Three Lessons

30 October 2017

I have, like most vaguely sane people, a love/hate relationship with the idea of giving a talk. The “love” bit typically consists of everything after I come off stage without completely screwing it up. The “hate” makes up the rest of proceedings.

There’s a certain mist that descends about five minutes before hand that fogs the mind, dismantles your thought processes and dismembers your vocabulary. Preparation – extensive, or nonexistent – seems to bear no relation to this process. It is as if your brain is trying to distance itself from your mouth and body, lest they do anything too embarrassing.

For me, this mist reaches its peak “can’t even see the front of the car, we’re going to have to pull over” intensity exactly 10 seconds after I’ve started speaking. It’s at that point where, having managed to actually say something, I start thinking about the fact that I’ve actually managed to say something and then completely forget what I was going to say next.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago I gave a talk.

The brief was good – 10 minutes on “What I Learned From…” a specific campaign I’d worked on recently, so I – foolishly, see above – said yes. I picked the Pre-Save tool we rolled out last year, not because it was particularly groundbreaking but because some of the thought processes behind it were hopefully slightly illuminating. For the same reason, I thought I’d adapt it slightly and write it up fully here.

***

We launched the first Pre-Save for Laura Marling back in November 2016. If you don’t know what a Pre-Save is, it’s a way of bringing the concept of pre ordering a record to streaming services. You simply click a button on a website, login with your Spotify details and then when a record comes out it gets added to your Library and playlists.

While we launched at the tail end of the year, the idea was actually formed back in the summer. It was a classic “solving your own problem” idea. One day I was browsing around and discovered that a record I was looking forward to hearing had already come out two weeks prior. It’s release had completely passed me by, even though I was actively looking out for it.

This is, of course, a good reminder of how most music fans – even ones that care, as I still often do – aren’t nearly as engaged as most people in the industry think and hope they are.

So this release – the Kingdom EP by Gold Panda, as it happens, which is really quite good – hadn’t really got much coverage on streaming services when it came out. Although I’d listened to one of the tracks when it was released a few weeks before, at that point there was no way of turning that interest pre-release into anything concrete other then pre-ordering a bit of vinyl. Which – like, anecdotally, an ever larger amount of music fans – I almost never do unless I’ve listened to the music first.

At roughly the same time, I was having a deep dive read of the Spotify API to get a sense of what it’s capabilities are, because I’m a super fun guy who you should totally invite to parties. Turns out you can do quite a lot.

Then, I went for a walk.

You would be surprised how much a bit of fresh air can do. On this walk – I was working from home that day, so to complete the picture I was pushing a stroller with my snoozing son in – these two things coalesced together, and I realised that by using the Spotify API in a certain way you could easily mimic the way an album pre-order campaign works. It was a simple idea, and the tools to do it had been there in the API for several years, but it just needed some jigsaw pieces being slotted together.

Lesson #1: Give yourself the space to have ideas

I strongly believe that it’s almost impossible to have a good idea sitting at your desk doing email, but yet that’s what we all spend most of our time doing. Ideas need room to breath and time to come into focus, and it’s pretty tough to do that in an office environment. Brainstorm meetings and the like can be a good place to start the process, but they’re often only the first step rather then the conclusion.

Go for a walk. Go to an art gallery. Stop checking your email and let your mind wander – this is a creative industry, so it’s vital to have enough head space to be creative.

Once we had a simple prototype up and running, rather then just stop there and have a simple button that logs you in via your Spotify details and then silently adds the record to your Library when it comes out, we wanted to really look closely at how a fan might interact with the process over the full cycle of initial engagement to release of the record.

For example, a lot of people listen to albums as part of playlists, so rather than just adding the record to your Library we built a way for you to specify a playlist to add the record to as well, or make a new one if you like.

We also looked at how to communicate with the fan about the release of the record. Instead of just adding the fans’ email address to a mailing list, which would be an easy way of communicating that the record has come out, we took another step to create custom email notifications for each fan that links directly to the album or track in their Library.

