Five Things I Learned About Marketing from Howard Stern

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It was a particularly bleak and hot summer in New Orleans in 1997. Every morning, I dragged my ass out of bed at 6 and head to Audubon Park to walk around and around and around the swampy lake. One morning, I was bored with whatever story was on Morning Edition and switched over to the alternative rock station on my little Sony clip-on radio. But instead of Fiona Apple, I tuned in and heard Howard Stern bitching about how his baked potato hadn't been cooked right that morning.

Something about the show immediately hooked me. And except for a two-year stint I did in Montana, I’ve listened to him almost every day since.

Howard recently re-signed (yay!) with Sirius for another (probably final—boo!) five years, and so I thought I’d commemorate the event by sharing what Howard’s taught me about marketing and branding and the importance of good content.

1. Find your thing and commit to it—hard.

Yes, he’s the king of all media, but Howard’s “thing” is radio. He doesn’t take time off to write his books. He won’t take a day off to fly to LA to do Jimmy Kimmel to promote his show. He won’t even eat dinner out during the week (past 5:30pm, that is) because his number one priority is being at the studio every morning before 6am and talking for four or five hours. Even when he was filming his movie, they would shoot in the afternoon and evening so he could still keep doing the radio show every morning. His commitment to what some say is an almost-dead medium is what keeps his millions of listeners committed, too.

The takeaway

It’s tempting these days to spread yourself thin. You start out as a designer, but before long you’re spending a ton of creative time blogging and twittering and then maybe writing an ebook that unexpectedly takes off. Before you know it, your spending more time in Quickbooks than you are in Illustrator. Doing different things is okay, of course, especially if you love all the things you do. But keeping focus on your primary thing will help you make choices (e.g. “I’ll do Twitter, but not Facebook”) so you can prioritize when you’re feeling scattered and burned out.

2) On the other hand: don’t get too comfortable with your thing.

Howard worked hard to get to where he is, and it would have been tempting to just stick with his schtick. But even though he’s committed to radio, he continues to try other things—producing a sitcom, starting a TV network—that don’t guarantee him the success his radio show does. Not everything succeeds, but because he stretches himself, his show remains vibrant and current—Howard’s the furthest thing from what my friend Jerome would call “crusty.”

The takeaway

Yes, keeping focus on your core mission and product is key. And because it’s such hard, hard work to turn that focus into success, it’s tempting to relax into a successful rut. By always keeping your eyes, ears, and heart open to new adventures and new ways of thinking, you’ll keep your main thing alive and growing.

3) Ask good questions—and then listen to the answers.

If Howard’s underrated for anything, it’s for his interviewing ability. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve let out a small groan when he announces his guest for the day. I mean, how compelling could Ron Howard be? Could I really care about anything Jerry Springer might have to say?

But Howard’s curiosity is genuine—and bottomless. He never fails to ask the question that I would want to ask if I were brave enough (e.g. “Is Henry Winkler an asshole?”) or ask a question I wouldn’t even know to ask (“Did you know when your daughter was in utero that she was going to be born deaf and blind?”).

More importantly, Howard actually listens to what the person has to say so that the conversation can go deeper and reveal more. His interviews frequently run over an hour so there’s plenty of space to go off on interesting tangents.

Why does he do it? For his “customers,” the listeners.

The takeaway

Your company can learn a lot from your own customers and potential customers. But you’ll always learn the most when you really get curious and listen. Come at it from a place of doing the right thing for them: Think more about what they want or need as opposed to trying to sell them on what you have. It really is all about them.

4) Tell the truth.

Howard's show lives and dies by one thing: truth. He always tells the truth to his listeners—about his personal life, his work—and insists everyone involved in the show to do the same. Even guests. That’s why we find out from Ron Howard that he seriously thought about making a porn movie, “Opie Gets Laid,” to finance his then-fledgling directing career. It’s why we find out that Jerry Springer’s entire extended family was killed in the Holocaust.

The takeaway

The truth is real. The truth is where the interesting stuff lies. And when you tell the truth—to your customers, to yourself—you create connection. Customers who are connected to you and your brand are going to stay customers.

5) Be loyal.

Howard is excessively loyal: once someone’s a part of the show, he or she is there to stay (unless it’s his/her choice to leave). That’s the main thing that’s kept me listening for so long: I know that every day I turn on the show, I’m going to hear the same people--on air or behind the scenes--mixing it up with one another about their respective quirks and foibles.

The result? There’s a consistency and a familiarity to the show that makes the listener want to have a consistent and familiar relationship with the show.

The takeaway

When you’re loyal to your own vision and to the people who work with you, it will help you provide consistently great products or work. It will give your customers confidence in you and what you do and how you do it, and they’ll be much less likely to dump you for the next hot young thing that comes down the block.