Most companies (and the agencies that serve them) are accustomed to viewing media as a chunk of real estate on which resides a desirable audience. But social-media sites like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube and others aren't stable chunks of real estate; they are platforms, rising and falling in popularity and, most importantly, completely in the background for their respective users. Social-media platforms are like dance clubs or concert venues; they serve a purpose only when they are in use, but after the show the party moves elsewhere.
The great promise of social media is the delivery of massive scale while facilitating one-on-one, instantaneous contact. Independent musicians achieve scale by starting small and accepting the labor of their fans who, with the growth of their loyalty, act like surrogates.
Like anyone, an indie musician can personally handle a few hundred ardent supporters before the crowd load becomes unmanageable. What happens at this point is the fans start to act as surrogates for the artist, trading pictures and set lists and even ticket sales among themselves, using the artists MySpace or Facebook pages or blog as their bulletin board.
Claude VonStroke uses two Facebook fan sites to post club flyers and dates where he will be appearing. His fans do the rest, posting and tagging photos post-gig, which help promote the next show. Erol Alkan's various online platforms offer fan-remixed versions of his remixes to be downloaded and traded among each other.
Participants on these sites become surrogates for the artist when they interact with other users on the artist's platform. The larger the number of surrogates, the more inter-fan activity there is, and the larger the artist's following grows. Meanwhile, the artist can focus on creating the core products (music) and managing key surrogates. From the standpoint of the artist, it's an efficient work flow.
Direct consumer contact
The concept of a "surrogate" frightens most companies, but surrogates have been on the scene for decades. Consumers have been trading information informally -- and often without any of the facts available to them today through the web -- for as long as there have been products. From a more corporate perspective, PR has historically been a function of strategically controlling perception through surrogates: editors and other traditional influencers. With social media so prominently in the mix, today it is smarter for a company to be directly in contact with its surrogates, than to let them operate without the company's participation.
Managing the real-time social transactions on these platforms means one must be willing to engage on an individual basis directly with customers. For an artist, this means progressing from mere "performer" to being one step away from friendship. For a major brand it means evolving from being just a product to becoming a valued resource.
For companies that, like independent musicians, have long lead times between product releases, these one-to-one transactions are ideal for building rapport with the customer when there is no new product to pitch. Indie artists use social media to keep the post-show buzz going by releasing alternate versions of songs or publishing a "revealing" blog, or even behind-the-scenes photos, bringing fans in closer.
Content and interaction
Amanda Palmer is a master at continually delivering content and interaction with her fans, creating on-the-spot T-shirts for sale online and engaging in webcam-and-Sharpie-powered SMS with her fans. As a result she has moved from being a musician (signed originally to a major label) to being a co-author of a new art-photo concept book about ... Amanda Palmer! She has successfully expanded her brand promise through her work in social media.
For companies of any size, putting out content directly to customers -- in the form of information that is directly or indirectly related to its products but above all helpful to its audience -- solidifies the company's value in the minds of its customers. Tangible benefits from doing so are found in the following areas: customer service, product planning, focus group testing and pre-release sampling. Dan Deacon deals directly with the fans at the point of product delivery by performing on the floor among the fans, without any stage; the show is not about him, it's about the audience. A brand releasing information about an alternative but useful application of its product achieves similar engagement, and can enjoy similar positive effects.
For many companies large and small, using social media cost-effectively to achieve significant growth seems daunting, if not impossible. But social media can be a powerful engine for growth if you rip a page from the indie musician's playbook: View customers as individuals, keep them engaged and focus on managing a specific percentage of the total (or desired) audience. The build will feel slow at first, but it will have the strong potential to compound while yielding stronger customer relationships and a stronger brand image.
How These Indie-Music Darlings Use Social Media
Palmer is more sophisticated than almost anyone on the internet -- musician, brand or otherwise -- when it comes to gathering her audience around her and keeping the conversation going.
http://blog.amandapalmer.net: Her blog, which is her catchall for everything.
http://amandapalmer.net/art: A section where fans send in Palmer-related artwork.
http://www.whokilledamandapalmer.com: Her latest entertainment vehicle, done in collaboration with her partner Neil Gaiman (author of "Coraline," among other works).
http://twitter.com/amandapalmer: Her nearly constant Twitter feed.
He is a bit of technology contrarian, using the most basic of electronics to create his music and the most basic of presentations for his main site. He promised to update his site (in December 2008), but that's not going to happen, and he loses nothing for it.
http://www.dandeacon.com: His main site. Note lack of layout for downloads; just grab 'em!
http://www.myspace.com/dandeacon: Note the exchanges between friends, which can get quite active when he's touring.
Alkan's approach is through a very active forum (184,000 posts to the general discussion area) and a steady release of mixes as podcasts, which keeps his fans coming to the site to get them.
http://www.erolalkan.co.uk/forum: His forum. He also links to MySpace, Twitter, Beatsport, Last.fm and Facebook from the home page.
http://www.erolalkan.co.uk/?cat=74: The podcasts.
http://twitter.com/erolalkan: His Twitter feed.
Claude VonStroke, as an artist and a label boss, has his personal domain go to his label's home page.
http://www.dirtybirdrecords.com: Where you land if you type www.claudevonstroke.com. Note the center column, with endorsements from other DJs and fans of new releases, all gleaned from various social-media outlets.
http://twitter.com/vonstroke: He's new to this tool.
http://www.facebook.com/claude.vonstroke: Facebook fans get extremely active pre- and post-gig; you can almost track his movements by the locations of people posting.
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Tony Long is a Chicago-based digital-marketing consultant whose clients include ad agencies and equity financing groups. Read more of his thoughts at culturalexception.com or tonycultex.posterous.com.