All of this works for any pre-release tracks that get released from a record as well – they get added to the fans Library and Playlists, and they get a nice email notification telling them about it. These email notifications get a much higher open rate then a normal artist mailout, which hopefully validates some of the thinking here.

Lesson #2: Try and think how your audience thinks

I think this is such a fundamental point that often gets missed in music marketing, not because people don’t have an awareness of how fans think, but because – unlike a lot of industries – in music typically the fan is rarely directly the customer, there’s always a 3rd party in between artist and fan controlling the commercial relationship.

This means that the foundations of the industry are built on working with other companies – whether they’re retailers, radio stations or press outlets – to engage with a fan, and this means that there’s not a tradition of customer relations, retention and engagement like you would get in other industries.

So we have to force ourselves to look at it from the other side – we shouldn’t be asking the question “how are we going to push this out to the fanbase?” But instead asking “if I was a fan, how would I want to know about this?”. Make it as easy as you can to let them engage, even if that means putting more work in. Giving a fan what they want, rather then what’s easiest, will help get natural engagement which works so much harder then a boosted Facebook post or a tatty flyposter.

When we launched the first Pre-Save for Laura Marling we had no idea whether it would be something that the fanbase would react well to – it was a brand new concept for them to get their heads around. Fortunately (and fairly obviously otherwise I wouldn’t be writing about it) it immediately had a great reaction and quickly became the biggest pre-order format for the record on a global basis.

Obviously it’s impossible to directly compare fans committing to spend hard earned cash with just committing to put something in their streaming Library, but nevertheless as more fans move towards streaming as their primary form of listening it’s a very useful metric.

We always built the system in a way that if it was successful we could roll it out for other campaigns, and off the back of the reception to the Laura Marling pre-save we started to use it across a wide variety of campaigns. We discovered several interesting things around how different audiences react to the concept, which doesn’t align so much with the size of the fanbase – we’ve seen great success with some brand new artists – but more with the engagement that that fanbase has directly with the artist on digital platforms.

This makes sense though, if you think about it – because the cost to the fan is zero, unlike a traditional pre-order, the difficult thing is how to easily communicate to your fans what you want them to do, and them being savvy enough to understand and want it in that format.

Also, because of the ease of pre-saving – if you’re a Spotify user it’s just the click of a button – we also saw great success with incentivising fans to pre-save with ticket giveaways and other similar concepts.

As we started to fully integrate Pre-Saves into our normal workflow we increasingly noticed that they didn’t really work for artists – typically new artists – that weren’t at the point they were ready to release an album. In the age of streaming this model of releasing single after single is becoming more common so we wanted to come up with a way that fans could connect directly to the music that an artist was releasing.

So, for version 2 we launched a new type Pre-Save: Artist Subscriptions.

Artist Subscriptions work like a pre-save does, delivering music into your Library and Playlists and notifying you about it, except instead of just for one release it does it for anything that artist puts out.

We’ve launched this for a few artists now and for ones with a really engaged fanbase it’s working out really nicely. And this leads us to lesson 3:

Lesson #3: Repeat and Improve – don’t just do one offs

So often we push ourselves to come up with big exciting ideas for a particular campaign, but they often only end up being useful once – the hook is the idea, and once the idea is out there, there is no more hook. But there’s a real value in trying to come up with ideas that you can reuse over again, and then to iterate on those ideas and perfect them.

When creating digital marketing ideas and campaigns I find it helpful to think about them more as products – we’re trying to make something that a fan engages and interacts with, which is no different from making an app or a website. And if you think about apps and sites, it’s pretty rare that a good one will stay the same for any decent amount of time – there will be updates, optimisations and new features added, and we need to think in the same way about what we’re creating.

To sum up:

1. Take time to give yourself the space for ideas
2. Try and think how your audience thinks
3. Repeat and improve – don’t just do one-offs

None of these points are particularly about what we did with Pre-Save, but more about the creative process and thinking behind it. If there’s one thread running through all of these points it’s to try and add some creativity to your thinking by snapping out of the routine. Get away from your desk, start thinking about what people really want, and then make it even better.

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