The John Oliver School of Marketing

You’re not writing blog posts, updating your Facebook page or submitting articles to the media just for the fun of it. At the end of the day, you need people to DO something. Buy your product, sign up for your email list, sign a petition.

But you’ve probably found that even the smallest request like “visit my website” are largely ignored.

The challenge is real, and the reasons are multitude. Just to start, you’re working against:

  • Audience segmentation: It’s hard to believe that just 25 years ago, Americans largely had 3 television networks to choose from, when today’s citizens and customers can drill down to the most niche media to get the information and inspiration they’re looking for.
  • Content, content everywhere. You can’t even go the bathroom in a restaurant without being served an ad!
  • Short attention spans: Did you know the average person switches between devices 21 times an hour? This would be perfectly fine if humans actually were capable of multitasking…but we’re not.

It’s easy to look at the changing landscape and feel despair. But it’s not all doom and gloom.

  • Through niche media, you can reach an audience with a strong interest in your issue.
  • It’s less expensive to advertise than ever. You can set up a campaign for as little as $25 a day (or less!).
  • Mobile is actually driving media consumption back up, after decades of decline.

It might be overly simplistic of me to say this, but I think the challenges and opportunities balance each other out. Sure, it’s hard to break through, but it is possible, and lots of organizations manage it.

But how?

How do you not only capture your audience’s attention but also move people to act on your message?

You might have seen the Last Week Tonight interview with Edward Snowden on your Facebook feed, and perhaps you watched it. Either way, I’d love for you to put on your marketing goggles and watch it with me now.

What is the marketing lesson Oliver is teaching Snowden (and, by proxy, the rest of us)? What makes this segment so successful?

Note: If you’re short on time, jump to the 22 minute mark. NSFW language.


Obviously, it’s hilarious and heartbreaking, and we can’t ignore the power of satire, especially in the context of movement building. But I’m not a comedian, and you probably aren’t either, so let’s concentrate on what we can learn from this clip…even if we’re not deploying humor as a tool.

What struck me in watching this clip is how Oliver is going back to basics.

1. Why should I care?

Oliver makes it clear that Snowden’s big mistake is in failing to consider what “people do care about,” not just what Snowden thinks you should care about.

When Oliver explains, “What some people do care about is whether Snowden considered the adverse consequences of leaking so much information at once,” and “Americans do not give a sh*t about foreign surveillance,” he’s reflecting a deep understanding of the national conversation around security issues. This is an understanding that Snowden seems to be lacking, and it’s a problem common to anyone who’s an expert in their field.

Consider this: you have a lot in common with Snowden. You are a subject matter expert, with insight into the challenges facing your people.

But for most experts, it’s difficult to meet people where they are. Let’s look at yoga and meditation teachers, as an example. Yogis, especially those who have studied the sutras or other texts, know that the purpose of yoga is not weight loss or gaining flexibility. And yet every day, experienced teachers market DVDs called “Yoga for Weight Loss” and similar.


It’s a gateway into the more complex teachings of the practice. These teachers are meeting people new to practice exactly where they are, by honing in on what they want.

Does this mean that we need to water down our teachings and offerings?

No — but what you do need to do is endeavor to answer for your customer, “Why should I care?”

The American people might care about privacy in the abstract, but the individual wants to know that her racy photos aren’t being passed around by NSA agents.

Which brings me to the next point.

2. What can I do about it?

It’s not enough to simply make your customer care, you also have to communicate what’s next.

For your business, what’s next could be as simple as “download this free guide that will help you {solve the specific problem}” or “sign this petition.”

In the Snowden segment, the action is even more simple. Oliver is asking the media and the public to please, for the love of all things sacred, have this conversation.

And against the odds, he succeeded.

For your business, the key is to make your call to action as specific as possible to the information you’ve just shared. Instead of asking your reader to check out your website, invite her to download a checklist for taking action.

Or simply leave her with something simple she can do right now to put your insight to work.

So what can you do right now?

Chances are, you’re working on a piece of content right now. Before you write another word, bring to mind someone you know who will benefit from that content. Imagine she’s looking over your shoulder and asking, “Why should I care? What does this have to do with me?”

Rigorously strive to answer that question in your copy.

Then, when you feel that she’s with you, give her a concrete action to take.

Do you find this approach helpful? We’d love to hear from you. Come on over to our Facebook page, and let us know how this approach is changing your content creation.