The Sideshow

It's all in the share, and the buzz

How Oliver Luckett's company shapes online image of President Obama, Ford Motor Co., celebrities

Eric Pfeiffer
The Sideshow

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Oliver Luckett inside his offices at theAudience (Yahoo News)

In an era when just about everyone has a Facebook page, why did President Barack Obama, the Ford Motor Co. and Ian Somerhalder turn to the same person to manage their online voices?

Oliver Luckett and his company, theAudience, are virtual producers, creating thousands of pieces of content per month: Facebook pages, videos, Twitter messages — just about anything with the potential to go viral.

Luckett says old models of communication have lost influence; building original, shareable content is now the most valuable way to connect with people. And he argues that the same principles apply whether you’re campaigning for leader of the free world or selling cars.

“I’m shocked that so much money is still spent on television," Luckett told Yahoo News during an interview at his offices in Los Angeles. “The online audience is your distribution now.”

In February, Cadillac received much attention, and some ridicule, for its TV commercial extolling the values of American consumer culture. Last week, Ford offered its rebuttal: A testimonial from Detroit activist Pashon Murray that zings Cadillac by praising community work, all while slyly advertising Ford’s own electric car.

Sure, the clip has been seen a million times on YouTube in less than a week. But the real edge theAudience gave Ford was "shareability," a social media buzzword, meaning millions of people showed it to each other and subsequently, glowing traditional media reviews followed. And it was all done without an expensive advertising campaign.

The clip itself was conceived by Ford, but knowing how to get the content to the right audience was where Luckett's team ensured its success. “Engagement data can’t be bought,” Luckett said.

The principles are portable. When you’re president of the United States, for instance, people are already inclined to listen. But motivating people to take action, even among your base of supporters, is another story.

So, for Obama’s 2012 re-election, theAudience devised a “social architecture” for Obama, creating original, shareable content like infographics that could be disseminated among the president’s supporters. Throughout the campaign, theAudience was involved with about 60 Facebook pages, including the main Barack Obama page, Women for America and campaign sites for several competitive states.

That content was shared across a wave of celebrity supporters, influential political figures and finally, down to the everyday voter, reaching 261 million people per week.

“Leading into Election Day, this community was a key factor in the digital arsenal helping to drive early voting, the campaign message, fundraising and ultimately turnout,” Luckett said.

In the entertainment world, theAudience creates social content for major stars like Mark Wahlberg and comedian Russell Brand. But it has also helped grow and define the careers of upcoming figures like “Vampire Diaries” star and “Lost” alum Ian Somerhalder.

Over the past few years, Somerhalder has built a fan base online that is more influential than those of many of his more famous contemporaries.

“The relationships and families I have established from online interaction grow stronger and deeper every day,” Somerhalder told Yahoo News.

Case in point: Luckett points to the Facebook page of singer Katy Perry. She has more than 65 million “fans” on her Facebook page, but only a few thousand are active on the site.

Conversely, Somerhalder has a little more than 10 million “likes” on his Facebook page, but more than 1 million of those fans are actively engaging with his page at any given time.

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Ian Somehalder isn't the biggest celebrity on Facebook but his fans are far more engaged than those of the average …

Luckett points out that Perry’s Facebook page is basically a stream of advertisements, blasting the same content to readers around the globe.

Meanwhile, Somerhalder is posting pictures from his travels, links to news stories and causes he cares about. It reads more like a conversation than a commercial.

“You’re basically producing a show on Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter,” Luckett says of Somerhalder’s prolific online voice. “You need lovable characters to keep people on the edge of their seat.”

At theAudience’s headquarters, dozens of social media specialists huddle inside the open office space. The content they produce reaches more than a billion users on a daily basis.

Hovering above their workspace is a mural of a giant purple octopus, with its massive tentacles extending across hundreds of feet of concrete. The metaphor is hard to miss: if you’re following a famous person online, theAudience is likely curating that voice.

Luckett is consumed by data. During a 90-minute interview, he is constantly demonstrating new content produced by his company: photos, viral videos and yes, streams of statistics on a giant projector screen.

In 2008, Luckett sold his company DigiSynd to Disney, which put him in charge of developing Disney's social media presence. Disney was trapped in an antiquated set of ideas, he said about bringing its characters and stories into the modern age.

“What I learned when I walked into Disney [was], they had a uniform policy that no content could be on platforms other than paid media or Disney.com,” Luckett said. “I had to get in there as an insurgent.”

If you went outside Disney’s website, you likely couldn’t watch or see anything made by Disney. As crazy as that sounds, it was more rule than exception for major media organizations.

Today, Luckett says Disney has learned to listen to its audience — one of the most passionate and engaged fan bases in the world. For example, when the company was looking to produce a sequel to the hit film “Finding Nemo,” the traditional route would have been to simply build another film around the original’s central, namesake character.

But as it turns out, fans have become more passionate about the film’s supporting character Dory, the hippo tang fish voiced by Ellen DeGeneres.

“That’s why the sequel is called 'Finding Dory,'” Luckett says, laughing. “Otherwise, they would have had no idea.”

After leaving Disney, Luckett founded theAudience with agent Ari Emanuel and Facebook alum Sean Parker.

Their goal was to help clients in entertainment and politics connect with people in ways that broke from often heavy-handed methods of traditional corporate advertising.

For example, Luckett points to Jimmy Fallon taking over the reins of NBC’s “Tonight Show.” When Jay Leno exited the stage, several obituaries were written on how the era of late night talk shows was over. But in the few weeks since Fallon has taken over the show, he has produced a number of comedy sketches that have gone viral online. In turn, the millions of people watching those videos on YouTube has literally translated into more people watching Fallon’s TV show.

“It makes him more powerful. It makes him part of the zeitgeist,” Luckett says. “Because he’s bringing in viewers from other platforms.”

But at the same time, Luckett’s company produces content published under their clients' names of their clients. Based on the numerous examples I saw, one could describe what Luckett and theAudience do as a highly evolved and sophisticated form of ghostwriting. Is there a separation between authenticity and composing a tweet under a celebrity’s name?

For Luckett, it’s not simply a case of hit “publish” and move on. Before taking on a person or company as a client, Luckett makes them sign an agreement to personally review and sign off on any content his company creates.

Back to the example of Obama. Luckett says presidential content has to be something the president himself might create and share if he weren’t simultaneously in the middle of a campaign or running the government.

“What we choose to consume, how we vote, and what we believe in are woven into the integral structure of media as a whole,” Somerhalder said. “Corporate bodies, governmental agencies and even individuals are encouraged to listen to the impassioned voices echoing online all around us.”

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