Content Marketing

Content Marketing Insights From Baratunde Thurston, Some Of Which Involve Whiskey

Author, comedian and man-about-town Baratunde Thurston is the co-founder of Cultivated Wit, a digital agency in New York that he created after leaving his role of Director of Digital at satire magazine The Onion in May 2011. In the meantime, he also published the bestselling book “How To Be Black.”

The Strategist spoke to Thurston about the approaches to storytelling, content marketing, and relationships with readers that he learned from writing “How To Be Black” and now applies to client work at Cultivated Wit.

You can follow him at @baratunde on Twitter for his beloved #whiskeyfriday when he’s free … and the occasional Nirvana karaoke cover video when he’s not.

Baratunde Thurston, author of "How To Be Black" and founder of Cultivated Wit. (CREDIT: Joi Ito)

Baratunde Thurston, author of “How To Be Black” and founder of Cultivated Wit. (CREDIT: Joi Ito)

So what’s Cultivated Wit? And what are you doing with it?

I created Cultivated Wit with some other alumni of The Onion so that we could do wacky, interesting things with humor and technology. We creatively employ humor and technology to make the world better through marketing and original content, as well as some custom products. We’re doing this series with Aol on crowdfunding, applying ourselves to that, and with MIT Media Lab we’ve got something called Comedy Hack Day. We did work with BBC America, Fight for the Future. Our overall approach is for causes. We have great ideas for the world.


Your book! “How To Be Black!” Can you tell Strategist readers who might not be too familiar with it a bit about it?

It’s a comedic memoir that deals with identity. It deals with some really serious situations in some really hilarious ways, sometimes really poignant ways. That involves the voices of others.


And as an author you take on this joint role of writer-marketer.

Yeah. The marketing needed to reflect the product. I didn’t want to have an unrecognizable marketing campaign that didn’t tie editorially, spiritually, and from an integrity perspective to what readers were buying. That would be a weird disappointment.

The book was the first single, significant object I had to sell. A lot of what I’d monetized before then was my own time, or, occasionally, low-priced word packages, or light monetization of the blog. But having an actual physical good, and taking these people who say they like you – that conversion is different.

I wanted to see the book as something not, “Hey, help me out, I have something to sell you,” but more “Join me, I’m part of the same thing you are, we’re together in this.” Think of it more as a movement or political thing than as a sales pitch. People like joining things – they don’t necessarily like transacting.

I didn’t do like, traditional bookstore things, I threw parties. There was whiskey at those parties. I had comedians at those parties, opening up the show, local guys from the area. We did this in Chicago, and New York and LA and Boston, and San Francisco.


Let’s backtrack. What was the timeline for your book? These things don’t just happen overnight, I’m guessing.

Here’s the overall timeline. Summer 2009, I gave a Web 2.0 Conference talk that got me a meeting with an editor at Harper. She liked what I had to say. In the fall of 2009, I went in. In December, they made a verbal offer to do this book, “How to Be Black” in March 2010. It took awhile to get to “Legally, we are going to do this.” Then the proposed timeline was September 2010 for a February 2011 publication — Black History Month — the thinking being “Why make it hard?” There’s so much competition for people’s attention – let’s ride existing waves.

However, I missed that deadline. It was harder to write than I thought. I’d never done a 60,000-word thing. And this was new ideas. So everything shifted about a year. I turned in the manuscript in July 2011 for publication in February 2012.


And so how did you figure out that epic marketing plan and set the groundwork for it?

Summer 2011, I went in and met with the sales team and gave this big rah-rah speech about taking over the world. “Look, I’ll be your biggest partner selling this! I love talking about myself.” I wanted to do this Twitter thing, this interactive website, big tour. They got really excited to have an author who wasn’t afraid of selling and I was excited to get them excited…to like, dream. “What’ve you always wanted to do with someone? I’m that person. Let’s go.”

We structured this like a political campaign. We made it easy for people to join us, to be part of this movement.

I hired someone, first off, Craig Cannon, as a ‘campaign manager’. We structured this like a political campaign. We made it easy for people to join us, to be part of this movement. We built a street team, recruited people, offered early access to the product, to me in video chats, created a forum for them to talk to each other. Then there was traditional press from Harper that they helped line up.

I was promoting the #HowToBeBlack hashtag during the writing process – as I was interviewing people, checking in with the hashtag. Things kicked up summer 2011 during that last sprint – I got all the domain names and everything – when I could see the finish line, I started to bring people into it. I started writing in public, doing these experiments with live writing, using a remote screen sharing program that I shared with the crowd.

Everything needed to be an experience rather than a transaction, every element of marketing. This product needed to carry the banner and the voice of How to Be Black, which was me.


What are some of the more unique tactics you used to help spread the word about your book?

I went through the manuscript and created a list of tweetable stuff. I combed through the book and found tweet-length statements and put those into a spreadsheet, started putting that out there. The tweets were really irreverent. And we did a book trailer — it was so over the top.

Everything needed to be an experience rather than a transaction, every element of marketing. This product needed to carry the banner and the voice of How to Be Black, which was me.

The biggest engagement with the book is actually on Instagram — “bookspotting” [posing with the cover]. It always looks ridiculous. There’s never a time when it’s not hilarious. It’s people who’ve bought it themselves, received it as a gift, or it’s been assigned to them. We were ready to hype, encourage people to do it. I got Diplo and Aloe Blacc to hold it.


What was most frustrating about the whole process of building a following to publish a book?

Customer relationship management is so broken. We’ve broken down the barriers to production — it’s free to host, distribute, everything is relatively low cost, you can sell wherever — but the conversion from the cheap-to-engage to the truly valuable is huge.

At The Onion we put on two TV shows on two networks at the same time — because why make it easy? — but one of them had a viewership goal that was like “get 1% of our Twitter following to watch the show,” and that’s just shitty VC math. Getting people to follow you on Twitter, that’s one challenge. Then to your site, sign up for your newsletter, etc., that’s another challenge. To get them to turn on their TVs, at a particular channel, time, in a geographic range, it’s a whole other fucking challenge.


What’s one lesson from the book creation and marketing process that you keep in mind every day at Cultivated Wit when you’re working on content marketing and other projects?

You have to have something worth listening to, and has to be something that not only do people want to listen to, but it has to be something that people want to talk about themselves, talk about with others. Part of doing that — not for everyone, not all the time — is to get other people to join in to the making of that content, to the creation of that storytelling.

People share stuff that makes them look good, that they’re proud of, that makes them look like they’re ahead of the curve. So when you give them something funny or clever, they have to be able to make it their own. People love to see themselves, ultimately.

This interview was edited for length.

Image by Joi Ito
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