Q&A: Branding Lessons From Comedian and '@midnight' Host Chris Hardwick

'@Midnight' Host Is Growing His Nerdist Empire

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Chris Hardwick, Julie Klausner, Horatio Sans and Jon Daly on the set of '@Midnight.'
Chris Hardwick, Julie Klausner, Horatio Sans and Jon Daly on the set of '@Midnight.' Credit: Mark Davis/Comedy Central
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Chris Hardwick, who founded geek website Nerdist Industries in 2008 and is working on expanding his concurrent TV gigs to three from two, knows about building a brand that lives across platforms.

In Comedy Central's "@midnight," where he is an executive producer, Mr. Hardwick arguably has TV's most successful series at using social media. The late-night game show, which began in October and is hosted by Mr. Hardwick and produced by Funny or Die, regularly outpaces both Jimmy Fallon and Conan O'Brien for Twitter mentions and breaks onto Twitter's trending topics with its signature segment, #Hashtag Wars. During the segment, comedians devise one-liners for made-up hashtags. Viewers are encouraged to post their own responses to the hashtags on Twitter, with the best responses later shown on air.

Next up, Mr. Hardwick will bring his web series, "All-Star Celebrity Bowling" to AMC. In the pilot, set to debut on AMC next year, Mr. Hardwick competes in a friendly game of bowling against "Mad Men" star Jon Hamm. (Mr. Hardwick promises no bumpers in the gutters.)

Mr. Hardwick, who got his start in TV on the dating game show MTV's "Singled Out" and went on to host the cruise-ship blind-date series "Shipmates," currently also hosts AMC's "The Walking Dead" after-show, "Talking Dead," which attracted 7.3 million viewers during its March finale.

His company Nerdist, which was acquired by Legendary Entertainment in 2012, is focused on building a team to create content in various genres -- including branded content and integrations via the Nerdist website, its podcast network and live events.

Nerdist hired its first head of ad sales, Amy Venier, in April. Prior to joining Nerdist, Ms. Venier had spent nine years at CBS Interactive.

Mr. Hardwick chatted with Ad Age about how brands are misusing social media, the influx of web series to TV and the future of Nerdist. (The conversation has been lightly edited).

Advertising Age: Why do you think "All-Star Celebrity Bowling" can make the transition from web to TV?

Chris Hardwick: I got the idea to pitch the show to AMC because Joel Stillerman [the network's exec VP-original programming] is a bowler and in a league. There aren't really any rules as to what you can pitch to AMC. If they like the show they will do it, that's really the only rule.

As a culture, we have seen enough of celebrities on couches talking about their latest project. This is a new take on it -- seeing people you recognize in a way you wouldn't normally get to see them interact.

It is consistently one of our most-viewed series. But you get a vibe if something feels sticky. It's not always about the number of views, but if the people who watch it are engaged. At Nerdist, we are focused on making programming and content that's very inclusive in a way that viewers really feel like they are hanging out with these people.

Ad Age: It seems like more and more the end goal for a web series is TV.

Mr. Hardwick: It's not always the end goal for a web series to make it to TV. Sometimes trying to fit something into a TV series can be tricky and in some cases web shows have a bigger audience and do better on the web than they would on TV. I don't see one as being better than the other. There will be a day one device helps unify content for broad audiences to allow for wide-range adoption. Networks will expand to be bigger brands. What you think of as traditional TV and digital won't be discernable any more.

Ad Age: What have you learned in being a stand-up comic that has translated into building Nerdist?

Mr. Hardwick: In a stripped down way a comedian is an entrepreneurial brand machine-- it's about relating to the audience and being able to talk to the audience with a distinct voice. These are all the same things you do when you are building a brand.

Ad Age: What's next for Nerdist?

