Sunday, December 28, 2008

Turn a virus into reverberation to get lasting fans

There have been a couple New York Times articles recently that have stood out to me. The first was Jon Pareles's piece on "Songs From the Heart of a Marketing Plan," discussing the licensing business's rise in recent years (thanks to DA of Chester French for the tip). The second was Gregory Schmidt's article on Broadway's use of MySpace and other viral techniques to fill theater seats. Both articles are about new ways for the arts to generate awareness.

The final quote of the Schmidt article touches on a point that I've been adamant about: “In the theater, there is only one proven marketing technique that works: to generate word of mouth,” Mr. McCollum said. “Everything else is a shot in the dark.”

Viral Marketing techniques are little more than the next generation billboard or TV ad -- they generate a bit of brand awareness if executed properly, but don't have any real lasting effects. You may see a spike in traffic as a result of a Viral Marketing campaign, but it rarely has any meaningful long-term revenue impact. Same goes for music licensing -- having your song licensed for a commercial is often good exposure, downloads of the single on iTunes will spike, as will MySpace plays, but how many new fans has it given you?

I actually admire the band Chairlift for deliberately not calling attention to the fact that their song "Bruises" was featured in the latest iPod Nano commercial ("I tried to do handstands for you..."). They knew that by making a big deal about one song being featured on TV, they'd alienate their true fans and make a big statement about their intentions as artists (to make money and get famous quickly instead of caring about their art and the fans who have supported them from the start).

As Seth Godin has posited for many years now, the best products, those that sell and that people love, are the ones with the marketing built in. Andy Sernovitz says "Advertising is the cost of being boring," and he's absolutely right. Viral Marketing is little more than a new generation of advertising -- its purpose is to generate brand awareness rather than create long-term fans and customers.

Reverberation Marketing, on the other hand, happens when a product (be it an album or a bottle of soap) is worth talking about and is properly exposed to its target audience. The first part, that it's worth talking about, must be baked into the product. The second piece, exposure to the target audience, is the job of a marketer.

Fleet Foxes have topped a vast number of Album of the Year lists (including my own), but that has nothing to do with the fact that their CD was available at Starbucks. In fact, the Starbucks deal came after they were playing sold out shows to thousands of die-hard fans around the world. They built a remarkable product, and exposed it talkers and tastemakers in their target audience (Pitchfork.com, for example). They continued to build with a tour opening for Wilco, a band with a similar target audience, and are now selling out headlining shows in Australia.

Perhaps most importantly, the fans they've made will stick with them. Viral Marketing encourages flash-in-the-pan artists or brands, whereas Reverberation Marketing builds a lasting fan-base that can be marketed to for years to come.

Fleet Foxes have focused on their fans, rather than general exposure, as they recognize the true fans will allow them to do what they love for the rest of their lives. I talked to them briefly after a sold-out show at The El Ray in October and they said they would be thrilled to play to that crowd at that venue for the rest of their lives if that's where their fans were. They even mock the marketing ploys of dollar-driven artists in a recent blog post:

"We have found the perfect place to record our next record, we've rented a barn/house in Port Townsend a few miles from where my dad used to build boats, and we're gonna build a big ole Titanic that will seem indestructible but will actually sink quite easily due to something minor that we overlooked (something like hella world beat / glitch pop influences or a continuous literal narrative). SO watch out for FORD AUTOMOTIVE PRESENTS FLEET FOXES II: TIDES OF THE UNDERDEMON, SERMON 3:16 exclusively at Best Buy, January 17th 2009!"

So what can they do next? Make the ties to their existing fans stronger. Get more direct contact routes than MySpace (email addresses, cell phone numbers, etc) in order to increase quality of communication (read: segmentation by location or depth of connection (single purchase vs large purchase and sharing)) and strengthen the connection. Understand what those fans want from them, understand who else those fans are listening to, reward the fans who help spread their message, and most of all continue to be themselves.

The true fans have come because they feel an untainted connection to the band. They will support the band for years to come. The folks who buy your single off iTunes because they heard your song on a commercial are virtually meaningless in comparison. Thinking financially of the lifetime value (LTV) of each:
  • True fan: Buys 3 albums (3 x $10), 1 vinyl ($15), tickets to 5 shows (5 x $20), and 2 t-shirts (2 x $15). Also, they inspire 3 other fans, who might spend half that on average. Total LTV = $437.50
  • Single purchaser: Buys one single on iTunes ($.99), likes it enough to buy the whole album (rarely happens -- perhaps 1 in 20 at best). Total LTV = $9.99
Obviously nearly every artist is going to have some of each. Exposure is not necessarily a bad thing, in fact it might help create more true fans. However, your time is much better spent targeting the true fans than worrying about a sheer number of ears you can get your music in. True fans enable reverberation for years to come.

For more on how targeting true fans can benefit the bottom line more than mass exposure (and some great examples), I highly recommend Ian Rogers's recent keynote speech from the GRAMMY Northwest MusicTech Summit.

5 comments:

Patrick said...

good points, ty. I have a lot I wanna say on this topic because I feel like Ive rode the fence on this topic. it was easy to be a "grass is always greener"-type of dude and hope for the other situation, rather than the one we were in.

but anyhow, just wanted to give ya a virtual hi-five for bringing up a very interesting topic, and bringin some great points up.

in other news, we will definitely have to meet up sometime when we are both on the west side.

Ty White said...

thanks patrick! no question it takes a lot of hard work and dedication, and of course shoestring budgets. i have a ton of respect and admiration for folks who do what they can to get by so they can make music. mad respect.
this post is really intended as more of a reality check for those solely making music to get rich quickly and be rock stars -- it's possible, but now more than ever it's likely that your efforts will leave you as a flash-in-the-pan at best. focusing on building a meaningful fanbase organically (with some nudges here and there, of course) will give you a much better chance of making a living long-term as a musician.
i know all the tools aren't there yet, but that's why i'm excited to work at topspin. we aren't the only ones in the game, but i'm excited we're a part of the revolution that's making it possible for more artists to make a living.
if limbeck can make music and tour for as long as you want (and as much as your wife will let you :) ), we've done our job and you've certainly done yours.
definitely hit me up when your in town!

Gary said...

Wow Ty. Great piece! Really really cool. Keep up the good work... I say this selfishly. The more good people like you focus this specialized knowledge, the more attention I can place on the making of music that needs... attention to be made. You dig!

"Don't play what's there, play what's not there."
-Miles

Jed said...

Nice post, Ty.
I'm interested in your next post, too, which will surely be about "how to convey the interesting Story of your band/brand". The music pulls people in, but the backstory (how the band formed, where they're from, what they care about) must be really influential in creating a "true fan" willing to buy t-shirts, etc. How do you teach bands how to tell their story effectively?

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