The Onion isn’t just a satire website — it’s a content publishing powerhouse with over 5.5 million Facebook fans, more than 9 million Twitter followers, and more than 11.4 million domains linking to them in the ahrefs database.
When a publication sees that kind of success over the course of 28 years, they have learned a few things that other content producers and promoters could use. Here’s our list of six lessons from The Onion that you can and should apply to your content marketing.
1. Start with the Headlines
Whether you call it compelling headlines or link bait, The Onion has a way of getting reactions out of readers before they even read the article. How do they do it? They write, and perfect, the headlines before they write the articles. A writer won’t’ even draft an article unless it elicits laughs in the writer’s room.
Whether your content is appearing in an email, as a Facebook ad, as a tweet, or among a dozen other articles on a blog, you need a solid headline if you want people to give your content more than a passing glance. This isn’t to say that the content itself isn’t important, but headlines are too often an afterthought.
Make headlines a part of your new brainstorming process. For example, if you’re in the contacts & glasses e-commerce space like Coastal.com, instead of jotting down notes around just a keyword like “daily contact lenses”, try writing it as a title first, such as “Some Things are Best Fresh: The Top 3 Reasons for Daily Contact Lenses.” Even small adjustments, like writing the headline “The Ultimate Sunglasses Face Shape Guide” rather than “Sunglasses Face Shape Guide” can increase the number of clicks your content will see.
2. Be Current or Be Timeless
This seems like pretty obvious advice, but it’s harder than it sounds. The Onion does an excellent job creating both types of content: content taken directly from today’s headlines, and content that could have been written and appreciated any day of the year, any year in the past decade.
Being current—really current—is difficult, especially if you don’t have a large staff or work in a field that constantly changes. If it takes you a week or longer to finish an article, your content could be stale before you can publish it. For example, The Onion published this article about the Panama Papers within days of the story breaking, while it was still at the top of the news cycle. If they had waited a week or longer, there’s no guarantee that the world would still be interested.
If you can’t quickly turn around content or don’t work in an industry that lends itself to current content, timeless content is likely your best option. Timeless content can be nostalgic, general industry best practices, or simply not tied to current events. A great example is this blog post from Rival IQ about writing for your audience. Not only does Rival IQ’s post explain a general industry best practice, it shows readers how to learn more about their audience by using Rival IQ’s software.
However, the most important aspect of timeless content is that it can be dusted off and reshared month after month and year after year.
3. Re-Post Articles When They’re Timely
That leads us to our third point: reposting articles when they’re timely. The Onion frequently reposts articles that are relevant to current events. With 28 years of content behind them, they have articles ready for thousands of different situations, from baseball to politics to national events. When a national or world event occurs that mirrors an existing story perfectly, they’re not afraid to recycle existing content.
But how do you know when to re-post an article? Though The Onion certainly has content that can be re-posted every day, you’ll find that they only re-share their most popular pieces. Make a list of your best-performing content pieces, and only re-post those, and only when the time is right. If a blog post or video didn’t perform the first time around, then it likely won’t the next time you share it. But if a content piece engaged and converted audiences previously, it might when re-shared when it’s relevant again.
For example, rather than working to create new content for Groundhog Day every year, The Onion re-shared a popular 2013 Groundhog Day article in 2016. It’s a popular article that gets a lot of shares and clicks every year, which makes it perfect for re-posting.
4. Don’t Be Afraid of Controversy
You don’t run a satire publication for 28 years without ruffling some feathers. The Onion doesn’t shy away from pointing out hard truths in their satire, and you shouldn’t avoid it in your content marketing.
Popular opinions are easy, but it’s harder for your content to get traction when it’s expressing the same opinion shared by every other brand in your landscape. If you have the experience or data to counter a popular opinion in your space, it’s a great opportunity to create content that can get people talking about your brand.
Mike Ito from Alternate Energy, Inc. wasn’t afraid of controversy when he wrote a post on CleanTechnica. “Solar Bottlenecks: How Hawaii is Paving the Way” criticized actions taken by the government in regards to renewable energy and encouraged readers to reach out to their state representatives and sign a petition that would benefit the solar industry overall.
5. When it Comes to Humor, Be Smart, Not Mean
If your brand goes the route of humor, it’s important to stray toward humor that’s funny because it’s smart and true, not humor that’s funny because it’s mean or insensitive. A quick search for “brand social fails” on Google will reveal countless examples of brands who tried to play into humor but got called out by angry consumers.
This is something that The Onion doesn’t always get right. Over the years, there have been times that The Onion had to apologize for something that their readers thought was cruel or offensive. However, for a satire publication, this doesn’t happen often. The Onion knows how to offer commentary and be bitingly humorous without being meaner than they need to be.
It’s easier to accidentally publish hurtful or offensive content than you might expect. Something that you might consider harmless fun could make readers irate, so you need to be mindful. Take, for example, The Onion Labs’ Bacardi campaign. They created 15 Bacardi cocktails named after the types of people you run into over the holidays.
With names like “The Mother’s Stare” and “The Visiting Cousin,” it would be easy for this campaign to dive into offensive territory. However, The Onion Labs played it smart and developed a funny, tasteful campaign that netted 2.64 million social impressions and a 7.54% engagement rate per tweet.
6. Find the Right Writers and Creators
There’s a saying in comedy: If you’ve never been told you’re funny, then don’t try to be funny.
The same can be said about content marketing. If your writer doesn’t know much about e-commerce, tech, sports, entertainment, then she probably shouldn’t write about those things. The most talented writers can write about anything, especially if they’re given an outline, but it’s hard to match the speed, tone, and accuracy of a subject matter expert.
That’s why it’s important to find outside subject matter experts or work with an agency that does so. At Content Harmony, we have some staff writers, but we also hire freelance subject-matter experts as needed for various projects. This enables us as an agency to create valuable content for a wide variety of clients.
The Bottom Line
Most likely, imitating The Onion isn’t the best solution for you. Satire isn’t a good look for content marketers.
However, you can’t deny the lessons you can learn from the classic satire publication. From starting with headlines to finding the right writers for your content, the six lessons outlined in this post are easy to incorporate into an existing content strategy and process.