How I Landed a No. 1 Album on iTunes Using Social Media

What I learned by activating my online influence (without the help of Ellen DeGeneres).

I started my blog Pacing the Panic Room two years ago as a way to stay connected to friends and document both my foray into step-fatherhood and my efforts to grow a new baby with my wife in Orlando, Florida. A year ago, I had an idea to see if my readers would help support a spin-off project. On Monday, my little label-less record, DO FUN STUFF, benefitting a charity for a genetic disorder nobody had ever heard of, was sitting at No. 1 in the Children’s Music genre on iTunes. The iTunes.

I’ve run a live rock 'n' roll venue, promoted bands and their records, managed their tours, and even worked briefly at an indie music label. But what's happened with this album has changed the way I think about branding, marketing, and above all online influence.

Finding An Audience

Right away I discovered a huge community of parent bloggers (and that I was but one voice among thousands of established others). Then popular blogger Joanna Goddard mentioned my weekly photo series documenting my wife's pregnancy on A Cup of Jo. My pageloads spiked from 800 to about 20,000 in a single day. And even when the traffic subsided, I had a dedicated new readership who followed the pregnancy and stuck around long afterward to read about my family's ups and downs.

In the middle of that weekly photo series, my wife and I learned that our boy (who we call LB on the blog) had a rare disorder called Smith Magenis Syndrome, which manifests itself with a laundry list of symptoms that range from mild and manageable to nightmarish. It was a hard thump on the head learning all of the struggles and delays LB had experienced wouldn't go away with age; SMS does not go away. And yet, none of his Doctors knew anything about it, nor could they offer any real insight. So we turned to the Internet and found our answers in a community called Parents and Researchers Interested in Smith Magenis Syndrome (PRISMS).

I decided to establish a charity with PRISMS to raise money for more hard research, so parents of the newly diagnosed would not feel abandoned and lost wondering what to do for their children. After watching too many doctors scratch their heads, we often carry our own literature with us and hand it over to specialists to preview before they take a look at LB. I told PRISMS about my intention to raise boatloads of cash for the cause, and SMS pioneer Ann Smith had the idea to establish an SMS Research Fellowship that funds a Grad student to study SMS and support the SMS community. All I needed was a boat. And the cash to fill it.

Calling All Bloggers

With so many charities and causes and pleas floating around the blogosphere, I knew I had to offer something that people would want, and 100% of the money had to go to the charity. I took my DIY music biz history and coupled it with my experience in the parenting blogging community and came up with a "kids record for parents." Taking cues from the trending and growing "kindie rock" scene, I decided to curate a record kids would love but parents could listen to without wanting to plug their ears with stewed prunes.

I started emailing and begging my friends in bands to produce original tracks. Many agreed to donate their time and talent for free. Anna Bond at the amazing Orlando-based Rifle Paper Co. agreed to make album art. The album would be digital only, but I wanted people to have something beyond a bunch of invisible MP3s. So I asked Mike Wilkie at Wilkie Birdsail Advertsing in Orlando to make a widget—an adorable green monster widget—that would contain all the info about the charity, a way to donate, an album preview, and easy links to buy it on iTunes.

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Then I turned to the blogging community. From the years of working in the music industry (the last record I helped release was "Ossiner" by the band Bloom), I knew that all of the traditional ways of promoting a record were dead ends. Plus, I had no money, no physical product, no bands touring and promoting the music nightly, no publicist, no marketing campaign, and no label backing me. I did have the power of thousands of voices in the blogging community. And let's face it, bloggers have replaced old Pat Boone singing about Chevrolet. For some of the most influential of the lot, a mere mention of liking a book, camera, or movie can move thousands of units. Old marketing is seeing a flyer on a bar. Online influence is like having a trusted friend sit down next to you at that bar and tell you about something cool you should definitely check out.

On Feb. 23, I asked my readers for the real commitment. I wanted them all, in one big group, to post about the album on the release date—at the same time, as one voice—in the hopes that we would be able to reach thousands of people at once and in turn inspire their readership to repost and to take a look. We were trying to create a Web storm. I started to get sign-ups, which peaked at 265, but as the months wore on, I eventually received email subscriptions from about 400 bloggers, Facebook users, and avid Twitter users. I had my posse. I just had to keep the message clear and make things easy for everyone to post. So everyone agreed to use the monster widget and tweet about the album using #dofunstuff.

