Marketing Fail 101: How Woody Harrelson Taught Us About the Importance of Knowing Your Audience

The social news site reddit is a marvelous beast. Comprised of countless user-created categories, it’s a haven for all sorts of information and interactions. There are subreddits about world news, fitness, video games, humor, TV shows such as The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, politics, and everything in between. One popular section is called “IAMA,” in which anyone can submit a thread where the reddit community can ask him or her anything. AMAs have been conducted by a wide range of people, some unique, some ordinary, ranging from paramedics, the elderly, a dude stuck in his closet, and even the occasional celebrity. Famous folks such as Aziz Ansari, Zach Braff, Louis C.K., Bob Odenkirk, Ali Larter, and others have stopped by reddit to answer a flurry of questions submitted by users. Sometimes the star is an actual user himself who wanted to engage with fans and give back to the community, while others are there to promote an upcoming movie or book but are game to answer some questions while simultaneously pimping their project, but most of the time the reddit community is excited to interact with a bona fide celebrity and will put up with the occasional shill…

…unless you’re Woody Harrelson. The actor, who has starred in reddit-friendly movies such as Zombieland, Natural Born Killers, and No Country for Old Men, volunteered to do an AMA early last month to coincide with his new film Rampart, a well-received movie in which Harrelson plays a corrupt cop battling inner demons. The thread should have been a slam dunk for the White Men Can’t Jump actor considering he’s exactly the type of guy the typical reddit user would love to hang out with, but the whole thing turned into a disaster of epic proportions.

From the get-go, it seemed pretty clear to the community that Mr. Harrelson had no idea what reddit was and that someone (probably a PR agent) had heard that some celebs had successfully used the site to promote their upcoming work and pushed the idea onto him. Which is fine, really–reddit has warmly received many actors who were clearly there to put the word out about a project, like Stephen Tobolowsky, aka Ned Ryerson from Groundhog Day, who participated in an AMA to promote his new short story as well as his podcast. But what made Tobolowsky’s AMA a resounding success and Harrelson’s a big fat failure was that Stephen understood the rules of the “IAMA” subreddit and was game to follow them, answering hundreds of questions with interesting and often amusing answers, whereas Woody was unfamiliar with the setup and tried to deflect every question thrown his way and steer the conversation back to his upcoming film.

The result, if you aren’t aware of what happened, was a humiliating bloodbath. The whole point of an “AMA” is to “Ask [the submitter] Anything,” not “Ask Woody Harrelson Questions About His New Movie Rampart.” When asked what his most difficult role was, he answered with a canned “The character in Rampart.” When asked what movie was the most fun to work on, he lamely responded, “Well I usually wouldn’t say fun…intense, challenging, engaging, yeah.” When asked about a possibly scandalous run in with a young coed at a party, he tried to redirect with a “lets focus on the film people.” When asked which role was he bummed he didn’t get but was later glad to have not gotten it, he threw out a pageant response of “I don’t really think about those things.”

And the straw that broke the camel’s back:


He considers his time valuable but signed on to sit down and let one of the most popular online communities in existence pepper him with questions that can take hours to answer. Right. By this point reddit had had enough–the AMA thread got downvoted to oblivion and so did most of Harrelson’s answers. More than a month later, the fallout of this epic marketing disaster can still be felt–countless news and pop culture sites have covered the blunder, the words “Woody Harrelson” and “Rampart” are still a running joke in reddit threads, and the incident even has its own entry on Know Your Meme.

You can extract a wealth of information from this glorious marketing failure, but I’ll outline the most obvious yet important ones that Mr. Harrelson and his handlers seemed to very clearly overlook:

1. Know Your Audience, Duh

This is elementary-level stuff here, people, but apparently it needs to be reiterated from time to time. Writing a guest post on a childhood education resource site to promote your learning materials? Don’t pepper your content with F-bombs and gush about how amazing Jersey Shore is. Who are you writing for? Where are your ads running? Who will see them? This is basic recon you need to do before diving headfirst into a situation in which you could find yourself struggling to stay afloat. You need to know who your audience is and adapt to them accordingly. A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t really work nowadays–this is why we have multivariate testing and why we test different campaigns with different copy and different images. A tone that works beautifully one one site may fail miserably on another. You need to know all this and adapt accordingly.

2. Be Prepared

Do your homework. Harrelson should have looked at some other well-known AMAs to get an idea of the sort of questions the reddit community typically asks celebrities. Not many people are skilled at the art of improvisation. If you’re going into a situation completely blind, it’s not exactly a surprise when you stumble and make an ass of yourself. Are you getting interviewed? Awesome! Check out who’s interviewing you and what their typical tone or style is. Planning to interview someone? Cool! Research your subject and come up with a specific set of questions that caters to his or her area of expertise to make it more interesting. Getting some press from a big industry website? Wahoo! Check to see what sort of write ups they tend to lean towards–are they more of the “dig up dirt/’gotcha’ question’-type journalists, or do they generally draft up positive stuff? Don’t just laze your way through and assume that everything will go smoothly, because it probably won’t if you’re not adequately prepared.

3. Have a Back-Up Plan

Obviously the “Did you bang a college girl at a house party” question isn’t an ideal one for Harrelson to answer, but you would think that when one invites an anonymous group of Internet users to ask one anything, there are gonna be a few turds in the punchbowl. Unfortunately, Harrelson deflected the question poorly. Have a back-up plan for when things take an unexpected turn. Try to anticipate the unexpected and learn to expect it. At worst you prepared for some curveballs but didn’t get any, but when one inevitably does get thrown your way, you’ll know how to handle it. Even if you have a few lame canned deflections or statements prepared, at least you thought them through and considered how your audience would react instead of being forced to come up with a solution on the spot.

4. Do a Lil’ Give and Take

Yeah yeah, we know Harrelson was there to promote a movie. But most people are content with the “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” agreement. If Harrelson played by the rules and answered as many questions as he could warmly and honestly, the community wouldn’t have given a shit if he was there to promote Rampart, The Hunger Games, or his favorite brand of toenail clippers. Instead, he tried to benefit without giving something in return, and reddit quickly sniffed out the ruse and felt like they were being taken advantage of. If you want something from someone, whether it’s a link, a positive review, their business, some advice, whatever, make it worth his or her while. Offer something in return so that the person helping you out understands that you appreciate his time and effort.

5. Make Sure Your Employees Don’t Fuck You Over

Admittedly, Woody Harrelson is a busy celebrity, and I’m sure other celebs who have done AMAs had some help from their handlers or PR agents in setting it all up and knowing how the site works. Harrelson was made to look like a huge fool, and I bet someone got fired over this whole mess. Sure, the actor could have done his homework on his own, but the onus is also on his PR rep to have prepped him accordingly. If you put trust in your employees or coworkers and assume they’re doing their work and that they’ve got your back, that damn well better be the case. Everyone needs to be on the same page–if someone on your team is left out of the loop, there’s a breakdown in communication that can result in a huge hiccup in your project.

What’s unfortunate is that Rampart was a critically acclaimed movie and Harrelson is a likable actor–if the situation had been handled a little bit differently, he could have had one of the most successful AMAs in reddit history and a few more people would have seen his film. Instead, we’re left with an embarrassing but valuable case study on what not to do when it comes to self-promotion and the importance of researching your audience and adapting appropriately.

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