23 December 02004

Using social spaces to seed sales

Interesting to see how this Guardian report of a record label recruiting school-children to help promote its artists in schools (requires free registration) led almost immediately to the label, Universal, suspending its scheme. Clearly it crossed some taboos about commercial and possibly cynical 'exploitation' of children, even though the children were clearly happy participants.

This practice is common outside schools, where labels refer to their under-cover promoters as 'street teams'. The 'street' is also moving online, according to this report from CNET. Universal probably got caught out by the blatant physical presence of posters on school boards and children giving presentations in class. The children apparently had to prepare 'school reports' to evidence their activity. By comparison, the idea that children might discuss their favourite music in online forums and chats is likely to feel less sinister, less obtrusive, as well as being easier to evidence. It seems a fair bet that some labels are still doing that now.

The idea of building audience and markets through online community has been around for the best part of a decade, especially since the 1997 publication of Net Gain, and there are technology products based on the idea of 'social network marketing'.

Recently REM got some attention — albeit less than the U2-iPod link-up — when they made their new album available online to members of the Myspace.com community before its official release. The idea appeared to be to create a 'buzz' about the album, while at the same time drawing new members to Myspace.com — see the press release.

Advocates of 'leveraging' social communities for promotional purposes should remember that neither school playgrounds nor online networks and clubs can easily be socially engineered. The organic and self-organising nature of community must be respected. There are many fan web sites (with associated email lists or bulletin boards) that comfortably outstrip the official ones in quality and depth. Clearly it can be very cost-effective for the likes of record labels to provide small rewards that add momentum to these spontaneous activities, without needing to be too 'controlling'. There's nothing radically innovative in the principle here: it's similar to the tradition of giving members of an unofficial fan club preferential treatment for gig tickets.

I was once a school playground record plugger, though I did it completely without prompting, and for love not money. I reckon I was directly or indirectly responsible for tens of sales of Rush's A Farewell to Kings, and I seeded a whole new fanbase for Tangerine Dream. My attempts to promote King Crimson by playing some of the heavier tracks from A Young Person's Guide to King Crimson in break-time were, however, brought to an abrupt halt within minutes. Nowadays I just give everyone copies of 69 Love Songs at Christmas and birthdays.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Future of Music, Human-Computer Interaction, Social Software on 23 December 02004 | TrackBack
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