‘Funny’ is Money: How The Onion Transformed Its Business
The Onion's branded content studio.
Last year, the Onion, the satirical news media brand that occasionally fools real media outlets, eliminated print media and went digital only, three years after a decision to reduce its print footprint and franchise its newspaper in local markets.
It also moved its whole staff to Chicago, symbololically doubling down on its decision to reinvent itself.
And that decision, said Onion president Mike McAvoy, caused real pain. "We took a financial hit and we recapitalized," McAvoy said, speaking during a keynote presentation at MediaNext on Monday. "It was better to disrupt our own business than have someone else disrupt it for us. We forced ourselves to operate in a world where we had to be."
Going digital-only was an especially big move for The Onion, McAvoy said, because The Onion's stock-in-trade is making fun of things, including big brands, and further including big brands that The Onion wants as advertisers.
But it turns out that The Onion also understood something important: Comedy breaks through the noise and reaches the millennials. "We said, ‘Let's take this access to millennials and let's offer it to brands.' We offered comedy. Comedy works," McAvoy said.
During his keynote, McAvoy ran several comedy videos, including one of the Coors Light Silver Bullet Train, which supposedly crashes, killing and freezing hundreds. "We wondered whether Coors Light would actually find that funny," he said. "We learned that brands love it. They like being part of the joke. You have to be inside the joke to be part of that group—18, I mean 21, to 24."
So The Onion created Onion Studios, designed as a content-marketing business, putting comedy to work on behalf of brands.
A more recent creation is ClickHole, designed to make fun of viral content, viral-content sites and the people who share vapid viral content. One example: A faux quiz asking, ‘Which pizza should I eat tonight?' and sponsored by Pizza Hut. "I love that joke," McAvoy said.
So far, McAvoy said, advertisers are responding, making the digital-only Onion a growing and healthy business.