What do Joss Whedon, Walmart and Jay-Z have in common?
They're promotional innovators.
They are willing to try new ideas — some of which are unorthodox — to stay in the hearts and minds of the public. And they take advantage of how fluid and interconnected people, technology and information are on web.
Just this month Jay-Z and Samsung worked together for a landmark promotion of the artist's new album Magna Carta Holy Grail.
As part of their deal, Samsung purchased one million copies of the rapper's new album to give away in advance of the album release. The first million fans who downloaded the JAY Z Magna Carta mobile app on certain Samsung devices were to receive a copy of the album 3 days before its worldwide release.
These types of partnerships are by no means new, but they seem to be increasing as companies look for new ways to work together in mutually-beneficial ways.
The Perils of Success
When millions of Jay-Z's fans tried to get their free album when it became available on July 4th, the app began to fail under the pressure of repeated queries from the millions of fans. Jay-Z later apologized to fans, saying that was "not cool" but that was a risk he took by trying something new. They weren't ready for how immensely popular the promotion would be.
Despite a few fans being disappointed by the technology hiccup, thanks to the Samsung deal Magna Carta Holy Grail went platinum with a million sales before it was even released.
Jay-Z isn't the only star whose joint promotion made headlines this month.
In conjunction with Walmart, musician Pitbull participated in a promotion to visit the Walmart store with the most Facebook likes as voted by fans.
But when Boston Phoenix writer David Thorpe campaigned on Twitter for Pitbull to be exiled to the most remote Walmart in the country, the small town of Kodiak, Alaska — with a population of 6,130 — ended up getting the most likes.
Despite having the voting hijacked, the visit was a PR success. It was a far bigger deal for the the residents of Kodiak than it may have been for a city that touring artists are more likely to visit. Pitbull even showed a good attitude about having the promotion derailed and jokingly invited Thorpe to the event.
In fact, because of the prank, the campaign generated a lot of additional earned media for the super-store and the recording artist as a result of the prank.
Boston seems to be coincidentally at the epicenter of recording artists getting trolled this month.
Also making headlines was Boston's radio station Kiss 108, who held a contest for one popular Taylor Swift fan to get to meet the star based on audience votes. Things also didn't quite go as planned.
With crowd-sourced intervention from 4chan and Reddit, a "creepy" 39-year-old man named Charles was up-voted to win the contest. His entry read "I'm a 39-year-old man and I love Taylor so much and don't care that both adults and children mock me for it. "
But this Tuesday, Kiss 108 called the contest off, saying:
"Disappointingly, we have determined that the integrity of the "Taylor Swift's Biggest Fan" contest has been compromised. In accordance with our contest rules, effective immediately, the contest has been terminated. We apologize to all of our loyal listeners who have participated."
— Kiss 108
One fan was very disappointed. Charles told GQ, "I never asked anyone to do anything other than vote for me. My friends took it and ran with it...I'm still not sure what happened, other than that I won, and everyone that helped was awesome. "
Given how easy it is to mobilize people online, it's surprising that more vote-based promotions aren't being hijacked. But when they are, the benefits of extra earned media over the controversy could be worth it, provided it's handled well.
Trying Something New
Music artists seem to be engaging in these types of promotions more frequently to make up for declining music downloads in the wake of the rising popularity of streaming services like Pandora and Spotify. Apple will launch a competing service this fall called iTunes Radio.
So with records sales under constant threat, some artists are experimenting with even more unconventional ways of promoting their work.
For instance, alternative music artist Beck released his December 2012 album Song Reader as sheet music. That's right; no recorded tunes. You'll have to play it yourself, or go see him live.
“Artists can and should approach making an album as an opportunity to do a series of releases – one that’s visual, one that has alternate versions, and one that’s something the listener can participate in or arrange and change. It’s time for the album to embrace the technology.”
The band Radiohead may have started the ball rolling on unconventional music distribution when they gave away their 2007 album In Rainbows online using an "It's up to you" payment model since they were no longer under contract with a recording studio.
However, in an interview with The Guardian earlier this year, Radiohead's Thom Yorke suggested that giving away music back then may have actually done harm, by reinforcing the idea that music should be free.
[Companies like Apple and Google] have to keep commodifying things to keep the share price up, but in doing so they have made all content, including music and newspapers, worthless, in order to make their billions.
—Thom Yorke, Radiohead
While Apple and Google's intentional devaluation of content may be debatable, the commodification of content like music and news is forcing artists and writers to get creative.
Innovative Across All Digital Media
Musicians aren't the only content creators trying different methods to overcome the perceived lack of value for content online.
For instance, after the beloved show Firefly was cancelled, film and television visionary and Buffy creator Joss Whedon bucked the television model for a while and released his next project, Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-long Blog, purely on the web. The project was free to download for a limited time, and can now be viewed at modest cost.
Arrested Development, another cancelled Fox show with a cult following, turned to Netflix this year as an alternate distribution channel for a new season. Netflix picked up the show, effectively adding it to the online service's line-up original content. All 15 episodes of the 4th season were released simultaneously on Netflix last Memorial Day weekend.
The promotion generated a lot of hype for Netflix, who said in a letter last Monday that it added 630,000 members in Q2, and attributed "a small but noticeable bump in membership" to Arrested Development.
The show's creator confirmed yesterday that there will be an Arrested Development Season 5.
And so by leveraging the widespread accessibility of online distribution, Arrested Development and Joss Whedon were able to mobilize their hardcore fan-bases.
For content creators who may not yet have a strong following, new tricks are emerging as well.
For instance, authors like young adult fiction writer Veronica Roth are turning to creative pricing to draw readers into their series.
Roth's books Divergent and Insurgent are now being acclaimed as "the next Hunger Games series." To reach this level of success, Roth enticed new fans into the series with a stepped pricing structure.
Divergent, the first book in the series, is available for download starting at $3.97. Insurgent can be purchased for the Kindle at $6.99, and the upcoming 3rd book in the series pre-orders for $9.99.
This kind of graduated pricing reduces the risk to readers when they consider checking out a new author. In fact, many less-established authors are simply giving away the first book in their series, hoping to make up the difference in future sales.
Newspaper and magazine publishers have seen a similar fate, where publications that used to be paid for in print are now expected to be available online for free. But unlike more commodified media like songs, television episodes, and books, print articles and news have fewer options for paid distribution.
One strategy publishers like Maxim, Radar Online and USA Today are experimenting with is a new kind of "soft" paywall called Content Unlock that "instead of charging readers, requires them to watch an advertiser's video."
Content Unlock is just the latest idea to help publishers monetize their sites. Many sites are also turning to native advertising as a less interruptive, more immersive type of advertising.
Everywhere we turn, there are a lot of good ideas for unconventional content distribution and promotion being tested right now. Who knows what will happen next?