Canada's Greatest Living Comedian
Kobot Case Study
Jon Mick is a stand-up comedian from Edmonton, Alberta. He has played theatres and clubs across Canada, and opened for the likes of Neil Hamburger, Tig Notaro and Kevin MacDonald. With little web presence beyond a Facebook page, Jon came to Kobot for a website that would tell people when and where they could see him perform, and how to buy his albums. A normal, comedian’s website.
That’s not exactly what happened.
Much of Jon’s act revolves around the idea that his life isn’t as “together” as it should be for an adult human being. His jokes are about the terrible and degrading situations he gets himself into through his own lack of forethought—one tiny mistake devolves into a series of unfortunate events, with him at the centre flailing wildly, praying the catastrophes will stop.
We worked with Jon to develop a performance-based marketing campaign that utilized his comedic persona to drive a narrative over time. We put him into an unfamiliar situation—being the recipient of what he thought was a large government arts grant—and let the megalomania resulting from this sudden and unexpected validation drive his behaviour while he interacted with Kobot and everyone else around him. We cast ourselves as the villains, the business-savvy manipulators taking advantage of the naive artist—though among the design community we came off as heroes, valiantly fighting against the mother of all “clients from hell.”
After nearly a year of planning, writing, begging to borrow green screens, setting up fake social media accounts, filming, pushing back the launch date and studying the subtleties of Geocities, we launched Canada’s Greatest Living Comedian in the fall of 2014.
TL;DR Stats (over five weeks)
Website Visits: 11,507
Likes, Comments, Shares: 1738
Social Media Personas:16
Video Games Created:1
Sites in Webring:11
Sparkly Gifs Used:12
Sites using "frames":1
Total Advertising Budget: $18
Canada's Greatest Living Comedian was a month-long marketing campaign that utilized social media, multiple websites, an online game and video to depict the business relationship between Kobot and comedian Jon Mick, and how it it all went wrong.
We figured that no one can resist rubbernecking at a car crash, so why not give them something to look at? By pitting Kobot against its high-profile client in public, and by making the website change with each new (and progressively more-ridiculous) idea, we created a reason to check into the website and social media over and over again.
As a way to launch Jon's website to the people of Edmonton, we set out to tell a consistent story across a variety of channels, to use the conventions of social media and the web to create something that was interesting, rich in detail and entertaining. The challenge was that, with so many mediums in play, we risked losing the plot or confusing the audience.
Mixing Fact and Fiction
One method for keeping the story plausible was to mix fact and fiction, or to create fictions that were simply exaggerations instead of outright lies. In fact, the whole narrative rests on an exaggeration: Jon Mick did receive grant funding from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts for the project but, unlike in this video, no one involved thought he received $100 000.
One of the main objectives of this whole exercise was to deliver a site that Kobot and Jon could be proud of, and we did that. The site is fun to navigate, provides a window into Jon's personality and doesn't contain many jokes within its structure, so there's less risk of it getting stale quickly. We're really proud of the site and, had that been the end of this job we might still have made a case study.
Instead, we broke the thing.
Early on, the changes were small. We played it so that Jon felt he wasn't getting his money's worth, and wanted additions. This situation will be familiar to any designer, though perhaps not so public:
Soon, however, we needed a catalyst to go bigger, which brings us to one of the most important decisions we made as part of the whole campaign: "hiring" an intern.
Bringing the Background to the Foreground
We don't talk shit on the Internet about clients. But without the ability to let people behind the scenes, the narrative would be incomplete. So we "hired" an intern played by another Edmonton-based comedian, Josephine Hendrick.
The intern's naiveté for the business world let her freely speak/tweet/instagram about her experiences. As well, we could let the website devolve monumentally while blaming her for the changes, or even using her as the catalyst: like when Kobot took a "spa day" to deal with the stress of working for Jon, we left the intern in charge at our peril.
The intern also came in handy when it was revealed Jon hadn't received as big a grant as he had led Kobot to believe. Were we to have a contract dispute with a client (and thank goodness we haven't yet!) we wouldn't broadcast our business troubles to the world. But our intern might.
The intern raised the stakes on every aspect of the narrative by making it public. Even toward the end of her character's arc, when she quits Kobot to work for Jon, the idea that she'd make a pro-wrestling style video to announce it doesn't seem that out of place.
We didn't want to just create a web series or a funny Twitter account—we wanted an all-encompassing, immersive experience on the web. To be all encompassing, however, we had to create an entire universe.
Altogether, we created twenty websites and utilized sixteen social media personas to tell the whole story. It would have been nearly impossible for anyone to have seen everything, but we worked hard to make sure the story would be interesting to someone who only saw one or two channels.
The project's three main channels—jonmick.ca, the Mickstarter page, and the collection of Jeocities sites (each of which featured a "different" Jon Mick connected via a 1996-era web ring)—successfully generated over 4500 sessions by 3300 users, who undertook nearly 10,000 page-views in four weeks. Visitors came mostly from Edmonton and across Canada, but some came (and returned a number of times) from as far away as the USA, Belgium and Australia.
Our social media reached even further: Kobot's Facebook alone achieved nearly 20,000 views. With only 139 "Followers" of our Facebook page (we're a rather small web design studio), it's clear that the content was being shared widely.
One element designed to ensure some continuity in the narrative was the Change Log introduced early in the second week. Designed to look like it had mistakenly gone live, the change log documented all of the changes requested by Jon, along with some subtle snark from whichever Kobot team member was unlucky enough to have to make them. Inspired in part by commitlogsfromlastnight.com, the change log allowed newcomers to catch up on what had taken place previously and recounted all the jokes for anyone who may have missed something. The change log was also the first time any truly overt criticism of Jon came from Kobot, and our hope was that by beginning to gather his ridiculous requests in one place it would begin to alert people to the idea that this was a performance.
