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How to Grow Your Fanbase Like a Startup (Part 2 of 2)

The first post in this series explained how to creatively think up new marketing strategies to test. This article will give you some extra tools by suggesting some channels to start with, and explain how to use your tests to improve your marketing.

The best insights in an industry often come from outside that industry. It’s an effect that has been well-studied at Harvard, among others. Researchers at the university noticed that people provide more creative and innovative solutions to problems when they don’t work in that field, compared to when they try to face problems in their own work. I love the example of 3M, who developed an elegant solution for preventing infections during surgeries by getting ideas from a theatrical makeup specialist.

This effect is why I like to look at the technology industry for insights into the music business. The two industries have long been intertwined, but the music industry has picked up the short end of the stick. I think that part of the reason is because the tech industry simply innovates at a much faster pace. But startups and artists have a lot in common, and artists can learn a lot about growing their own audiences by looking at how the most innovative startups are growing theirs.

Successful startups do something that most artists don’t. They experiment, keep track of results, and use that data to continuously improve. Most likely, their product and their marketing are horrible — at first. After continually testing and improving for a few months, they start to understand what works, and what doesn’t. How does this compare to artists?

Most artists I know stick to the same familiar strategies. They email the blogs, release a music video on YouTube, and try to land some gigs around the city. The strategies themselves are not the problem — they’re popular because they work. The problem is that there is no improvement over time. There is no experimentation with unconventional strategies, no attempt to try multiple types of emails when pitching blogs, nothing.

This is a problem because over time, like the price of music, marketing strategies trend towards zero. This is called “The Law of Shitty Clickthroughs,” a term coined by a startup marketer named Andrew Chen.

Essentially, when a marketing strategy is new (or rarely used), it’s effective. If you were the only artist emailing popular blogs online, you’d get incredible results. But other artists find out about the successful strategy, and so do the PR companies and the major labels. Soon, everyone is doing the same thing, and your strategy loses its power. This happens to every marketing strategy. When it becomes popular, it becomes ineffective due to competition.

That’s why, as artists, we have to try new, untested strategies!

In our last post, I walked through how to brainstorm ideas, choose your best ones, and start testing. Now, I’m going to give you some ideas to start off with. Then, I’ll show you how I kept track of our tests and continually improved our strategies at startups like FindMySong and SecondHome.

Marketing Channels to Test Right Now

These channels are modified from the ideas in Traction, a guide to building high-growth startups. One important note: don’t write off a channel just because it doesn’t seem that attractive. If a marketing strategy is obvious, then it’s likely saturated already. Keep an eye out for the less obvious strategies that you could apply in your own marketing. Some will work; some will not. That’s why we test!

