Before late February, the closest Conan O’Brien came to social media was making lame jokes about tweeting celebrities on his show. So, when his updates came over my Twitter stream, I thought it was a clever way to stay relevant for a guy who’s barred from going on television for six more months.
@ConanOBrien‘s bio seemed to say it all. “I had a show. Then I had a different show. Now I have a Twitter account.” The tweets were wry, self-deprecating, and occasionally absurd – vintage Conan. Within a day, he had 300,000 followers. Today, the count is over twice that number, easily besting @JayLeno.
TeamConan then proceeded to set up spin-off Twitter streams for some of the, uh, characters in his own tweets – Squirrel, Sharpie, his freckles, even. The man’s beard is in a mock-competition with his freckles and has over 10,000 followers. I’m not kidding.
So, when news of Conan’s multi-market comedy tour hit a couple of weeks later, I realized the motive behind the Twitter madness. Promoted with only a handful of tweets, the “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Comedy Tour” was sold out within the day, at least in New York. Fully in character, O’Brien was quoted in the closest thing he made to a press statement, “It was either a massive 30-city tour or start helping out around the house.” Nice use of social media…and celebrity, of course.
But what really got to me was Conan’s inspired choice to anoint someone at random as his sole, um, followee. Sarah Killen, an unassuming 19-year-old student from Michigan and Twitter novice, garnered thousands of followers after being selected as the one and only person that @ConanOBrien follows. Since then, @LovelyButton has received “a lot of stuff”, including a custom-designed gown for her upcoming wedding, and the kind of notoriety usually reserved for reality-show fameballs. Which she is most definitely not.
Which is why the Twitter stunt worked so well. Conan fans are relishing his apparent outfoxing of the NBC brass and Jay Leno, whom no one would accuse of being a social media hipster. Yet, in bestowing Internet celebrity on the normal-to-the-point-of-boring Killen, Conan seems to be one-upping the master of the genre, David Letterman. It’s like Letterman plucking intern Stephanie Birkitt out of nowhere and making her a TV star – without the “creepy” soap opera that followed. And for social media marketers, he’s actually showing us how it’s done.