A Smart 8-Point Content Marketing Strategy From a Failed Television Writer

image of dan harmon

In network television a writer literally runs the show. They are appropriately named “showrunners” because they both write and oversee production.

Dan Harmon was the showrunner for a critically acclaimed comedy TV series named Community that found a rabid online following, but never hit ratings.

Throughout the 71 episodes that he wrote and created for NBC, Harmon blogged extensively and nurtured a growing legion of Twitter followers, now totaling upwards of 150,000.

His rapt online audience followed his every word, his unique storytelling and comedic know-how of pop culture made both the show and its creator seem to have one voice.

Then something happened …

His online following made him as famous as his tv show

To the dismay of his fans, Harmon was fired as executive producer of Community at the end of its third season because of creative differences with the network, and a very public argument with co-star Chevy Chase.

For many that may have signaled the beginning of hard times, but for Mr. Harmon, it was only evidence of a growing creative revolution within him.

Dan Harmon learned something about staying true to his creative blueprint very early in his career, and he wasn’t about to let the gatekeepers compromise it.

The underlying power of a great story

As an online publisher it is often hard to find the unique story that truly gives your brand or service the volume it needs to be heard above the chatter.

Great copywriters have known for years that the heart of a great story begins by entering the conversation your audience is already having and earning enough trust over time to eventually take them on a journey that satisfies their wants and needs.

How do you find that compelling narrative that truly captures the imagination of your prospects and gets them to take action?

Eugene Schwartz wrote on the “first technique of breakthrough copy”:

A copywriter’s first qualifications are imagination and enthusiasm. You are literally the script writer for your prospect’s dreams.

We’re reminded of what so many great writers have relied on over the years, Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth,” and the underlying framework of many powerful stories throughout history.

Also known as the Hero’s Journey; it’s the distillation of your prospects fears, hopes and dreams, and a key to keeping their attention long enough to reward them with your product or services.

It’s no secret that great stories run the world, and Brian Clark often talks about the importance of making your prospect the hero of your story and guiding them on a journey to fulfill their needs with your content:

  • You must grab your prospect’s attention because they are locked into the day-to-day routines of their ordinary lives.
  • By creating a “call to adventure” you are attracting their interest in solving a nagging problem or unfulfilled desire.
  • There is always initial inertia and resistance to your call to adventure that must be overcome by proving that you are a credible resource that holds the keys to their desire.
  • As the trusted authority and mentor to your prospect you provide the answers, the call to action, and the elixir that will solve their problems, making them far better off than before.

The birth of a cult following

As a struggling writer and comedian in Hollywood, Dan Harmon had his share of setbacks.

He spent years attempting to crack the code of successful storytelling. He analyzed thousands of movies. And when he discovered Joseph Campbell, a light went on.

He wrote a pilot directed by Ben Stiller, starring Jack Black and Owen Wilson that was rejected by the Fox Network.

Undeterred, Harmon realized that he didn’t need the permission of Hollywood players to make great shows. He and some friends created an ingenious short film festival called Channel 101 that was part democratic TV network, part YouTube — before YouTube was invented.

He arrived at his own version of the Hero’s Journey, an algorithm that he used to distill a successful narrative into 8 simple steps.

Much like successful content marketing, Mr. Harmon’s algorithm takes the protagonist on a journey of self-discovery:

  1. The main character finds himself/herself in a comfort zone (ordinary life).
  2. They want something (to satisfy their desires or solve a problem).
  3. They enter into an unfamiliar situation (a call to adventure).
  4. They must adapt to it (and overcome resistance, objections).
  5. They get what they wanted (a mentor appears to guide them and provide the the key to solve their problems or satisfy their desires).
  6. But have to pay a price for it (the call to action).
  7. They return to their familiar situation (they apply the solution you provide) …
  8. Having changed (for the better).

Dan Harmon applies his story algorithm to every element of every creative project he works on, and it seems to be making some waves.

Epilogue …

He’s been called a creative genius, and his uncompromising vision has earned him a lot of street cred over the years.

Just last month Dan Harmon and friends raised $400,000 in 60 days on Kickstarter to produce a Charlie Kaufman script (writer of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation), essentially circumventing the Hollywood studio process and taking the funding right to the people who matter most, their audience.

Now he has people like comedian Louis C.K. lining up for similarly fan-based projects, has sold a comedy pilot to Adult Swim, and is in creative talks to write shows on both CBS and Fox.

Life isn’t too bad for a guy who found his creative blueprint and stuck to his guns to provide his audience the story that compels them to keep coming back for more.

What’s your story?

Does it keep your audience coming back for more?

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Reader Comments (28)

  1. says

    Wow! What a Post! I enjoyed every bit of it!
    It is an inspiring post.One need to find,create and follow a blueprint if you want massive success only.

  2. says

    Hi Kelton, you crafted this piece so well and it’s something for me to aspire to as I’m getting to grasps with my writing. I tend to have the ideas that I would like to put across but simplifying them for my audience without losing the punch is what I am afraid of.