For practice leading up to the record launch, I asked everyone to tweet a note about DO FUN STUFF @TheEllenShow at noon on Aug. 20, with the goal of getting it mentioned on Ellen DeGeneres' talk show. I wasn't too surprised she didn't. She can't support every charity that comes her way, even if it comes her way a few thousand times in a couple of hours. But this experiment before the real experiment riled up supporters. (Ellen, if you're still out there, we could still use the help.)

On August 30th, Monday, we began in earnest, and the only way I could really judge how this was all working was to watch the Twitter stream fill up with the #dofunstuff hash tag and hope for the best. People were making noise, but I had nothing to gauge the success, no thermometer infographic like on the Jerry Lewis telethon. I didn’t even have access to sales reports. Late on the 30th, I received a call from one of the bands on the album, Rabbit! They had noticed DO FUN STUFF sitting at the No. 1 spot right above Kidz Bop and Yo Gabba Gabba.

It was working.

 

It was an incredible feeling. Of course I knew Yo Gabba Gabba would knock us off the top spot soon, so I took a screen shot of our first day success to share as a victory with everyone who participated in this launch. A bunch of mom and dad bloggers made an unknown album with no label or marketing machine, and it charted on the first day. I saw social media work, and I saw that it was good.

The album continues to gain momentum (still waiting on my first sales report), new posts are popping up all over, the widget is a hit, the #dofunstuff Twitter stream is full of excitement, and people love the music. I have my fingers crossed that some of the real heavy hitting bloggers will notice the chatter and give this cause a little love, and maybe, just maybe with that big push we can take the No. 1 spot back from DJ Lance Rock and his plush pals.

I've worked hard and had a lot of luck, but there's only one more thing I'd ask for: I wish Steve Jobs and Apple would waive their handling fees so that every penny earned can go to this charity that gets very little attention. How bout it Steve? I love the new iPhone.

Editor's note: Ryan Marshall is a paid contributor to FastCompany.com. Check out some of his work here. And we really liked his story and what it said about influence.

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5 Comments

  • Nate O'Shaughnessey

    Can we sample the music without iTunes?
    We have two young children, and would love to buy music for them that would benefit other children in turn.

  • Megan Strand

    Love this post and your story for several reasons!

    1) Value. You offered something of value to those from whom you wanted to gain reciprocation and donation versus just making an ask (which may have worked to a lesser extent and with a shorter shelf life).

    2) Branding. You took your branding seriously and even though it was a digital-only album, took the time to recruit a designer to work on cover art and create a functional widget that gave additional legs to your brand.

    3) Organization. You not only leveraged your blogger community, you set clear expectations about posting on the same day and time, using your widget and hashtag and lobbying the Ellen Show. You made it simple to participate as a blogger and gave clear parameters.

    Nice job - super interested in following your story and hearing more about your social media and cause marketing success.

    LB is a lucky kid...

  • Jeremy Webb

    There is a lot of bru-ha-ha about "social media" and "viral marketing" but at the bottom of it is the truth that if your idea / content / message is engaging or "catchy" enough then your idea will spread.

    (Think of your idea having a "viral co-efficient." A VC of two, means that one person on average shares the idea with two people, which becomes 4, then 8, then 16... Less than one, your idea dies.)

    Although the tools might have changed, the principles are the same - "catchy" ideas spread. This is why we had "urban myths" long before the internet existed!

    Jeremy Web[b] Internet Marketing.

  • Whitney Skeeters

    First off - inspiring story. I was so excited to share it to my social networks and share it with others who I know will appreciate it. Musicians and music promoters looking for more widgets and blogging tools to help promote their own music should check out the promotional tools at uPlaya.com. We can't guarantee you'll be as successful as Mr. Marshall and be the next No. 1 on iTunes, but if you apply yourself with the same hardworking attitude and out-of-the-box thinking, our easy-to-use tools will make a dramatic difference in your online marketing. And Marshall, please let us know if there's any way we can help with your next album!

  • Morgan Barnhart

    This is truly an amazing example of the power of social media, connections and influencers. I definitely agree about waiving the fees, especially for such a good cause. Hope more influencers get wind of this and it reaches even greater success!