Just before the dawn of modern social networks in 2002, AC Entertainment launched the Bonnaroo Music Festival. The concept was simple: bring 70+ acts together for a four-day, camping-oriented music festival. Focus on acts that received less airplay but had tenacious fan followings and a reputation for defying typecasting. In other words, build a festival that was solely about the music.
That first festival was a success by many measures, including the sellout of more than 70,000 passes. Critical to the success of the first Bonnaroo festival was the marketing strategy, which relied heavily on the acts to promote their appearance at the festival directly to their fans using the tools available at the time – chiefly, email and their own websites. Friendster was an infant. MySpace was a year away.
Though social media was in its infancy, the word was spread chiefly through social means – groups of fans interacting through email, text messaging and websites to spread the word about their favorite bands’ and discovering new acts they wanted to see at the festival.
In the years to follow, AC Entertainment and their partners used emerging social tools to spread the word about the festival. They continued working with the artists to reach their fan bases. Social networks became venues to talk about the acts, ticket prices, parking, availability of amenities at the campsites, and other topics of community interest.
The February announcement of the Bonnaroo lineup has become each year’s official marketing kickoff (shows are held in June). Lineups have been announced in a press release distributed to the media, on the official Bonnaroo website and through social networks.
This year, however, AC Entertainment had a different thought.
“We wanted to tap back into the connections between the artists and their fans that had driven the early shows’ successes,” recalls Jeff Cuellar, Director of Marketing and Business Development at AC Entertainment. “Social networks were an obvious channel for this, but we needed to come up with an idea that would engage fans and create viral excitement. The lineup announcement made perfect sense.”
In partnership with the Bonnaroo marketing team, Brett Jones of Music Allies (www.musicallies.com) came up with the idea of building the February 9th lineup announcement one band at a time over the course of nearly 10 hours.
First, Bonnaroo’s Twitter feed (nearly 12,000 followers) would tweet hints and teases (courtesy: Whitperson at Live Music Blog) throughout the day about which acts were to be announced next. Then, the acts themselves would reveal their participation in the 2010 festival through their own channels. Fans would then go to the Bonnaroo MySpace page, where a Flash-animated cuckoo clock confirmed each act, one every six minutes.
Keep in mind that this year’s festival boasts more than 160 bands and 20 comedians. The logistics were challenging, and the Bonnaroo marketing team suspected that some of the acts would announce early, and that some of the bigger names might be leaked. The solution?
“We didn’t sweat it,” says Cuellar. “The value of letting the acts break the news directly to their fans was of such high value, that a little chaos was worth it.”
Fan and media reaction was initially mixed. The inconvenience of being teased and having to wait all day for the full lineup to be revealed was balanced by the enjoyment of having a few minutes to enjoy each act as it was revealed. “We heard stories of people sitting in meetings and monitoring their Twitter feed. They’d get a tweet from one of their favorite acts and shout out loud during the meeting.”
Pete Macia at The Tripwire described the process as “taking longer than a stoner chess marathon.” Macia then went on to declare, “Still, what we’ve got so far is enough to buy tickets immediately.”
Even the cuckoo clock became part of the story, its animation and sounds spitting out announcements every six minutes from noon until nearly 10 pm Eastern time. Music Mix blogger Whitney Pastorek at Entertainment Weekly observed, “I’m going to be hearing this cuckoo clock music in my dreams.”
Several of the acts gave their fans something more engaging than just a tweet announcing their participation. The Avett Brothers made their announcement via a clever, stop-motion animation video in which singer Scott Avett levitated.
Media and blog coverage dominated the entertainment news for the day and lingers a week later. Cuellar notes that at one point during the day, Bonnaroo-related terms comprised six of the top 10 searches on Google. It was the number one trending topic on Twitter.
Cuellar says that the excitement was critical to the marketing mix this year. “We’ve been fortunate to maintain a successful festival for the past eight years. Still, with the economy, we did not want to take any chances.” He noted that several other festivals have put their 2010 shows on ice, hoping for an improved sales climate next year.
A derivative benefit is additional brand awareness generated by the program. Cuellar notes that a casual fan of, for instance, Jay-Z, might have seen Jay-Z’s tweet, then said, “What’s Bonnaroo?” thus generating a visit to the festival website where he might have discovered other acts he likes.
The Bonnaroo 2010 act lineup experiment proves that brands need not rely solely on their own social networks. The networks of partners, suppliers and clients can carry your brand as well, so long as your program benefits their community members and respects their social norms. Savvy brands that figure how to effectively extend their brands into entirely new classes of social networks will leverage their presence in ways that we’re only now beginning to discover.
Thanks to AC Entertainment, Superfly, Music Allies and the Bonnaroo marketing team for giving us this piece of the puzzle.