Getting Practical…A Step By Step Guide to Building an Online Marketing Plan That Works by Ian C. Rogers

 (Ian’s Presentation from New Music Seminar Los Angeles, February 2011)

IAN C. ROGERS – CEO OF TOPSPIN MEDIA

[Today at New Music Seminar in Los Angeles, we announced a set of new features, coming in March and unveiled at SXSW, and the opening of Topspin’s front door to any musician, filmmaker, or author for as low as $9.99/month. The meat of my presentation was meant to be a practical guide to building an online marketing plan, sharing how we at Topspin think about the transition from obscurity to fans and ultimately to customers. Finally, we announced we’re taking applications for a grant of $5,000 and execution assistance to a winning marketing plan, to be judged by Rick Rubin, Marc Geiger, Richard Jones, and others. An attempt at a written version of my presentation is below. Enjoy. – ian]

Hello. My name is Ian Rogers. Thanks to New Music Seminar for the opportunity to speak to you for the next 18 minutes. I’ll start by telling you a small bit about Topspin then quickly jump into a discussion of how we think about building online marketing campaigns. At the end I’ll announce a program to help you turn this knowledge into action, a contest with real money and assistance executing a campaign like the ones discussed below.

Topspin is a direct-to-fan marketing and retail software platform. What ProTools is for production we aim to be for online marketing and retail: a software platform which makes your job easier and takes the art of online marketing and retail to a new and inspired generation of marketers. Topspin is the only platform which combines the bundling and sale of digital audio and video, physical products fulfilled in a variety of ways, tickets (including self-check-in via an iPhone ticket scanning app), VIP access/fan clubs, fan management, direct marketing, and social marketing, all backed by analytics to help you make smart decisions about your business.

We’ve been helping artists market and sell for three years and we’ve worked with more than four thousand artists in our private beta. We work with many marquee artists, from Eminem and Linkin Park to Arcade Fire and Yeasayer to Paul McCartney and George Harrison. The notion that Topspin only works with marquee artists, though, isn’t accurate. Of our four thousand artists the vast majority are artists with small fan-bases who are not household names. We’ve been tooling our platform to be useful to artists of all sizes from the beginning. Our goal is the be the professional toolset any artist can use. We endeavor to be Final Cut Pro not iMovie, ProTools not Garage Band, a professional tool for any artist, marketer, label, or distributor who take their craft seriously.

As such we’re excited to announce a new set of features is on its way, to be unveiled next month at SXSW, and all features will be open to everyone. We’ll have a web site which does a much better job explaining what the software does plus a new look and feel for the Topspin application. This offering will be self-serve and start at $9.99/month plus a 10% service fee on tickets and a 15% commission on other products. At SXSW we’ll have a space upstairs at The Belmont (same as last year) and we invite you to stop by, visit us, get a tour of the features, meet the team, and hear success stories and case studies from many current Topspin users. More news on that over the next couple of weeks.

I have what I hope is good news: you are NOT in the $0.99 download business. In fact, I’d go so far as to say you should never sell a $0.99 download from your web site. A fan connection is worth far more than $0.99, and I’d much rather convert a large number of people into lasting and meaningful relationships than make a few dollars on a digital download. The reason is, the average revenue per transaction across everything Topspin has sold to-date is $26. When you look at optimized campaigns, what you might call the typical Topspin campaign, you find yourself in the $50-60 range. Add tickets to the campaign and you start to approach $90. When it comes to direct-to-fan sales from my web site, I would much rather build fan connections and push higher value transactions than drive people to a $0.99 download.

But that isn’t as simple as plopping some buy buttons on your page. I wouldn’t recommend you start by selling expensive packages on your web site, Facebook page, or Mobile Roadie app. In fact, I would recommend you start by selling NOTHING. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself…

The above diagram came to me via Tim Read and Kris Wehner as a way to describe how we think about the products we’re building. Not coincidentally, it describes the way we think about a marketing campaign, too. The people at the top of the image represent the vast number of people who have never heard your music and never heard of you. Artists of every size have exactly the same issue and feeling: “If more people would just hear this music, they would fall in love with it.” As Tim O’Reilly famously said, “An artist’s enemy is obscurity, not piracy.” Your initial goal is to build awareness, get people to know you exist and to feel an affinity toward your art. If you are successful at building awareness you turn that awareness into fan connections and build a strong relationship with those fans by communicating with them. Once you’ve established a relationship and trust (and not until then) you can turn some number of those fans into customers.

