What Brands Can Learn From Bands About Social Marketing

From Tag Yourself in the Audience Photo to Tweet Your Seat for Upgrade, Musicians Play Up to Fans

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Last year, Ellie Lawson, a folk-pop singer and songwriter based in South London, decided she didn't want to go to the studio alone. She wanted to take her fans with her.

Ellie Lawson's fans are helping create her album.
Ellie Lawson's fans are helping create her album.

Using her website and Facebook page, Ms. Lawson embarked on a project she calls "Create My Next Album With Me." For a fee equivalent to three trips to Starbucks, fans can be part of a group who choose which tracks appear on her next album, suggest changes to songs and listen to new material as it's being made. Each person gets a final copy of the album before its release and earns a credit in the liner notes.

"It's a big experiment," said Ms. Lawson, who was formerly signed with Atlantic Records and counts Ellen DeGeneres among her biggest supporters. "I just love them engaging and getting back to me and telling me which bits of songs they like and which they don't. And I think they like that they're listening to material that nobody else is listening to."

The music business has switched from being a one-way relationship to being a collaborative dialogue, and musicians have had to learn faster than anyone the value of using social media to foster relationships with their most-vocal fans. Ms. Lawson is one of many artists who spend hours on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms and know their biggest fans personally.

The simple but effective strategies that bands employ for customer-relationship management could serve as a lesson for brands.

Ryan Star, a New York-based rocker, has made a habit of posting photos on Facebook from each city on his tour, from Sacramento, Calif., to Wilmington, Del. He then asks audience members to tag themselves. It's a simple gesture but reaches hundreds in the process, letting fans tout a personal relationship with a musician on their own Facebook pages.

When the electronic-music artist Moby released his last album, he invited fans to use Instagram to upload photos of their city to a microsite where the images would be pinned on a world map, alongside hundreds of photos taken by the star himself.

"Foursquare, Twitter and Instagram are really good examples of platforms that enable artist-to-fan and fan-to-fan communication to occur in a way that 's really very real and very humanizing," said Jeff Kempler, a music-industry vet. He spent time at Virgin Records and EMI Music before joining New York agency Sub Rosa about six months ago.

Gone are the days when being a rock star meant you just showed up for your gig; Mr. Kempler observed that a savviness for CRM and an ability to use social-media tools well are new requirements of the job.

"The criteria of what you used to look for was star power, great songs and being good-looking," said Mr. Kempler. "None of that had to do with the ability [to encourage] fan engagement. But in the past couple of years it began to matter whether they could also engage socially -- do they update their Facebook page and populate content? Can they be as creative in the social-media space as they are in the studio?"

Those are important questions at a time when consumers are no longer merely listening to their favorite band on their iPods but rather sharing the music with friends, checking into concerts on Foursquare and posting what they are listening to in real time on Spotify.

Artists are keenly aware that fans have the ultimate control of their success via album reviews and word-of -mouth. Earlier this month, Florence and the Machine launched a contest to determine who is the most influential fan. They implored fans to share the band's new "Lover to Lover" video and said "The fan with the highest number of points wins; the more active you are and the more people click on your posts, the more points you get."

Actor-turned-singer Jared Leto and his band, Thirty Seconds to Mars, have amassed a global army of followers living online who refer to themselves as "The Hive." They do everything from organize ride-shares to concerts to post videos of themselves on a Tumblr fan site the band set up.

Cobra Starship is another band that has become adept at using social media to foster fan relationships, but does so in a more casual way. When it was recently interviewed by a celebrity blog, the band asked its Facebook fans to suggest questions.

What's in it for the fan should always be top-of -mind, Mr. Kempler pointed out. Some good examples of strategies that create buzz for the band while also benefiting fans are "tweet your seat for an upgrade" and "tweet your ideal setlist" contests.

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