Social Media Strategy

How Penn and Teller Turn the Audience Into Social Megaphones

Jay Baer and TellerJay Baer Blog PostOne of the biggest mistakes brands are making in social is overemphasizing their owned media and underemphasizing their earned media. Companies are spending time and riches to acquire a larger audience so that they can talk at more people, while simultaneously ignoring the simple truth that those people aren’t just message receptacles, but also megaphones waiting to be activated.

I’ve written in the past about the two types of Talk Triggers and making your brand worthy of social media. Remember, social media was initially driven by consumers talking about companies, not companies talking to consumers. The famous magician duo Penn & Teller evidently understand this differentiation fully, as my recent experience at their show in Las Vegas attests.

Tom Webster and TellerLast week, I was speaking at the New Media Expo conference about Youtility (where I also announced that my new book by the same name will be published this June by Portfolio. More about that soon!). After the conference, I attended Penn & Teller’s show. I’ve been a big fan for years, and invoked Teller in a recent, popular post about time pressures in social media. I was joined at the show by pals Lee Odden, Nick Westergaard, Tamsen Webster, and Tom Webster.

The Decentralized Magic of Cell Fish

Tom Webster nearly got his iphone included in the opening bit, but had a volume snafu, so Teller moved to a different audience member/victim. Turns out, that opening trick (which they call “Cell Fish”) includes using an audience member’s phone as a video source and prop, and the participant can then look at the video on their phone and see how the trick is done.

Currently on YouTube, there are dozens (maybe hundreds) of videos from audience members who have participated in “Cell Fish.” This creates significant social ripples for Penn & Teller, and gives them a steady stream of new video content (five shows weekly at The Rio).

What will have more long-term impact? Penn uploading a video of “Cell Fish” or a few audience members per week uploading their own videos, forever? Penn has a large social graph, as evidenced by his 1.3 million+ Twitter followers, but by using a steady stream of audience members as the megaphone, the magicians increase the lifespan of the story from a few days to infinity.

Snapshot 1:11:13 7:46 PMHandshake Social Media

But Penn & Teller’s commitment to turning audience members into social ambassadors is no trick. After every show, the magicians adjourn to the lobby, where they sign autographs and pose for pictures until every single fan is satiated. Wow. Not only is this a great example of humility and Gary Vaynerchuk‘s principle of the thank you economy, but in this age of moment sharing, every photo taken and uploaded creates awareness of Penn & Teller as a viable entertainment option in a ferociously competitive Vegas market.

By way of comparison, a few weeks ago I took my family to see the Criss Angel show at The Luxor (I’m in Vegas A LOT for speaking gigs). Not only was the magic better at Penn & Teller (to my amateur’s eye, at least) but Angel’s show expressly forbid photography of any kind. Prohibiting fan participation equals a paucity of social ripples, other than text-only Foursquare check-ins and the like (which I admittedly did – against house rules – while in the restroom). So Criss Angel gets a Foursquare check-in. Penn & Teller get Cell Fish videos, a photo of me and Teller on Instagram, Path, Facebook and Twitter, a photo of me and Penn in the same venues, and photos of Tom, Tamsen, Lee, and Nick on their respective platforms of choice. Combined Twitter followers: 133,000+, and that’s just one row of the audience.

It’s About Them, Not About You

Three reasons your customers and fans are better megaphones than your brand:

1. Collectively, they have more social connections than your brand possesses

2. They are trusted in a way that your brand will never be

3. There is a steady supply of new customers every day/week/month

My challenge to you for this week is to take some time and think about all the touch points where you could be encouraging your customers and fans to be creating content – and social ripples – on your behalf. Is it through signage? Is it via a contest? Or is by just shaking every hand?


Facebook Comments


  1. says


    It seems to me the idea is making your audience/client/customers feel like they are part of the “Show.”

    Not easy to do in every business but something I agree is so important. You watched Chis Angel, you were part of the Penn & Teller show.

    That’s a big difference.



  2. Jonathan Steiert says


    Isn’t it amazing that the best of examples of brands or people being social is…in person? I mean, it’s not a hard concept for us to understand. As C.C. Chapman discussed on your Social Pros podcast and then on my podcast (Social Echoes) last week, ‘you have to like people in order to succeed at this social stuff’. Perhaps the question that we should focus on just as much as we do the metrics, measurements, and trends, is how to shift people’s views of their fellow man. Is it possible? Can we alter and augment culture enough to get to that point? Do Community Managers and Social Directors have enough pull within their own organizations to cause that swing? When your customers feel like they’re part of your story, everybody wins…but what do we do to cause that switch?

    As always, a terrific insight wrapped in a fun story. Thanks for sharing.


  3. says

    I’ve seen Penn & Teller four times now, twice in Vegas including the show you saw (I caught it in November). Our first show as at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles, at least 18 or 19 years ago — and they stood outside the theater and greeted members of the audience then, too. That speaks to another issue: Sincerity. They’re not doing this because people might share the photos via social media. There WAS no social media back then. They did it because they genuinely care about their fans. The best way to develop the right kind of mentality to turbocharge your social media efforts is to have a genuine empathy for your customers in the first place.

    • says

      Thanks for the comment, Shel. So interesting to know that they’ve been doing it for a long time. Very interesting point about sincerity. Also speaks to how much effort they’ve put into connecting with fans, and for how long. Wow. I love them even more.

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