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5 Things Lady Gaga Can Teach Marketers About Community Building

What do Lady Gaga and direct-to-consumer marketing have in common? The answer is a lot.

Building communities all starts with finding a common thread that brings people together. Experiences help define or typify what a community is all about. A community can be extremely close knit, yet very different when looked at on an individual level. But the commonality is that every community has a soul, and to tap into its soul in a meaningful way unlocks all its secrets. 

Before joining experiential marketing agency MKTG INC as their Executive Creative Director two years ago, I worked extensively in the music industry. There, I learned an awful lot about musicians. No, not their hard-living lifestyles and jaw-dropping spending habits. I’m talking about their incredible sense of community and loyalty. 

I worked for five years at Island DefJam, a label that has a wide-ranging artist roster covering everything from hip-hop to R&B to country. You might think that a rapper from Brooklyn wouldn’t have much reason (or desire) to connect with a country crooner out of Arkansas. But as it turned out, the opposite was true—I soon saw that they were actually a very tightknit community. No matter their genre or origins, these musicians unfailingly came out to support each other, watch each other’s performances, hang out backstage, share ideas, and make music together. It was clear that they truly loved and respected each other. That steady support and genuine respect formed the basis of their community. As do all communities, they shared common interests and a like-mindedness that was real and authentic.

These artists applied this unspoken value for community to their fans as well. One thing that I noticed always separated the great artists from the rest was their absolute devotion to their fans. They didn’t view their fans as walking wallets—for them, their most important task was to make sure that every fan experience was meaningful and memorable. They understood that it was the fans that make the artist a success. Essentially, they knew the fans were their bosses. 

That's how these music artists carefully cultivated strong communities of fans that felt cared for—because they were. Those fans were loved. And the secret to that artist/audience love was always authenticity.

This is a concept I’ve found especially important. Authenticity matters to everyone, but it is especially important for Gen Y'ers. I work extensively with Gen Y since many of our legacy clients like Diageo, NIKE, and Nintendo are savvy enough to recognize and respond to the growing importance and buying power of this consumer segment. The key to understanding them is realizing that they hate dishonesty, but respect authenticity. And once you gain their trust, they are loyal to the end and will become brand advocates.

No one understands this better than Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga’s community of "Little Monsters," as she calls her fans, is a great example of how a community can be built and motivated to do some pretty amazing things. One key to this authenticity is Gaga’s attitude about social media—she doesn’t think of it as an obligatory act. For her, it’s a very important way to keep in constant contact with her fans and build that wave of shared, collective experience that I saw so often at DefJam. For Gaga, fans aren’t her wallet—they’re her community.

For proof, just take a look at her stats: She has more than 35 million Facebook friends and 10 million Twitter followers. She named her world tour "The Monster Ball" in their honor. She often says that she’s become a better artist because of her fans. And the sense of devotion is mutual: When she released her new album this year, so many Little Monsters bought it that they crashed Amazon's servers. In other words, community is a powerful thing. It moves in both directions and rewards devotion with devotion.

So let's get back to my first question: What do Lady Gaga and direct-to-consumer marketing have in common? You probably guessed by now, but in case you didn’t, it's community. Brands, like Gaga, have to act small even if they’re very, very big. You have to treat customers like peers, in the sense that we prefer two-way dialogue to messaging. Because any communication, no matter what it is, means a lot more when it comes from a peer in your community…someone you trust, is credible, and you can relate to. 

To stay relevant, every brand, whether crooner or conglomerate, has to embrace and continually engage the community it serves. Lady Gaga knows this full well because she knows how to be part of her community. And how to make little monsters of us all. Below are five things brands can learn from musicians about building communities:

  1. Target like-minded individuals. Rather than focusing on gender or ethnicity, engage consumer groups with common interests—like music. If you deliver a great experience that relates to something they’re passionate about, they’ll share amongst the rest of their community and ignite a brand movement. 
  2. Be vulnerable. Part of the bond that ties Gaga to her fans is that they share a sense of vulnerability—they’re all outsiders (whether now or growing up). As such, they have to band together to form a tight- knit tribe. When brands can be honest and open about who they really are, they will attract strong devotees. 
  3. Treat the consumer like your boss. Gaga is the star but she rolls out the red carpet for her fans. She actively looks for ways to honor them. Brands must do the same thing: Put the consumer first, make their dreams your mission, and they’ll rally around you, creating a powerful community. If you don’t treat your consumer like your boss, then you aren’t going to understand them, and therefore not evolve to keep up with how they live.
  4. Create a collective experience. With social media this is easy, but it's only effective if you do it the right way. Successful artists need fans in their daily lives just as much as the fans need and want them. When done authentically, Twitter and Facebook can allow consumers to feel like they are part of a larger group dynamic with brands. 
  5. Become a better company through community. Really great recording artists believe they are better because of their fans. That should be every company's mission, to be better companies because of their consumers.

