

    As FastCompany discovered when it looked into how Funny or Die managed to land such a prominent guest, there are some very valuable lessons to be learned.

    Content is the real king of comedy

    “Content drives the deal, not the other way around,” Dick Glover, president and CEO of Funny or Die told FastCompany. “The business supports the creative, not the other way around.” 

    Funny or Die has put a staggering amount of original comedy content online since its inception. They've had major hits -- some of which have become television shows -- and some flops. But the consistent dedication to creating original content has lent them an invaluable credibility. 

    Funny or Die is no stranger to pairing comedy with politics, culture and history. Here the site offers its take on what reparations might look like during Black History month. 
    by stephen.zorio
    The message in this one is not subtle, but it was part of a larger effort by the site to encourage voter turnout
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    Adam Scott reprised his role as the unlikable Derek (from the comedy 'Step Brothers'), to make a point about signing up for health insurance. 
    by stephen.zorio
    Geena Davis used a (hilarious) video to remind people that the female action stars of today are somewhat indebted to her.
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    And in unarguably original fashion, the site turned to porn stars to highlight pivotal moments in women's history.
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    Nor are they alone in that. Rival site CollegeHumor has made a significant investment in original content (with some similar success) and is hoping to find revenue in the world of branded content. The Onion has done nothing but original content since its inceptions and has even, unsurprisingly, mocked the topic itself

    Thus when the White House realized it was struggling to connect with younger audiences, Funny or Die was an obvious solution.

    Know who you are ... and stay focused on it

    "Soon after its launch," writes Lindsay Lavine, "the company tried to expand the franchise into the culinary, sports and video game worlds with the ill-fated Eat, Drink or DieShred or Die, and Pwn or Die." The company realized it had strayed too far from its core mission and returned to it with a fervor -- and the benefits have been significant.

    Justin Bieber's recent antics have dimmed his star, but back in 2010 when 'Bieber After the Dentist' was made, he was still a huge draw among younger audiences. His video demonstrated Funny or Die was capable of reaching those audiences via celebrities who they see (or saw) as authentic.
    by Funny Or Die via YouTube

    Know where your audience is ... and go to them

    “I wasn't familiar with this thing, but when I was at the dinner table with the girls and I said, ‘Well today I did something with Zach, it's called ‘Two Ferns,’ I think,’ Malia was so excited,” Obama admitted to Ryan Seacrest in an interview. “She had seen all the previous episodes, so I figured it was going to reach our target audience."

    Define what success means (and measure it)

    On the surface, what the president did (and he admits as much in the video) was not distinct from any other famous person with something to promote. But what he had, and others may have lacked, is empirical proof that his appearance made a difference. 

    "The most important thing from the video is it worked, it delivered," Glover told FastCompany. Traffic to the Affordable Care website went up 40% after the president's appearance and the video remains a top referral for the site. "It reached the audience in a very authentic way," Glover continued. "It's a hard-to-reach audience and if you don't reach them authentically, then it can be very damaging. If the video hadn't worked, the danger existed that other high-profile "gets" wouldn't want to participate in future projects."

    "Funny or Die" driving major traffic, W.H. says
    by Gyworf Jand via YouTube

    Instead, the interview proved to be a major hit for all parties -- and it provided proof that Funny or Die can deliver on significant goals in a unique and creative way. Investing in content can seem like a daunting proposition, but doing it in focused ways and understanding who it is you're trying to reach can reap very real benefits -- even if you don't land the president as a guest.

    by Belinda Alzner edited by Stephen Zorio 4/3/2014 6:15:07 PM
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