The P.T. Barnum Guide to Online Publicity

There’s a sucker born every minute.

Guess what? P.T. Barnum never said that. A competitor of his did, and yet it’s been wrongly attributed to Barnum for 140 years.

That’s a shame, because although Phineas Taylor Barnum used outrageous stunts and hoaxes for promotional purposes, he was insanely focused on delivering exceptional value to his customers. He even crusaded against schemers and charlatans that swindled people out of money.

Those crooks made Barnum’s job harder, just like spammers and snake-oil sellers make every honest online marketer’s task a bit tougher as well. When Barnum pulled one over on you, he told you… and then made sure you left with a smile on your face.

We all know that delivering outstanding, useful content is the best way to get positive online attention. But every once in a while, you might try something completely off the wall and gain big traction, as long as you find a way to deliver value beyond the hype.

For example, when it became clear that YouTube sensation Lonelygirl15 was a fake, a lot of people (including me) thought there might be a backlash. Nope, because the story “she” provided the audience contained enough quality and value to give people exceptional satisfaction. As Frank Ahrens of the Washington Post insightfully commented, we can be fooled, and we probably don’t care.

Barnum felt the same way, and he kept huge crowds coming back for more, time and time again. It all comes down to the beneficial payoff for the audience.

This is definitely a tricky area. So perhaps we should look at a few things P.T. Barnum actually did say that might help you develop a viral online publicity campaign of your own. These observations are inspired by Joe Vitale’s There’s a Customer Born Every Minute.

“Never attempt to catch a whale with a minnow.”

Barnum always thought big. When people told him his plans would never work, he didn’t give up—he simply resolved to make even bigger plans.

Well before our own attention economy, Barnum relentlessly worked every angle to direct the public’s attention towards his offerings. He always thought big, but also realized that even tiny details could create a snowball effect when it comes to publicity and word of mouth.

In short, think big or don’t bother.

“I would rather hear the pleased laugh of a child over some feature of my exhibition than receive as I did the flattering compliments of the Prince of Wales.”

What will people spend their last nickel on, even during a period of time as tough as the Great Depression?


While it’s dangerous to expect humor or entertainment to convert directly into sales in most publicity contexts, delighting the crowd is still a great way to attract attention. Just think about the annual Go Daddy Super Bowl stunts. The hoopla has nothing to do with domain name registration (or even the commercials themselves), but it sure hasn’t hurt.

“If I was not a remarkably modest man, I should probably brag a little, and say that I had done what no American ever before accomplished [by visiting] the queen at her palace twice within eight days.”

P.T. Barnum knew the value of personal allies. The fact that Barnum had people like Mark Twain to help him promote his latest efforts demonstrates why having prominent new media friends makes sense in today’s world.

And as his references to Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales demonstrate, name-dropping has been a long-time strategy when it comes to publicity. That’s right… Chartreuse didn’t invent it.

“You know I had rather be laughed at than not to be noticed at all…”

Perhaps the most important thing you can learn from P.T. Barnum is courage. It takes courage to step beyond your comfort level and take a risk, and to have the maturity to turn failure into advantage by swallowing your pride and ignoring what people think.

Barnum once (as a stunt) offered $200,000 to purchase the first circus elephant to give birth in captivity. That was a whole lot of money back then, but the elephant owner declined, enlarged the telegram Barnum sent, and created a poster that turned it into a compelling Barnum endorsement for the show of his direct competitor. Rather than crying over spilled milk, P.T. found a kindred spirit to do business with, thereby turning his gaffe into a benefit.

Thus was born the Barnum & Bailey Circus (those Ringling Brothers came later to create the so-called greatest show on earth).

“Every man’s occupation should be beneficial to his fellow-man as well as profitable to himself. All else is vanity and folly.”

We’ve come full circle back to the heart of the matter. Most people can come up with something outrageous. But is there a payoff for the audience that makes it worth doing?

Most modern stunt marketing fails this test. Marketers shock simply to shock, with no larger plan, and certainly no audience payoff beyond the novelty of the disruptive message.

If you can engage and delight your prospective audience in a way that benefits you as well, do it.

If not, you’re wasting your time and everyone else’s.

P.S. The context in which “There’s a sucker born every minute” was uttered by Barnum’s rival is a fascinating triple-hoax story involving giants who live beneath the earth, archeology, old-school word of mouth, the danger of investing in things you don’t understand, and a lawsuit that ended with a startling courtroom confession. Check it out here.

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Reader Comments (16)

  1. says

    Another classic Copyblogger contribution to the blogosphere.

    Thanks Brian.

    I still remember my first circus and the mystery of the enormous PT Barnum.

  2. says

    Many, many years ago I read There’s A Customer Born Every Minute to learn about how PT Barnum did business. I also agree that it’s a fun book with some really good points about marketing, and the best part is that you get to read about the activities of a fascinating man while actually learning! Good book, but can be hard to find unfortunately.

  3. says

    ha ha. corrected it in the manifesto, by the way. it should be out in february.

    Hi Julien… I wondered if this post would bring you out. :)

    Can’t wait to read the manifesto.

  4. says

    “Every man’s occupation should be beneficial to his fellow-man as well as profitable to himself. All else is vanity and folly.”

    The advice i was looking to find for a long time. I actually found it a bit earlier this week when i read a post at which talked about how he is now a 20% of a millionaire, he says:

    “Unfortunately I don’t know how to provide a million dollars in value to a single person (and get paid for it), so I figured I’d have to make it up in volume… maybe by providing $1 of value to a million people. I know I can create something that’s worth at least $1 to someone – one good article should do it — so the key is figuring out how to get that value into the hands of as many people as possible.”

    What can we say Bryan? great minds think alike :)

    Keep it up,

  5. says

    Nice post. Nice angle. Thanks.

    I’m visiting here for the first time, but I’ll be back, looks like you’ve got some interesting stuff.

  6. says

    For years I’ve appeared on a radio show that feeds to 40 commercial radio stations across Australia.

    The biggest secret to getting free publicity is simply giving the media what they want and making their job easy for them.

    Converting that free publicity into sales takes a lot more thought and skill though.

    Online it’s very similar.

    You can use sites like youtube to get free publicity by following their rules and giving these sites what they want.

    To get a lot of viewers AND turn those viewers into real sales takes a lot more planning and thought.

    Kindest regards,
    Andrew Cavanagh

  7. says

    Ah! I, too, thought it was Barnum who said what has long been attributed to him. Nice to know that P.T. followed up his stunts by telling his audience the truth and giving them something to smile about. Good advice all around.

  8. Vince Williams says

    Quote from at that last link:

    “Barnum unveiled HIS giant and proclaimed that Hannum had sold Barnum the original giant and that Hannum was now displaying a fake!”

    Sounds to me like Barnum was still a lying dirt bag.

    Even if it was true that Hannum’s giant was a fake, he didn’t sell it to Barnum.

    So he WAS a crook, if this information is correct.

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