  1. Viral Marketing
    Viral marketing is about growing your audience by getting them to refer other people to your music. If every person who is exposed to your music shows it to three friends, then every dollar you spend to market to one person becomes significantly more effective. If your three friends show three of their friends, and so on, then you can see how your audience will grow extremely quickly. This is why companies like Uber give every customer $20 if they refer a friend to the app. They know how quickly viral marketing can build their audience. Think of ways to get your audience to share your music with their friends. For example, when you sell a vinyl record, you could send a free download link that your customer can share with a friend.
  2. Public Relations
    This is the art of getting your name out via traditional media outlets, like your local newspaper. The funny thing about marketing strategies is that they work in cycles: a strategy becomes overused and too competitive until everyone gives up on it, at which point it’s once again a great opportunity. I think this has happened with local media, and that a lot of benefit can come from working with newspapers, blogs, magazines, newsletters, and other local media to promote your music. Local sources are often starved for content and happy to push a local act — and because they’re not music-only, lots of artists will overlook the opportunity to interact. However, if you have the money for it, you can also try hiring a good PR company to place you in bigger media outlets around the country. Give them a two-month contract and test their results. If they aren’t good enough, end your contract and move on.
  3. Unconventional PR
    In contrast to traditional public relations, unconventional PR is about doing something exceptional to draw attention. Sometimes, this can be a media stunt — like when Tucker Max defaced his own billboards to sell more books, or when Wu-Tang made only one copy of their album and hid it away in a locked vault for the highest bidder. In How to Make Money When Music is Free, we took a look at how Nipsey Hussle pulled off a masterful unconventional PR campaign — twice — by printing a limited run of CDs and pricing them at $100 or $1000 each. Keep an eye out for how you can do something newsworthy that will get attention onto your music.
  4. Advertising
    Traditionally, artists have advertised offline with flyers, posters, or even giant billboards (if you’re Beyoncé). Ads aren’t always a good bet for smaller artists because it’s difficult to recoup the money spent and it’s not always clear if your ads are working. However, you might want to try taking a note from startups, and use online advertising to promote your Bandcamp store. Or, if you have particularly interesting merchandise, you could try advertising that merchandise to see if it’s profitable.
  5. Content & Social Marketing
    You can also use content beyond your music to grow your audience. Some artists release instructional videos on YouTube or write about how to produce music. Bloggers like Ari Herstand bring attention to their music by writing about the music industry. Others find success with Vine videos, Snapchat stories, or intriguing Instagram profiles. Talib Kweli got the spotlight back on his music with a masterful opinion article written for Medium. Your music isn’t the only kind of content you produce.
  6. Email Marketing
    One of the most valuable channels for a typical startup is their email list. Email marketing is still one of the most effective ways to build a business, even though it’s been around for so long. When someone buys your music, purchases something from your store, comes to your show, or even simply visits your website, try to get them onto a mailing list. You can then use this mailing list to drum up interest for new shows, sell new merchandise, announce new music, and otherwise remain engaged with your fans as much as possible.
  7. Targeting Blogs
    We wrote about this at length in How to Get Your Music into Blogs.
  8. Offline Events
    Shows have long been the cornerstone of music marketing — and for good reason! Sharing your music with an audience, especially a live one, is the whole point of making music in the first place. But in addition to being a central part of your work as an artist, shows are a valuable way to market your music. Look for ways to apply these other marketing channels to your live shows. And look for other ways to get involved in offline events, like speaking at a panel for musicians at conferences, or getting involved with a local music school.

The Last Step: Keep Track of Your Results

It isn’t enough to just brainstorm some strategies, pick one, and start pushing forward. You need to take one last step: track your results.

The goal of testing the results of your experiments is to figure out the answers to a few questions:

  • How many new customers (or plays, or visitors) did I get from this experiment?
  • How much money did I make?
  • What did it cost me to make that money?
  • Did anything interesting happen? Any lessons learned?

In other words: did it work? You need to understand how effective each of your strategies is, so that you can cut the losers and hold on to the winners. Perhaps you measure this by ticket and merchandise sales, or maybe you focus on plays and website visitors. If you’re measuring sales, you will want to know how much each customer spent, versus how much you spent to acquire that customer, so you can tell if this strategy is profitable or not. And finally, keep track of anything interesting that happens, for use in new experiments.

When I have used this framework myself, I simply put everything into an Excel spreadsheet or a Google Sheet.

The Bottom Line

Experiment with marketing strategies to find the gold mine that elevates you above everyone else vying for attention. You probably won’t strike gold on your first try. The point isn’t to instantly find the right strategy; it’s to quickly suss out the good strategies from the bad ones so you can continuously improve.

When you do find one or two strategies that really work, then you can start spending most of your time working those channels. Spending a lot of time with two effective strategies is so much better than spending a little time with a ton of strategies you’re not confident in.

It is very likely that one channel is optimal. Most businesses actually get zero distribution channels to work. Poor distribution—not product—is the number one cause of failure. If you can get even a single distribution channel to work, you have great business. If you try for several but don’t nail one, you’re finished. So it’s worth thinking really hard about finding the single best distribution channel. — Peter Thiel

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