A few weeks ago, I got an email from stand-up comedian Louis CK announcing his new show Horace and Pete, available on his website for $5. Not on Netflix or FX or even YouTube but his website. I’ll let that sink in a little.
Now, why would one of the top-earning comedians whose show has a stellar cast (Alan Alda, Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco and Jessica Lange) take this route? Here’s why - Five years ago, Louis sold his Live at the Beacon Theater special direct to customers from his website and raked in a sweet $1million in just 12 days. Since then, he has continued to deal directly with his fans, eliminating the middleman and seen an upward trend in earnings. On his site, you’ll find shows and often tickets to his live shows as well, sans the much dreaded Ticketmaster fee.
There’s a lot we can learn about doing business in a digital world from Louis CK:
1) Build customer relationships: Most businesses don’t seem to have gotten the memo that it’s no longer about selling products and one-time transactions. In a world where customers value outcomes over products, it’s all about services and building long-term relationships with customers. And the magic happens when you find the right way to turn those relationships into revenue.
I don’t have a relationship with ABC or CBS but hey, I have a relationship with Louis CK. He regularly sends me well-crafted emails that somehow seem personalized (Ex: “We’re shooting it now. You’ll get it on Saturday morning.” ). Most networks send me ads about their new shows. Take a guess which ones I open and which go straight to my spam folder.
Louis also shows that he cares enough to not surprise me. In his usual wry way, he warns viewers that the new show is not a "comedy". “I just think it's fair this one time to warn you since you have every right to expect a comedy from a comedian. I will not warn you again. Anyway it's 2 dollars this week. Take a shot.” By showing that he doesn’t take me or my 2 dollars for granted, Louis inspires trust and makes me feel valuable. And yes, he got my $2.
2) Make it easy to buy: This is ecommerce 101, 1 but it’s amazing how many companies miss this and make the buying process unnecessarily complicated. “I always make an effort to make the work I do on my own as cheap as possible and as painless as possible to get“ says the comedian.
If you make people jump through hoops of long forms or several phone calls, you’ve lost today’s customer. And to lose potential customers at the last step is a tragedy that every business wants to avoid. Keep it simple, quick and make it easy. Louis asks me for my email and takes me straight to the payment page where I can choose from Paypal, Amazon, Dwolla or even Bitcoin.
3) Price for the Customer: We no longer live in a world where pricing was simply a cost + margin calculation. Today, it’s about services and the perceived value of your product or service.
When viewers felt $5 for the first episode was too steep, Louis CK responded quickly. He did two things:
- He provided his fans with a detailed explanation as to why he had priced the show higher than the average $3 they were used to paying for other shows online. Again, basic business 101 - address your customers concerns as soon as possible.
- He went a step further and quickly changed the pricing to meet customers at the price they were willing to pay - $3 (series average). Louis understands that it’s not about the profit margin of every sale, but about having returning customers. At the heart of the modern business model are long-term relationships between companies and customers. And monetizing those relationships over the customer lifecycle is what makes a business successful .
4) Customization and Experience: In math terms, the perceived value of your product has a direct correlation with the customer experience you provide. We live in the golden age of the customer. Savvy customers demand not just a quality product, but also expect it to be customized and continually updated with improvements. They want you to delight them at every step and always give a little more than the last time.
Louis had kept Horace and Pete’s a complete secret. Zero publicity. Quite uncharacteristic for the entertainment business. Here’s how he explains it: “Part of the idea behind launching it on the site was to create a show in a new way and to provide it to you directly and immediately, without the usual promotion, banner ads, billboards and clips...And as a TV watcher I’m always delighted when I can see a thing without knowing anything about it because of the promotion. So making this show and just posting it out of the blue gave me the rare opportunity to give you that experience of discovery.” Pure genius.
5) Think Global: Most businesses today can serve people anywhere but very few do. Sure, there are several reasons for this such as complicated international laws and agreements, but often it’s simply because a company isn’t looking beyond its own fishpond.
Now, Louis CK is no Beyonce. He isn’t exactly an international phenomena but, he does have fans around the world who see value in his work. They got to watch Horace and Pete. In a later email, Louis acknowledges their contribution - “I'd like to also thank everyone in the rest of the world for supporting the show. The show is selling well in England, France, Germany, Denmark, Australia, India, Israel and more.“ The key is really to go where your customers are, and make it easy for them to access and pay for your service.
If you look at it, Louis CK’s strategy boils down to simply this - focus on the viewer, the end customer - and invest in the relationship. The funny thing about good stand-up comedy (!) is that it’s inherently less about the performer and more about the people in the audience. Business is not all that different.