There were a number of other small touches we created that meant a lot to us, as well: In the "Jon Mick Air Guitar Instructor" Jeocities page, there was only one instructional video, but that character had an entire YouTube channel, complete with more songs and even a welcome video. The Mickstarter page Jon created was ostensibly built on the shady "Yournameherestarter.pw" platform, a domain we bought and populated with the US Department of Justice seizure notice. The Jeocities main page contained plenty of Easter Eggs: fan sites devoted to Nirvana, Norwegian cross-country-ski stars, Sonic the Hedgehog and Dungeons & Dragons. Even the "hacked" Jeocities page contained a skull and crossbones hidden in the code itself—a surprise discovered almost immediately by an audience member.
Storytelling on the web
Through this project we explored the ability of the web to reveal and obscure truth at the same time: through techniques like sub-tweeting and "vaguebooking," web users reveal a tightly-controlled, partial narrative through their social media outlets. To get the whole story, friends and followers need to either be intimate enough with the poster to discern what the missive means immediately, or use context and other sources to fill in the missing information.
We used these techniques to tell a new kind of participatory narrative: in the same way a web user might have to dig to find out just what's making their second cousin post vague, passive-aggressive Facebook posts, our audience had to follow different outlets to get the whole story. Canada's Greatest Living Comedian didn't happen on a website, or on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, it happened on all of them (and more) at once. This immersive participation drove the project's success.
Believability: Prank vs. Performance
Another challenge we wrestled with was how to draw a distinction between what we were doing and viral Internet pranks. We wanted the audience to be engaged by the narrative, not feel cheated or stupid when they realized that what they were seeing was fictitious. It's a challenge we didn't always meet—and each time we failed, we heard about it—but it did teach us a lot about how people use social media and how they interpret information on the Internet.
The Internet has changed the way information is published, but not the way we interpret the printed word: twenty or more years ago, publishing was expensive, so the things that were published went through some kind of vetting process. They were, for the most part, trustworthy. Now that publishing is free, anything can get on the Internet, but we haven't shed our willingness to believe the printed word. Though we utilized plenty of strategies to wink at the fact this was a performance, we found people fooled by it just the same.
In many instances, it was a case of confirmation bias, or taking a headline at face value. We received plenty of angry communications regarding the "fact" we charged $75,000 for what was a rather simple website to execute. Another web design company even tried to poach our client by telling him they could do it for cheaper. When the Mickstarter launched, despite the multitude of steps we took to ensure no one would actually try and donate money—including outrageous support levels, a convoluted donation mechanism which asked contributors to mail their ATM card to Jon, the not-very-well hidden shady nature of the site itself—Jon still received emails from fans and old friends offering to mail pre-paid Visa cards. One person was very upset when he found out it was a performance and told Jon over the phone that he's not "Andy fucking Kaufman."
There's no way to bring everyone along with you with a project of this nature, but we tried desperately to position Canada's Greatest Living Comedian as a performance and not a prank. We felt that, given the timescale of the project, it behooved us to let people know to expect more, that this was an ongoing performance akin to a television season, rather than a one-and-done attempt at a viral prank. We needed the audience to keep coming back, and to keep looking out for more missives across various outlets, in order to get the fullest possible picture of the what was going on. More often than not it worked and, when it worked, it worked really well.
Marketing and participation
In fact, the tension between people who got the joke and people who didn't was the crux of Canada's Greatest Living Comedian: those who understood what was happening, and even those who came to understand over time, felt like they were a part of something special, and that they were special because they were in-the-know.
Canada's Greatest Living Comedian—like any marketing strategy that relies on exclusivity—carried a high risk of alienating the audience and turning them off. We walked a fine line between exclusivity and inclusivity, and did it in such a way that those who found themselves included in the joke felt empowered to become a part of the story themselves.
We had plenty of Facebook and Twitter messages that responded "in character," that bought into the premise and communicated lightheartedly. We even had people build new elements to the project without our prompting. Most of these stemmed from Falppy Mick, the Flappy Bird-esque video game Jon Mick "designed": one audience member, upon becoming frustrated with his Facebook friends' high score postings, developed a hack that let the user input whatever score they wanted to achieve and post that number to Facebook; another user, frustrated with the game itself, developed his own game based on 2048, but featuring photos of Jon.
We trusted the audience to come with us and, for the most part, they did. That trust, the ensuing participation and continuous "checking in" to the story, drove the hits the project generated. They were the bedrock of the success of Canada's Greatest Living Comedian.
Canada's Greatest Living Comedian worked because we have a thorough understanding of the way people communicate on the web: indirectly, oscillating between tightly-controlled narrative and TMI. As social media networks like Twitter and Facebook begin to lose ground to upstarts like Whisper and Yik Yak, social media becomes less a conversation and more of a broadcast.
We harnessed the changing nature of social media to tell a new kind of story over time and through dozens of outlets. No one could possibly have seen every element we put on the web, but the audience didn't need every element because the kind of detective work necessary to decipher Canada's Greatest Living Comedian is becoming more and more commonplace. Having a few pieces meant that the average web user could infer the rest, and enjoy the narrative in their own way—and this participatory element drove significant buy-in amongst the audience and, eventually, the success of the project.
Bryan Birtles, Stefan Duret, Bryan Kulba,
Bryan Birtles, Bryan Kulba, Jon Mick,
Tim Mikula, Mike Robertson
Paul Blinov, Amanda Schutz, Amy Shostak, Douglas Stewart, Robyn Stuart, and Matt Whitson.
This project was generously funded by the Alberta Foundation for the Arts. Not $100,000 generous, but pretty generous.