July 31, 2014

Weird Al’s Digital Masterclass – A Case Study on “Mandatory Fun”

This July, “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Mandatory Fun” became the first comedy album since 1963 to reach number 1 on the Billboard 200. It’s a momentous achievement for any artist, but how he pulled it off is even more impressive. Using some original content, smart partnerships and a Q&A on an unlikely source, Weird Al was able to consolidate his scattered base and get old fans interested in his work again, even as he gained new ones

Staying relevant over a 30-year music career is no easy task, and the rise of Internet culture posed unique challenges to Weird Al’s parody-heavy style. In fact, the challenges were so great that many speculated he would not be able to stand out in a digital culture awash in YouTube parodies of every big musical hit. What was largely overlooked in these arguments was Weird Al’s influence on parody culture, and when Al decided to release eight videos from his album, he found that many sites were willing to fund and distribute videos from someone who’s viewed as an industry pioneer. This grew Weird Al’s reach while giving credibility to these sites, and helped to maintain enthusiasm throughout the campaign.

The music video for “Tacky,” Weird Al’s first single and a parody of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” was distributed by the podcast and video entertainment network The Nerdist. Featuring cameos by well-known comedians including Jack Black, Margaret Cho, Aisha Tyler and Kristen Schaal, the one-take video got people talking and widened the song parody’s appeal, and the addition of modern comedians showed that Weird Al was more than just a “legacy” act. The presence of other comedians also increased the range of conversations about the video, as evidenced by the following meme making it to the front page of Reddit the next day.

Building on the momentum of “Tacky,” Weird Al released “Word Crimes” the next day on his personal Vevo account. The song, a parody of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” also made it to the front page of Reddit. Not wanting momentum from these two songs to slow, he took part in a Reddit AMA later that day to talk about his new album, which helped sustain interest over the remaining six days.

His candor with fans struck a chord, and the following releases of “Foil” (a parody of Lorde’s “Royals,” distributed by CollegeHumor) and “Handy” (a parody of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” distributed by Yahoo!) also made it to the front page of Reddit.

Following four days of parodies, Weird Al released videos for his original songs, which benefitted from residual interest and additional distribution from sites such as Funny or Die and Popcrush. But the campaign saved the best for last with “Mission Statement,” a pastiche of Crosby, Stills, & Nash that skewers corporate-speak. This piece was notably successful because it was distributed within a native ad on the Wall Street Journal’s website, reaching a part of his audience that may have been unreceptive to his work at the start of the campaign but were willing to give him a try because of his current relevance. Yankovic then connected with them using a message they can relate to in a style that they recognize.

Getting positive reaction from the Wall Street Journal and Reddit in the same digital marketing campaign is no easy task. We all know how hard it is to make the WSJ audience crack a smile, but it is equally hard to crack the front page of Reddit during a digital marketing campaign. Reddit users tend to have an anti-corporate view and are against the idea of giving free advertising to companies (some Redditors even pointed this out in threads about Weird Al’s videos). The fact that Yankovic’s videos achieved the front page repeatedly is a testament to the video’s virality as well as their ability to connect with the audience, and Weird Al would not have succeeded without his unique distribution.

Over the course of his eight day album promotion, all of Weird Al’s videos were accessible from his website no matter where they premiered, making it a great source of referral traffic to his partners (who received royalties from each view), and driving cross traffic between sites. Yankovic may have been forced into this route because his record company chose not to fund the videos, but in the end the model worked to his advantage. While other artists such as Beyoncé kept with traditional wisdom and consolidated her brand, Weird Al exploded his across the digital landscape, leveraging the “link economy” to benefit his publishers while mitigating production costs. Looking back, it’s a great example of bucking tradition and sticking to what you do best (in Al’s case, connecting people around a common, if a little silly, idea), and the campaign is already proving to be one of the most successful of the year. All in all it’s pretty surprising, especially when you consider that this is the man who gave us “I Want A New Duck.”

Keep being weird, Al.