word-of-mouth thy name is wits


Ok, before I get into this post there are a couple things you need to know. First, I’m a big fan of the musician Aimee Mann. Yes, I know that her music is depressing.  And I will totally admit that I enjoy listening to indie music that’s on the slow and sad side of things: Luna, Yo La Tengo and Spain.  (This was especially the case back in the late 90s.)  Aimee Mann’s music is totally in line with this, but she is also endearing, charming and self-deprecating.  I really started listening to her when she scored the soundtrack to the movie Magnolia.  I thought the film itself was polarizing, but the album was fantastic.  Give it a listen when you have the chance.

Second, I’m a big advocate and proponent of word-of-mouth marketing.  I’ve written about it a few times previously on the blog, and I’ve tried to bring that discipline to my various roles at Best Buy.  In particular this is one of the reasons that I’m excited about my current role leading social marketing for the brand.

Ok, now that I’ve called those two things out, let’s get to it.

The weekend before last I attended my first performance of “Wits.”  If you live outside of the Twin Cities then likely you have never heard of Wits.  Even if you live here in town you may not know about it.  Wits is best described as a live variety radio show. It features a cast that includes local writer and reporter John Moe who hosts the program, and it showcases musician John Munson (of Semisonic and Trip Shakespeare fame) who leads the house band.  In addition to Moe and Munson, Wits brings in two headlining guest performers for each event; one is usually a national comedian and the other is a nationally known musician.  Prior Wits performances this season featured Tim Meadows paired with Rhett Miller and Fred Willard paired with Dan Wilson. Get the idea?


The show is a mash-up of skits, interviews, stand-up comedy and live music.  (For any Garrison Keiller fans that are reading, the show is produced at the Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St. Paul — which is the same venue where “A Prairie Home Companion” is staged.)  The version of Wits that I attended May 11th featured comedian Paul F. Tompkins and Aimee Mann.

Before seeing the Tompkins and Mann Wits performance I had never attended a taping of the show, but in a sense it felt like I had been there.  Many of my friends have gone to previous shows or seasons, and on those nights, my twitter feed would seemingly blow up with tweet after tweet from the show referencing something that was happening in real time during the performance.  I felt like I was missing out on something and had absolutely no idea what was going on.  It wasn’t until I attended the show that it became clear to me. Let me fill you in on the details.

First off, two or three days before the actual event, all ticket holders are invited to attend a pre-show tweet up.  This happy hour of sorts takes place in the theater lobby and is the producers’ attempt at making a 1000-person venue feel cozy.  During the Wits tweet up I attended, I ran into all sorts of people that I know from work, from concerts and just from going out.  The tweet up was a way for us to all catch up in a totally different environment.

During the pre-show tweet up, there were Wits event staffers that were working as “Twitter Tutors.”  Here’s the “a-ha” moment I had and how it all ties back to my Twitter stream blowing up every time a Wits performance takes place.  The producers of the show proactively encourage the attendees to tweet comments, questions and jokes before, during and after the show.  They staff the event with tutors to encourage people to use Twitter during the show.  And for any Twitter novices in the crowd, the tutors were there to instruct them on how to get up and going.

So you have the tweet up, the encouraged use of Twitter, and getting new people who have never tweeted before to start doing so. And that’s all fine if people’s comments are just relegated to the back channel of Twitter.  But Wits takes this a step further by incorporating the Twitter feed into the venue and show itself.  Before the show and during the intermission, all of the tweets with the #Wits hashtag are projected live on stage.  Any wise crack or comment from the audience, the show’s talent, or even people who aren’t there in person are shown for everyone to see.

Taking this even a step further, some of the tweets are even used as source material for jokes and skits during the second half of the show.  So all during the live performance, you have loads and loads of people breaking out their smart phones and bringing their commentary front and center into the experience.  Many of us have seen this tactic used at marketing conferences but I’ve never seen it pulled into a live public performance before.  It’s a brilliant move in my opinion.

Aside from the use of social media, perhaps more importantly is that Wits has a clear identity. It is a smartly produced event that features a witty combination of humor, arts and music that knows its audience.  Now it might not be for everyone — it definitely caters to the public radio/hipster audience but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Like a good brand, Wits knows its target audience and is not trying to be all things to all people.  Beyond just knowing its customer, Wits has essentially created an identity for people to adopt, rally around and share with others.  For me and many other marketing practitioners, this sense of identity is a bellwether of a strong word-of-mouth marketing program.


I haven’t really gotten into the show itself, but it was pretty fantastic.  I laughed to the point where I nearly cried, and my face was sore from smiling so much.  Tompkins and Mann were great foils to each other on stage, and I loved seeing Aimee Mann in such an intimate venue.  Plus she played a couple new tunes, some tried-and-true ones from the Magnolia soundtrack, and she closed it out by leading a completely unexpected sing-along to the wedding party classic “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz.

But when it was all said and done, what I really appreciated about Wits was how it has turned into a masterfully crafted word-of-mouth marketing case study.  It has an identity that the fans love (Wits), the offline event (pre-show tweet up), the use of social media (encouraged tweeting throughout the performance) and interaction between the show and the fans (the Twitter tutors and incorporation of tweets into the program itself).  Aside from the great content – the guest artist, the guest comedian, the writing, the house band — everything about Wits is seemingly designed to drive word-of-mouth.  It’s not easy to get word-of-mouth right, but when it happens like it did with Wits, it’s pretty impressive to observe.

(Photos courtesy of Shuttersmack Photography + Design and Jessica F. via Creative Commons.)


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