Step one is to take those people who have never heard of you and make them interested. Turn them from non-knowers into carers. That starts with your art, none of what’s written in this post matters if you don’t make music people love. Assuming you do, though, the first step to is to take it to them, everywhere. The good news is we aren’t reliant on FM radio and MTV to bless us to get our music distributed. The bad news is posting your music on iTunes, YouTube, Soundcloud, Facebook, Official.fm, Rapidshare, Angelfire, and MySpace doesn’t mean anyone is going to see it. You need to get your music to places people trust for their daily or weekly dose of music. It’s not easy to get on heavily trafficked sites like Pitchfork, but thankfully there are hundreds of thousands of places you can lobby for inclusion. Sending incessant emails begging blog authors to post your music tends not to work, though. What works is making great music and playing live locally until people start taking notice and naturally wanting to share their enthusiasm for what you do. You can’t make people share something they don’t like, but you can make it easy for them to share your music with their friends should they be motivated to do so. This is why we make all our widgets shareable and embed-able with simple hooks to Like on Facebook, Tweet on Twitter, etc. So the best thing you can do to build awareness is to a) Make incredible art, b) Share it with anyone who will listen, c) Make sure it’s simple and fluid for people to share their love of what you do with others.

People ask us all the time, “How should I be releasing my album? Should I be releasing 12 singles instead of 1 album? How can I get the fan base to build organically?” There isn’t a single answer to this line of questioning. First and foremost, your marketing plan needs to be an extension of your art, it needs to fit the image and brand of your band. What’s good for Miley Cyrus isn’t going to work the same for Danzig (I hope). But I do believe the above bit of advice, “Do Something Small Weekly and Something Big Monthly”, is universal: to put a simple plan together to make sure you have more fans tomorrow than you have yesterday, get out a calendar and start mapping out the next few months or even the year. Look at the next 4-8 weeks on the calendar and start writing down small things you could do each week to share art with your fan base. Share a work in progress. Make a short video. Write a blog post. Do a QA with fans via Twitter. Look at the next 12 months and start mapping out larger things you can do. Release a single. Release an album. Announce a tour. Premiere a music video. Drop a new line of merch. Release a holiday promotion. Do a collaboration with Lionel Ritchie or an EP tribute to Abe Vigoda. Do not email your fan base every time you do a small thing. Do Tweet, post to Facebook, and blog when you do a small thing. Do all of the above and email your fan base every time you do a large thing.

Yeasayer is a great example of a band who gets this and applies it naturally to great effect. They keep in contact via their Facebook page, Twitter stream, and (less frequently) their blog. Even better, they’ve done many fan-centric “big things” over the course of their last album/tour cycle. In addition to the normal album/tour duties they started the campaign with an exclusive and very cool 12″ + t-shirt offer. When it was time to release the album they pushed an exclusive pre-sale package on their web site featuring digital, physical, and limited edition merchandise. When they booked a New Year’s Eve show with the band Health they collaborated with Health on a very special package of limited edition merchandise only available to folks who purchased their tickets direct from the artists. On Christmas day they released an incredible live album in a pay-what-you-want sort of way. And for Valentine’s Day on Monday they released their new video along with a way to gift a free EP to a friend. Not every campaign is a huge money-maker, but every time they show their fans they care and remain relevant and a part of the conversation. Just take a look at the news search for “Yeasayer” on Pitchfork for evidence and more examples.

If people like your talent and you’re scoring awareness, congrats! It’s time to turn that awareness into connections and build trust with those connections through conversation.

Any way you encourage fans to make a direct connection with you, any way fans say “please, talk to me” is accretive. Email remains an incredibly valuable and cost-effective channel. Mobile connections often have higher conversion rates but sends are costly. Direct connections via Twitter and Facebook are great and important but more passive and don’t have conversion as high as email and mobile connections. Make these connections by offering your fans something of value in return for permission to talk to them. Topspin’s email for media widget is a very simple, effective, and anti-spam, TrustE, COPPA, and EU Safe Harbor-compliant way to accomplish this (and look for a significant step forward with this widget in our SXSW announcement). Check out Seth Godin’s classic book Permission Marketing for permission marketing basics.

If you’re just starting out, you need fans, not dollars. Our advice to artists is to not attempt to sell ANYTHING until you have at least a couple thousand people on your email list. We’ve heard this story too many times: “I don’t know about this direct-to-fan thing, man, I put my music up on my site and I didn’t sell anything!” Mike Masnick had it right, the equation is: “Connect With Fans + Reason To Buy = $$$$”. The aforementioned story too often lacks both fan connections and compelling, valuable product. More on the valuable product in a moment, but for the time being please take this to heart: If you have less than 2,500 people connected to you via email, Facebook, Twitter, and mobile, put “selling things” on the back burner and focus 100% on growing your fan connections.

