“How I Escaped My Certain Fate” – A Comedian’s Lesson In Niche Marketing
Over the holidays I've been reading comedian Stewart Lee's How I Escaped My Certain Fate which chronicles his rise, fall and rise again in the world of stand up comedy.
As well as being a pretty funny book, it contains a huge marketing lesson for all of us.
Lee was part of double act Lee and Herring who had a relatively successful show on the BBC for a couple of years (relatively successful in the sense that it was my favourite programme and lasted a couple of series). Despite that, when he returned to the stand-up circuit he struggled.
In essence, his nonchalant delivery, choice of material and complex routines meant that he didn't have the mass appeal of more populist comedians of the era. Despite his TV success and respect from “those in the know” (Ricky Gervais cited him as his favourite comedian, for example), he simply couldn't get enough people turning up to his gigs to make money from them. So he retired from stand up in 2000.
After achieving critical (though again, not huge monetary) success as the writer of Jerry Springer The Opera, he returned to stand up in 2004 – prompted partly by being accused of copying Gervais who had actually been influenced by him.
This time, things were different.
Instead of trying to make a success of the mainstream circuit, he took advice from comedy poet John Hegley who told him “you only need a few thousand fans. And if they all give you ten pounds a year, you're away” (which, of course, is a version of Kevin Kelly's “Thousand True Fans” idea).
He wasn't particularly ambitious. He just wanted to do what he loved doing and, in his words, “survive”.
Rather than trying to get booked in big venues and trying to attract large mainstream audiences, he got his booker to focus on smaller locations with audiences who would be be open to his type of humour.
“Instead of going on for guaranteed fees in empty council venues and failing to build an audience, or boring the shit out of Friday night punters who just wanted to have some fun between work and the disco, I needed to be in the dedicated comedy clubs that had flourished in my absence from the circuit, playing for smaller fees to smaller crowds composed of people that would get it and would come back next time with a friend”.
His shows were promoted by “…letting nerds all over the land know about your work via these newfangled social networking sites…”.
He took inspiration from the obscure Jazz musicians he loved and how they ran their affairs “direct marketing their work to sustainably farmed fan bases”.
And it worked.
Audiences of 20 to 30 became 50 to 60 became 100 to 200 and eventually up to 500 to 600.
A TV series followed which won him best comedy programme and best male comedian at last year's British Comedy Awards. He's currently mid way through a 4 month daily run at the Leicester Square Theatre before heading out on tour again.
The lesson for all of us?
Most of us and our businesses are more like a Stewart Lee than a Michael McIntyre or a John Bishop.
We're never going to have the widespread appeal to fill stadiums with the average man on the street. But we should be able to find a few thousand people who love what we do.
And that's enough.
If we can find them. If we can connect with them and inspire them to hire us or pay us for something. If they become big enough fans to “bring their friends”.
Then we've got very successful business.
And the way to do it is the same way Lee did it. Direct marketing to a targeted fan base – rather than trying to please a mass audience.