Recently my friend Cory Llewellyn and I were catching up about our various artist projects when he said something that really stuck with me: "Email Is The New Vinyl."
It was a humorously accurate metaphor. Over the past decade, social media had made email marketing unsexy. But lately, as more artists realize they're just digital sharecroppers on social networks, and email marketing is enjoying something of a rebirth. Many artists want to use the latest technology, to be on the cutting edge. In the past year I've been asked about Meerkat, Persicope and "big data" a lot.....but lately, all anyone wants to talk about is email. Kind of like vinyl records.
When online music marketing started in the mid-90's, email was the best way to get a message out to fans en masse. For almost a decade, one of the key measures of success we used in any online marketing campaign was how many name were added to the artist's email list. When I was at Epic Records in the early 2000's, we had artists whose email lists had grown to hundreds of thousands of verified subscribers. Sony Music's general list exceeded 1 million subs. We made sure there was unique, cool content in the emails AND that any news about an artist was sent to the list FIRST. Open rates were very good and unsubscribes were fairly low. In 2000, California punk band The Offspring even ran a contest giving away 1 million dollars around their single "Original Prankster" to get 500,000 new email subscribers. Email marketing was something that even totally tech-ignorant people at the labels understood. It was a priority.
But that all started to change starting in the mid-2000's, once the social media landscape began to take form. It wasn't immediate, but over time, the cool stuff had to happen on social first. Whether it was a contest, tour announcement, new music or an album cover reveal, it all had to happen on social. Everybody was on board with this (artists, managers and labels), everybody started to look at numbers of followers, numbers of plays. Social was easier and faster; no worries about formatting, spam flags, or errors you couldn't correct once you pressed "send". Where once email lead, it started to follow and became recap tool for people labels assumed were too old and unhip to be members of social networks.
The excitement in direct to fan marketing had shifted away from email, which compared to social media felt pushy, spammy, and (worst of all) very "web 1.0". It was like when the Compact Disc came out - vinyl was something you loaded up in the car and traded for CDs at the used record store, before it was worth nothing.
And for a long time, social media has had huge growth and worked really well. Many artists I work with have numbers of social followers that exponentially exceed their email list subscribers. But now more artists are starting to realize that the huge audiences they're grown on social platforms like Facebook aren't really "theirs"; that the owners of these platforms can and do change the ways in which artists can communicate with their fans all the time.
Facebook is really the worst in this regard, especially if an artist has millions of followers. The only guaranteed way to reach all of their Facebook followers is via a paid promoted posts, which could cost tens of thousands of dollars depending on how many followers they have. It's rare that an artist would ever reach into their pocket to do promoted posts on this scale, no matter how big they are. So when the artist/manager asks, "well, how can I reach all my fans without spending all that money?", invariably the discussion turns to email marketing.
It's easy enough to grow an email list quickly - contests, third party promotions and content giveaways can work really well. The trouble is keeping the emails compelling so people don't get turned off and unsubscribe. The email content really needs to be different than what fans are seeing every day on the artist's social channels. Done well, email can drive fans back to the artist's website for high value content that isn't available anywhere else. A well thought out content marketing strategy is needed, so that when the mail hits a fan's inbox, they're actually excited to get it. If it's just a recap of old content from social, or "buy this" emails, it's not going to be effective.
Recently, Wilco used Mailchimp to give away their latest album "Star Wars" and got hundreds of thousands of new names added to their email list. A surprise new album from a band you love in exchange for your email address is a pretty good trade! They now have a direct relationship with all these people and can market and sell to them without any limitations imposed by social platforms. Of course, Wilco did use their social platforms to promote the "Star Wars" album giveaway, and word of the giveaway spread virally via social. So a blended approach, one where social drives email signup, and vice-versa, is best.
What any artist reading this should do right now is focus on converting all of their social followers into email subscribers. It will be tough to get everyone, but again, if you're offering something great fans can't get anywhere else, you can get most of them. And if you don't know what they want - ask them on your social channels!
Remember, signing them up is easy, keeping them is hard. Email marketing isn't going to make a comeback and surpass social marketing any more than vinyl is going to dominate streaming music. But done well, email can be a great direct marketing and sales tool and an effective insurance policy against the shifting sands of the social media landscape.
Thanks for reading!