Just having the connection isn’t good enough, though. Too many artists make the connection then either abuse or neglect it! Remember there are human beings with lives and feelings and desires on the other side of those connections. Treat them with respect. Earn their trust. As a stellar example sign up for Chuck Prophet’s email list, Twitter feed, and Facebook page and watch the way he communicates. He doesn’t sell, he shares. He’s a real person who makes you smile, shares things of interest, and becomes someone you trust. So when he plays a gig or releases an album (or recommends a friend’s record) you listen. You want to be a patron of his art.
Similarly, but in a much different genre/scene, I heard Chamillionaire talking about how he engages with his fans via Twitter. He said if he needs them to do something he doesn’t just jump on Twitter and make a call to action. Instead he starts a conversation. He might talk about basketball. “Who’s better? Kobe or Jordan?” He entertains the debate. Grabs people’s attention. Shows them there’s a real human being on the other side. Then when he asks them to call a radio station or buy his new mix tape they graciously oblige. He’s treated them with respect, they reciprocate.

Be a catalyst for the building of a scene. Strength in numbers can definitely apply. Identify similar bands and work together to grow your fan bases (Headliner.fm is a tool which is building technology around this particular notion). The rising tide really does lift all boats.

You’ve got buzz, you’re no longer obscure, you have a couple thousand fan connections (at least), and you’re building trust by conversing with those fans? Great! Now let’s talk about selling something!

As mentioned above, Mike Masnick had it right when he coined the equation “Connect With Fans + Reason To Buy = $$$” (unfamiliar with this meme? watch Mike’s presentation from 2009’s NARM or read more about it on TechDirt). You are talking to your fans so you probably know what they want but if you’re not sure, ask them! Create something of value for them. It could be as simple as a t-shirt or vinyl or as elaborate as a box set or an in-person experience. But remember not everyone has the same level of fandom or depth of pocketbook. Every day there are people coming to your web site who are just entering the “Awareness” phase and there’s nothing you’re going to do to get them to open their wallet for you. Offer something free, something in the $10 price range, something in the $25 price range, something in the $50 price range, and something in the superfan price range. It turns out the Internet isn’t about “going digital” after all, it’s about consumer choice. Give your fans a valuable product that fits their budget and level of fandom and they will be happy to support you.

Put these incredible offers in front of your fans anywhere they might turn up: on your web site, Facebook page, and in your mobile app (Topspin is partnered with Mobile Roadie for simple and cost-effective mobile app development).

Front-run your release with your compelling direct-to-fan offer. Before your album goes on sale, sell a special package with an early single or EP. Start a pre-sale 6-9 weeks ahead of your album on-sale date and give people a reason to buy from you direct. Metric had one of the best pre-sales I’ve seen yet, selling two tracks only available via the pre-sale plus very special limited edition art. They made it so if you were a real fan you were crazy to buy it any other way. And they still did a “retail exclusive” with iTunes. iTunes is smart and recognizes these are very different products directed at very different audiences.

Of course you still want your music at iTunes, Amazon, Rhapsody, Spotify, Rd.io, and everywhere music is sold around the globe. Use a great online distributor and make sure your music is everywhere. Your direct-to-fan campaign exists to get the maximum value out of people you have direct connections with, it’s not in place of other retail. You want to be everywhere music consumers are, of course!

When your fans do buy from you, take excellent care of them. Ship their products quickly. Ship in packaging that protects the products from damage. If their poster gets bent, replace it. Quickly. We’ve dealt with a lot of fans over the past three years. We’ve seen great fan experiences and unfortunately seen a few terrible ones. The terrible ones deeply impact your fan relationship. You need to either be prepared to take great care of fans or partner with someone who can.

To wrap up: the first ingredient is music people love. From there you plan a marketing campaign which is an extension of your art and appropriate representation of your brand. The outline is: fight obscurity and create awareness, turn awareness into fan connections, communicate authentically with your connections and build trust, create valuable products and sell for profit. Lather, rinse, repeat. Experiment. Optimize. Share what you learn with others. We’re just at the beginning of this and we’re all learning together.

To help catalyze some creativity and action in the direction of new and innovative direct-to-fan business plans, we’re happy to announce a grant of $5,000 plus help executing the campaign to whomever submits the best plan. The plans will be judged by Rick Rubin, Marc Geiger (William Morris), Richard Jones (Manager, The Pixies), Glenn Peoples (Billboard), Mike King (Berklee Online), and Jennie Smythe (Girlilla Marketing). We’re taking submissions right now on TopspinMedia.com and the deadline for submissions is March 7th. We’ll be announcing the winner at SXSW.

See you in Austin!

ian c rogers
Topspin

ps – A reader requested the presentation in PDF form. You can download here.

ps – Thanks to Tim Read and Kris Wehner for the diagram and to Bob Moz
for his effortless stream of consciousness which provided the basic outline for my talk. Very special thanks to Jason Spitz for helping me pull this presentation together at the very last minute. I wish I could say it won’t be as seat-of-our-pants next time but that would be a lie.

Special thanks to Bob Moz for permission to republish this blog post from TopspinMedia.com.