At Peppercom Strategic Communications, where I work as director of digital strategy, we have refocused ourselves in the past couple of years around the philosophy of the audience experience. The principle is as simple as it is elusive: that companies can communicate more effectively, more honestly, and more satisfactorily with the audiences they seek to reach if they can empathize with those audiences. In other words, we put ourselves in our audiences’ shoes and think about everything we do and say from that perspective: how it looks to, and how it serves, those with whom we’re communicating.
If you’re looking for someone who could serve as the poster child of this way of thinking, look no further than Vince Gill. Perhaps not the first person you’d expect me to offer up, but let me share a little story with you and the reasons why he exemplifies the ability to see the world from his audience’s eyes.
Here in Bowling Green, Ky., many have been abuzz about the opening of our Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center (SKyPAC), a key part of the downtown revitalization program that has been a major focus of the city over the past several years. The event was set to open with a special performance by award-winning country music vocalist LeAnn Rimes, in conjunction with Orchestra Kentucky (for whom SKyPAC is now the home performance venue). For months, the event with Rimes had been billed not just as a concert but as the pinnacle of achievement for the city and the region.
Cut to the morning of the event, when organizers found out that Rimes had been hospitalized the previous night and wouldn’t be able to attend. The evening in jeopardy, organizers scrambled and amazingly–within hours–lined up Vince Gill as a replacement. Gill–who performed solo, without a band–drove up on a moment’s notice from his home in Nashville (a little more than an hour away) to be part of the opening night. SKyPAC offered refunds to any disappointed Rimes fans but had Vince Gill fans lined up to take any seats returned. And, in the end, attendees walked away from a unique night, tailor-made to the situation and which I’d wager was much more memorable than the Rimes concert would have been.
And Gill deserves much of that credit. His performance exemplified putting himself in his audience’s seat. Below, I’ve outlined five principles Gill demonstrated in his performance that I believe we can all learn from:
- Customize: Given that Vince had virtually no time to prepare for the show, he could have easily relied on his stock performance. Undoubtedly, he used several of his most popular songs, and drew on some of his popular stories, but he created a once-in-a-lifetime show that he would never be able to perform again, for many of the reasons listed below. The show was very obviously built for his audience, and his stories, and humor, didn’t come from a can (something marketers and storytellers could learn a lot from when it comes, for instance, to their use of social media).
- Localize: Vince told stories about how Kentucky was the first place he moved when he left home as a teenager, with a desire to play bluegrass music. He talked about how he had wanted to attend the local college, Western Kentucky University, because it was in close proximity to where a girl he had a crush on in high school was going, in Nashville, Tenn. He talked about how Kentucky country music legend Keith Whitley had been one of the inspirations for Vince’s hit song, “Go Rest High on that Mountain”. He spoke glowingly about his relationship with Orchestra Kentucky (who performed a few of their own songs before Gill came on, since they no longer would be performing behind Rimes) and their performance on his annual Christmas show with wife Amy Grant. And he talked about his work with Kentucky performer Kathy Mattea. In short, this wasn’t just a Vince Gill show…It was a Vince Gill show in Kentucky, and designed for not just a Kentucky crowd, but–in particular–a Bowling Green, Ky, crowd.
- Do your research: But Vince took it even a step beyond localization. He demonstrated knowledge of how important the SKyPAC venue was to Bowling Green, and how important this event in particular was to SKyPAC. He talked about an upcoming concert in the SKyPAC line-up with mandolin master Sam Bush, and complimented Bush’s playing skills. In short, despite clearly having had almost no time to prepare–he had gotten to know the background of the event, the story of the venue, and the season for which his event was the kickoff.
- Acknowledge the context: Vince openly acknowledged the unusual nature of his performance. In the middle of the concert, he not only joked about having Rimes replaced with his ugly mug but event offered his own version of hit LeeAnn Rimes song, “Blue“, to appease any Rimes fans who might be disappointed with their lackluster replacement. For anyone in the audience who might have felt let down by the turn of events, Gill openly appealed to them. He joked about how easy it was to sell out this place (referring to the fact Rimes had done it for him) and said he’d have to start getting all his gigs at the last minute like this, so that he’d have a full house. And he even made reference to the fact that the orchestra was supposed to perform with Rimes, at one point joking that the orchestra balked at doing an accompaniment to his song, “It’s Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night that Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long” and at another trying to throw a song to the orchestra before turning around and seeming surprised that they weren’t behind him. In short, he made it a communal experience for everyone there.
- Show your humanity: As these various examples demonstrate, most of all, Gill appealed to the audience through being human and acknowledging the unique circumstances he was in. And he did a lot of that through storytelling. For instance, he told the story of how his performing at SKyPAC came to be–recounting getting a call that morning but needing to check with his wife (who was flying back from Vegas after a performance) before he could agree to come up to Bowling Green that night. Only halfway through the story did he reveal that it was actually his wedding anniversary. And only awhile after that did he reveal that he was missing his daughter’s birthday party that night to do the show. By the time he reached the end of his story, Gill had the audience laughing with him, cringing for him, worried whether he would face wrath for stepping in when he returned home…and hanging on his every word.
As an audience member, I walked away from that show feeling like I’d been part of something special, and SKyPAC now has an “origin story” that will carry on throughout its history, about the scramble of an opening night that almost wasn’t. And much of that was because Vince Gill, as a performer, went beyond the call of duty and put himself in his audience’s shoes, to design a show that really spoke to them and the situation in which we’d all found ourselves. If all of us as professional communicators could do the same, we’d not only better serve our audiences, but I’d wager we’d be far more effective communicators as well.
Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom Strategic Communications, a Futures of Entertainment Fellow, a research affiliate of the Program inComparative Media Studies at MIT, and an instructor with Western Kentucky University’s Popular Culture Studies program. He was named 2011 Social Media Innovator of the Year by Bulldog Reporter and serves on the Membership Ethics Advisory Panel for the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. Sam is co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington and coauthor of the forthcoming book Spreadable Media with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.
[Image: Flickr user Wakingphotolife]