Content marketing lessons from John Oliver

4 min read
Gregg Schwartz

John Oliver's "Last Week Tonight" show on HBO is much more than just a talk show or “fake news” comedy show — it has become an Internet phenomenon. Millions of people have watched and shared Oliver’s YouTube videos — but these aren’t your typical goofy viral videos. Oliver’s success as a content marketer is rather unexpected, because his show doesn’t seem like a usual source of viral content. Instead of being short and easy to digest, Oliver goes deep. He spends every episode doing something more than satire; it’s really a new type of long-form journalism on some often rather complex social problems and "unfunny" topics, such as the death penalty.

It might not seem like your business has anything in common with a geeky, bespectacled British comedian who makes witheringly funny commentaries that skewer American life. But the truth is, John Oliver’s success is offering a new type of model for how companies can create better content marketing.

Here are a few lessons for other content marketers from Oliver's success:

It's cool to be smart.

John Oliver is making it cool to be intelligent. On his show, he's the smartest guy in the room, and by offering witty, detailed, well-reasoned arguments, he makes his audience feel smarter as well. The lesson? Don't be afraid to challenge your audience with your content. Don’t be afraid to have strong opinions or share really smart insights; they will rise to the occasion. People tend to respect voices that treat them with more respect. if you treat your audience like you assume that they “get” what you’re trying to say, they will respond more favorably than if you try to “dumb down” your content to reach a broader audience.

Go long, go deep.

Many people say that we're in the age of short attention spans. People only want to watch short video clips and read short blog posts and listicles, right? The truth is, people will watch (and share) longer videos (like Oliver's 18-minute segments) as long as the content is great.

People always have time for great content, no matter how "long" it is.

Have a point of view.

John Oliver has a strong point of view on politics and on nonpartisan topics affecting the national conversation. Not everyone will agree with him, but he succeeds because he has a singular voice and people can tell that he’s speaking with integrity. He’s well-researched and well-prepared and he has strong principles for why he says the things that he does.

In the same way, don't shy away from expressing a strong opinion in your content marketing (while still being respectful and professional, of course). It’s OK to drive some people away if it's necessary to attract the devoted attention of people who really believe in your brand.

Cultivate a tribe

Perhaps the biggest content marketing lesson from John Oliver is that you don't need to make content for "everyone" anymore. Instead, it's often better to cultivate a tribe of loyal followers. Oliver has built an unlikely audience of policy wonks and political activists and well-informed social media addicts — the sort of people who, like Oliver, are likely to recommend his show to their friends. Oliver probably has lots of detractors and political opponents as well, but he’s not worried about them; he’s playing to his core audience and letting them spread the word.

Instead of creating bland, voiceless content that doesn’t really “say” anything, borrow a page from John Oliver’s playbook and try really hard to say something profound. It’s better to be polarizing than to be forgettable. It’s better to have some people strongly disagree with your message as long as you stand up for what you believe in as a company, and as long as your message resonates with the audience that you care about the most.