[Image: Flickr user]

Add New Comment


  • skepticfeeling

    I never thought about it this way, though it's a great point of view, and I wish to add that all stars nowadays are famous through marketing not talent, and all the industry isn't called arts anymore it's show business, so I think it's not only Lady Gaga we should learn from

  • Ping Song

    I Love the point #3. The company won't grow up without your customers inputs and feedbacks. Constantly put your customers first is very important. At the, we believe the primary goal for us is to serve the customers, honer them, and then make money to keep the company running.

  • Ping Song

    I Love the point #3. The company won't grow up without your customers inputs and feedbacks. Constantly put your customers first is very important. At the, we believe the primary goal for us is to serve the customers, honer them, and then make money to keep the company running.

  • Vicky

    Great points, I especially like number 1. In my experience people get to obsessed with what age their consumers are, rather than focusing on mindset which in my eyes is much more important. Cheers for the tips and analogies. 

  • Claire

    @Laturb Hard to say that Born this Way bombed when in 5 weeks it sold 5 million copies worldwide. Conversely, The Fame, sold 12 million copies worldwide, but over a 2 year period. Born This Way was Gaga's first number one album and it had the highest first-week sales total since 2005. There are plenty of other stats out there and, even relatively speaking, it's a pretty big leap to say that it bombed!

    Gaga has a devoted fanbase and I completely agree with Louis that it's her biggest strength. If I was managing Adele, I wouldn't be basking in my recent successes, getting complacent and believing it's the shape of things to come. Adele does not have the kind of fanbase that will follow her blindly because she's never engaged them fully - one foot wrong (could be anything, could be musical style, could be poor PR, could be a personal incident) will mean that she falls long and hard. Adele failed to break the US initially and her success prior to her recent album was moderate at best - hardly Queen of Pop standards. Since 21 she has been extremely popular and the change in style has really worked for her. But that need for change to gain success makes her less of a sure thing and I question whether she can sustain her recent success.

    Gaga on the other hand will always have her supportive fanbase that will rally round her no matter what as long as she continues to have that personal connection to her community. She has been extremely successful since day one of her debut and arguably is more of a sure thing than anyone in the industry right now.

    As for authenticity - you don't create communities, you facilitate them. That's perhaps semantics, but it's an important distinction. Communities do spring up themselves, but taking an interest and facilitating them is the best way forward. Gaga does that in so many ways and it's an extremely positive experience for fans. Certainly in the music industry, working from the ground up is not unheard of and being involved at grass roots level is actually essential. Talk to them, get involved in their community and support what they want to do with it.

  • David Hickson

    This story shares some great insight. However, I would consider simplifying the logic.  In the end, this is all about affinity and context.  When I say affinity, I’m not referring to credit cards or insurance policies…I’m talking about passion!  An intense love for a hobby, sport, musician, etc… Today’s direct to consumer marketers need to tap into that affinity through targeted marketing and present contextual offers and/or editorial. The best direct to consumer marketers will figure out a way to blend offers and editorial (advertorial) and tweak the frequency of delivery to optimize their campaigns and consumer engagement. In summary, the best results are achieved by “speaking the language” of your audience and keeping the offers contextual to the affinity.

  • Laturb

    I was with you until you implied that Gaga's album was a winner. No, it bombed, relatively!
    So now I read a bit too much lip-service re zoning with your fans. 
    Gaga's ball and chain is her relationship with the industry. Without their suffocating influence maybe, maybe we'd see the real Gaga. I hope she has enough time left to allow her enormous talent to shine through.
    As an example of how to, genuinely, reach your audience go no further than Adele, and for those with a cd collection, Dave Matthews.

  • David Kaiser, PhD

    I think #s 1 and 2 are the tough ones for most people. Too many B2C marketers want to be all things for everyone, and so they are in fact nuthin' to nobody. Define who is in your tribe. If it helps, define who isn't. If everyone's in your tribe, it's meaningless.  

    Also, so many of us were brought up to never show weakness, to always put on our best face (our best mask, really), and this may have worked for the Traditionals and even Boomers, they sold their souls and got a half decent price for it, but the world has changed, and now you won't get a good price for your soul, so you might as well hang on to it and use it yourself, and this involves being yourself, and that's vulnerable. If people hate your mask, that's no big deal. If they hate you, that hurts. BUT, if they like you, under the mask, then they really like you, and it's REAL, how cool is that?!?

    David Kaiser, PhD
    Sacred Time Coach to C-Level Leaders

  • atimoshenko

    Bah. Communities form not when there are many efforts to be open and welcoming, but when there is something worthwhile to form a community around. If one's goal is to create a community, that community cannot be "authentic" - 'authenticity', in this sense, is from the ground up. Communities form simply when individuals with vision don't forget to engage with people who want to engage with them. The vision... and the consequent third party desire to engage... come first, though.

    In any case, community, the way it is described here, cannot be a general recommendation for success - any given person is only ever motivated to be a part of a small number of such communities. Great spoils to whichever entities happen to be the focus of such communities, but this entities will only ever be exceptions.