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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 violet.blue]

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