Music To Our Ears

One would think entertainment companies have it easy. We’re all familiar with the Hollywood superhero blockbuster with a built-in fanboy audiences that “sells itself,” or uber-popular musicians with tens of millions of Twitter lackies. One need only look at the top five accounts with the most followers: four of them—Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, and Taylor Swift—are singers (the one anomaly is President Barack Obama).

This popularity should be a marketer’s dream come true, yet the reality is that without the right infrastructure and governing policies, it’s a nightmare managing all of the customer data coming in. Consider Universal Music Group (UMG), the largest American music corporation which has 13 record labels just in the U.S. And each label contracts with hundreds of super-popular artists including Katy Perry (Capitol Records), Justin Bieber (Island Def Jam), and Lady Gaga (Interscope UMG).

The problem is that these artists—and the corporate labels that support and sell their records—are active in numerous channels, through which fans expect different types of interactions. “Twitter is personal publishing for each artist,” says Lee Hammond, VP of digital at Interscope UMG. “And the dot-coms [i.e. official artist websites] are largely brands. There’s an element of the artist publishing directly there, but they’re largely brand experiences. And Facebook is sort of in the middle.”

Unfortunately, the data in each channel is heavily siloed—a tremendous issue that Interscope, with its disparate content management systems, had to overcome. But social media is a channel that’s difficult to reign in. “When [music labels] noticed their artists engaging on social networks, it was almost a problem for them because they’d lost control of the consumer relationship,” says Kristin Hersant, VP of marketing at Livefyre, a vendor whose technology Interscope uses to manage its social media campaigns.  

Still, social media and music go together beautifully and the effect social has had on the music industry is deeper than other verticals. Celebrity activity on Twitter, for instance, popularized the now-ubiquitous site. And social media like MySpace and YouTube were the launching vessels for previously unknown talents like Justin Bieber and Adele.

When Robin Thicke’s latest album Blurred Lines debuted last March, Interscope built a campaign using Livefyre tool Storify, through which the label collected social media and online messages from fans and critics anticipating the album and built a marketing narrative around it.

The fervor around social media was once so heated in the music industry, Hammond recalls, that there was a mass exodus away from traditional websites in favor of social media. “I’ve seen the pendulum go back and forth, as far back as MySpace,” he says. “We don’t need a website. Then we do need a website.”

But websites are important as are other “traditional” channels like email. For all its benefits, social media has severe limitations when it comes to doing one-to-one engagement. Communicating through social media confines businesses to each network’s unique and often-shifting terms of service.

“Your posts don’t make it out to everyone,” Hammond says. “You’re throttled by Facebook rules saying this user won’t see your post. It’s very clear that Facebook and Twitter are ad platforms. They’d rather us buy our way to reach that fan.”

Email, he adds, is a better sales channel—Interscope has seen people on its email lists purchase in higher percentage rates than social media fans. But email also has limitations, Hammond points out. “If you’re on a mailing list for a given artist, that’s a moment frozen in time,” he says. Meaning that someone on a Lady Gaga mailing list might also be on a mailing list for Robin Thicke—another Universal Music Group artist—and the email system won’t realize it.

And this is why Hammond and his team have worked to combine all data from all channels—bringing the wide reach of social media (through which fans often follow numerous artists) combined with the one-on-one capabilities of more intimate channels like email. Part of this effort involves using tools from Janrain to create a common registration system, which enables social log-ins. If a fan interacts with numerous UMG artists, that information gets pumped to Interscope’s ExactTarget email system, such that even if a fan signs up for only one artist’s email list, UMG knows the other musical properties that fan enjoys.

Interscope applied this omni-channel experience to the social campaign around Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines release. Social media users interacting with various Robin Thicke-related assets might get more personalized email messages about the album, rather than basic batch-and-blast spam.

“What [Hammond] is doing now, other’s will do a year from now,” says Livefyre’s Hersant. “The results are just amazing—60-80% open rates on B2C email. He’s the only one who ties [social media] to the direct marketing funnel.”

Going forward, Lee envisions more implementations of technologies that will bolster customer acquisition and activation channels, acquiring more fans and leveraging the data in automation to speak intelligently to them. There are still hurdles, however.

“Internally, we’re still dealing with a lot of channel conflict, which is true of every industry,” he says. “Someone in the social media channel thinks the solution is in social media. Someone who runs the iTunes account thinks the solution is in iTunes. The cultural shift is in understanding the value of our technological stack, in conjunction with the deployment of that stack, and finding the right mix.”

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