The Onion is one of the most successful and enduring comedy brands in the world. Their comical news reports parody self-important news outlets and attract millions of website visitors every month. Elon Musk is such a fan, it’s rumored he tried to buy the brand in 2016.
What’s most impressive is how long its been running. It began 30 years ago as a free newspaper run by three students who knew nothing about comedy. Today, it’s home to some of the best comedy minds in the world. The Onion doesn’t simply run ads on the site, they have their own agency -- Onion Labs -- which helps fuel the multimillion-dollar business.
Scott Dikkers, co-founder of The Onion, is often asked to speak at conferences about how he grew the brand. Interviewed by Entrepreneur.com, Dikkers discusses some of the principles he formulated over the years running The Onion and has written about in his latest book. He believes any founder can use these principles to grow a world-class brand of their own.
It all starts with knowing your mission and chasing it obsessively.
The Onion mission is to be the best satirical parody of news media in the world. To do that, they need a constant stream of great ideas. The problem, as Dikkers puts it is “most of the ideas we create are garbage.” Dikkers believes in “quantity to achieve quality”. In other words, produce a lot of ideas and get rid of most of them. In The Onion’s case, nearly all of them.
“Each writer brings 15 to 20 headline ideas to editorial meetings”, says Dikkers. Often the writers have created hundreds of their own before arriving at the meeting. The whole team gather in a room and combine their ideas, pouring over hundreds of headlines. “Only a handful make the cut at this round,” explains Dikkers.
That’s not the end. The team then sets about improving the chosen few headlines. More get dropped in this round. Only the best 20 or 30 will be published. The obsession doesn’t just benefit the brand, it benefits the writer. Dikkers finds that “when you work obsessively, you build skills, and in time you become a master.”
Put fans before profit.
Dikkers believes in growing fans first and letting the profits follow. To know what they want, he advises “think of fans as friends or future lovers, and figure out how to woo them.” The Onion uses spin-off projects that mock a new style of media to woo new fans.
Over the years there’s been the Onion News Network, a CNN-style parody which aired for two seasons in the 2000s. As Buzzfeed grew in popularity, Clickhole was announced in 2013. This year, following the success of NPR’s Serial, Onion Public Radio released "A Very Fatal Murder,” true crime podcast, complete with fake subscription-box commercials.
The buzz from each project and the awards -- The Onion has won Thurber Prize for American Humor and a Peabody -- brings legions of new fans. “Whatever brand you’re building, just worry about growing a fan base.” shares Dikkers, knowing it takes time. “Sometimes acorns take more than a fiscal quarter to grow into oak trees.”
Don’t recruit, attract.
When The Onion needed writers in the early days, they would never place job ads. Instead, Dikkers waited for passionate comedy writers to approach him. “They found me, I gave them a chance,” he says. This was a conscious decision, that Dikkers calls “attracting people versus recruiting people.”