Mr. Hardwick: My focus is on building out a team of new faces and voices. I call them a Justice League of personalities to fill the hole that G4 left. [G4 has been all but left for dead after NBC Universal decided not to rebrand the channel into Esquire Network. While it continues to exist, the company has not been investing in new content.] I want Nerdist to become a source of breaking news. I am looking to expand the podcasts, create more one-off comedy shows, pitch more TV. I am not limiting myself to any genre -- reality, scripted -- it has to be fun. If you are going to live with it every day it needs to be something you are passionate about. Things like selling shows and ratings -- these are all mile markers -- but you are stuck with the process and need to enjoy it.

"Other companies put a Twitter feed in the ticker at bottom of the screen and said they were using social media."

I am trying to build Nerdist into a biosphere -- an ecosystem of content that doesn't rely on outside distributors or marketing. This is why I don't focus on one platform. I started with the blog and at first it was just my voice and I realized I needed to bring in more voices. After the blog, I introduced the podcast and TV show and YouTube channel -- it didn't all start at the same time.

People are hypnotized by the concept of "viral." But that has no foundation. It's about consistency and listening to the audience over time. You can have one video blow up, but then what else is there? That's why when I started the podcast I made sure I was consistent, posting every week. Time is currency now. People like to know they can rely on the content they enjoy. It's about being patient.

Ad Age: What do you attribute the success of "@midnight" to?

Mr. Hardwick: The game show format drives the show forward so it doesn't slow down. We are tapping into online communities and social media for source material. Really when "@midnight" started last year no one had really done that yet. Other companies put a Twitter feed in the ticker at bottom of the screen and said they were using social media.

The vibe is like hanging out with friends. This show could have been mean spirited but it doesn't need to be mean spirited to be edgy. Having been picked on most of my life for the things I am interested in I am sensitive to it. It's a nice alternative to what else is on at that time. This is not to say they aren't great. What Fallon built right away is amazing. We are just a different alternative.

Ad Age: Brands including Taco Bell, Clorox, Charmin and Arby's have been playing along with #Hashtag Wars, aligning themselves with the show without having to pay for advertising. How do you feel about brands jumping on "@midnight" hashtags?

Mr. Hardwick: "@midnight" is sponsor-friendly. It's a game show, so segments can have sponsors and themes and not feel weird. People get how entertainment works; someone needs to pay for content to get made. You need to own it and not try to sneak it in. People don't want to feel like they are being taken advantage of. Old marketing mantra tries to trick people. That feels dishonest.

Ad Age: Do you think brands need to do a better job of seamlessly integrating social media?

Mr. Hardwick: I don't think "Talking Dead" would have been a success without social media. It is a community of people. That's what all of this is -- "@midnight," the podcast, Nerdist: They are communities of people and have a feel like a group of friends -- not just consumers.

The podcast not only brought people to come see my show on purpose, but brought specific people who I would probably actually hang out with. It's not just about building the biggest audience, but an audience that is engaged. Why brands fail with social media is because they are trying to advertise to people who don't care because they don't care about them. You need to give something back and engage and grow and listen with your audience.

In our culture, niche doesn't mean small, it means targeted. We are just really specific.

Ad Age: What mistakes are brands making when it comes to social media?

Mr. Hardwick: Using social media as a press release is bad as opposed to just speaking to someone as human beings. Brands need social media teams that have their own voice. People are fine with brands trying to sell them stuff as long as you tell them that. It's important to integrate products that make sense with the audience. I ask myself, would I use this? One time I had a sponsor on the podcast that people called me out on and said I wouldn't use the product. They were right, and I ended the partnership. Early on I found sponsors by emailing companies and websites I used. That's how I initially got sponsors for the podcast.

Ad Age: Should brands try to be funny on social media?

Mr. Hardwick: I think brands should be funny on social media. But comedy can have a backlash. Comedy is what allows all of us to deal with things that scare us. So it can be really serious. You need to know what your audience can handle and that comes just from knowing your audience.

Ad Age: You were an early adopter of Twitter and other social media platforms. Is there an up-and-coming platform you are embracing?

Mr. Hardwick: There was a social media boom. That is, there was nothing and then there was a burst. The idea that something will come along and knock Facebook off -- it could happen, but not any time soon.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story incorrectly said "@midnight" is co-produced by Nerdist. It is produced by Funny or Die.