    You made an excellent point about how Dan leapfrogged the Hollywood process and went out on his own, something I learned from Robert Ringer and one that I am also trying to apply to my business endeavors.

    I also like the way Dan has a writing structure that he uses and sticks to which has evidently worked extremely well for him, but would this writing process get a little monotonous after time?

    • says

      I think this kind of underlying framework can be filled in so many different ways that it doesn’t get monotonous. *How* you fill in these questions makes all the difference. It’s not a formula, more like a structure.

      What gets monotonous, in my opinion, is putting a lot of work into writing that’s not finding an audience because it doesn’t resonate. But we’re all different. :)

    • says

      Thank you Shola. I think Sonia is right, there are infinite permutations within such a powerful structure, and great storytelling is great storytelling. If you’re truly synced to the needs of your audience, finding a framework that works for them is what it’s all about. Remember, they are the hero of your story, no matter what that may be.

  3. says

    Goes to show you that you don’t have to do it the way it’s always been done to make an impact. The best stories may follow the Hero’s Journey, but there are a million undiscovered ways to tell that tale what will connect you with your readers.

  4. says

    Thanks, Kelton Reid.

    My challenge, now, is apply the 8-step algorithm to my technical how-to posts and articles. I’m looking forward to it.

    Also appreciate any suggestions.


  5. says

    THAT WAS AWESOME!!! That’s a lesson in persistence and sticking to your guns. My only question if he didn’t have that Twitter platform, how would he keep engaging his audience? Also how do you earn that trust from the public so they keep following you? That really was an inspiring article and now I have to find Harmon and stay connected to him. I love good stories.

    • says

      In 2003 Dan Harmon created a short film festival/website in LA called Channel 101, there’s a link to the site in the post. He was writing and producing DIY comedy web shorts from the beginning and letting the audience decide if it was funny or not. This gave him a platform to deliver his content.

  6. says

    Sure is a great story to define a structure for your writing. What I am trying to remember is that every time I write there should be a call to action of some kind. You’re not always necessarily selling a product but you’re selling a concept or a personality or an action you want the reader to take … even if it’s just to share your concept with others.

    Weaving in the hero (the reader) to everything you write can certainly be a challenge and not always would he/she be a “hero” as such, but don’t we all see ourselves as some form of hero? So, I’m guessing this isn’t just about writing copy but pretty much about all blog posts?

    • says

      When we talk about “copy” we are referring to the writing you do for your audience, which can take many forms, including, but not limited to, blog posts.

  7. says

    As an aspiring screenwriter, I found this to be an extremely useful post. I know my half-hour TV sitcom and one hour dramaedy will keep people coming back for more. We need more ‘real’ shows on TV that inspire and tell a good story at the same time. Reality TV is getting old. It’s the same ol’ tired plot with different titles and characters.

  8. says

    I think the best stories are the ones that come from followers and subscribers. If you ask them what they need and then tell them a story about how they can get it from your service or product, they will show up by the hundreds to obtain it.

  9. says

    Wow! What a fantastic post! I always enjoy reading your blog!
    Very inspiring post. Every person need to find its own blueprint and follow it.

  10. says

    This is really fascinating post Kelton! Very smart and inspiring points well-detailed! The story about Harmon is very really and so encouraging to a majority of writers in a big percentage and you really hit the nail on the head! We all need a mentor or a model to follow the draft. What matters is where we are targeting to and what makes us devote our goals on such. Thank you for sharing. I look forward to sharing more!

  11. says

    I really enjoyed the storyline of Harmon. Sounds a very inspiring, encouraging and mentoring content! You need to follow in order for you to be followed in return! I also learn something new about being right to my resourceful plan and I think it is a helpful start of encouragement. Thanks for sharing Kelton, I found it helpful, keep up!

  12. Dr. Elliot McGucken says

    Nice work! Love the exaltation of the Hero’s Journey in the context of business / innovation / marketing / entrepreneurship / startups and branding!

    You’ll enjoy the Hero’s Journey Mythology words and videos here:

    A vast demand exists for the classical ideals performed in the contemporary context–for honor, integrity, courage, and committment–on Wall Street and Main Street, in Hollywood and the Heartland, in Academia and Government. And thus opportunity abounds for entrepreneurs who keep the higher ideals above the bottom line–for humble heroes in all walks of life.
    The same classical values guiding the rising artistic renaissance will protect the artists’ intellectual property. The immortal ideals which guide the story of blockbuster books and movies such asThe Matrix, Lord of the Rings, Braveheart,The Chronicles of Narnia, and Star Wars, are the very same ideals underlying the United States Constitution. These classic ideals–which pervade Homer, Plato, Shakespeare, and the Bible–are the source of both epic story and property rights, of law and business, of academia and civilization.


  13. says

    This is the first time I heard of his story. I feel bad on how they kept on shunning him for his supposed big break. But that goes to show that no one backs down from a challenge when they know that they the talent. I wonder how many more projects he has in mind. Wish him all the best.

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