Building fan love doesn’t mean pandering to your audience. Radiohead, which dropped its new album A Moon Shaped Pool digitally May 8, builds fan devotion by challenging and even confounding its audience, which is the right approach for a group whose music has always been one step ahead of everyone.
Radiohead’s actions in recent days — sending weird postcards to select fans and erasing its digital presence briefly — flies in the face of the “Taylor Swift lessons on customer engagement” articles that are floating all around the Internet. The Taylor Swift school of fan engagement emphasizes accessibility and warmth, with Taytay constantly flogging social media and bending over backward to return fan love. But Radiohead creates fan love through a mystique that approaches aloofness. Both artists demonstrate the importance of engaging fans in a way that’s right for your brand, which is truly a lesson that applies to any business, whether you’re an exclusive Louis Vuitton or crowd-pleasing Motel 6.
Radiohead certainly reaches out to its fans, but in its own peculiar way. For instance, the weekend of April 29, some of its fans received a vaguely worded leaflet with the sinister message, “We Know Where You Live.”
Puzzled fans posted the leaflets on social media, triggering what would turn out to be accurate speculation that Radiohead was about to drop some new music.
But Radiohead wasn’t finished. On May 1, fans began to notice that the band’s Internet presence was disappearing. Its website gradually faded to black, its tweets began to vanish, and the band removed its Facebook content. Yup: Radiohead literally cut its digital cord, including its presence on the world’s largest social media network.
The silence didn’t last long, though. On May 3, the band posted on Instagram a 15-second clip of a stop-motion bird tweeting, followed by a clip of animated figures accompanied by staccato music.
As it turns out, fading to black and posting some enigmatic images was a prelude to the release of real music: the strange, scary song “Burn the Witch” on May 3 (where the chirping birds and animated figures appear) and then the appropriately titled “Daydreaming,” directed by P.T. Anderson, on May 6.
Oh, and the band reactivated its digital presence to let everyone know a new album was coming digitally on May 8 (because why not a dose of Radiohead for Mother’s Day?) and in physical form June 17. In typical Radiohead fashion, no other details were supplied — no title, no album art, just release dates.
Not exactly the warmest and fuzziest way to super serve your fans, is it?
But that’s how Radiohead rolls. This is a band that knows how to build fan loyalty by being unpredictable and progressive, such as surprise releasing the album In Rainbows online in 2007 accompanied by the we-don’t-give-a-crap move of allowing fans to set their own price for the download. Give Beyoncé all the credit she deserves for dropping new albums with no advance notice, but it was Radiohead that pioneered the concept. And then there was the time Radiohead decided to publish an old-fashioned print newspaper, The Universal Sigh, to accompany the release of the 2011 album King of Limbs. Not only was the distribution of a print newspaper in the digital age a typically against-the-grain Radiohead move, The Universal Sigh was full of stories, poems, and other content that kept everyone guessing as to its meaning.
Creating this kind of mystique is perfect for Radiohead. Its music is, at turns, enigmatic, confounding, and thoughtful — music that manages to remain popular even while sometimes dividing critics and listeners. To follow Radiohead is to immerse yourself in the jagged guitar and off-kilter drums that shaped OK Computer only to have the band change courses completely with the atmospheric, abstract sounds on Kid A. Indeed, critics have described its music at times as “intentionally difficult” although by and large, the band is a critic’s darling for constantly reinventing its sound.
Taylor Swift doesn’t give a hang about mystique, nor should she. She is all about accessibility. She connects as personally with her fans as a pop star can. When she released her massive-selling album 1989 in October 2014, she surprised a few lucky fans by holding “secret sessions” consisting of exclusive previews of the album. She even brought home-baked cookies to the sessions. She is a constant presence on social media, commenting on her life, sharing visual stories, and reaching out to her fans on their own social accounts. Her social content is genuine, earning accolades from branding experts. Through social, she excels at “treating your fans like friends,” in the words of interactive marketing executive Joshua Swanson.
Taylor Swift hugs her fans. Radiohead challenges them, as Pink Floyd did at the height of their popularity.
Both approaches work. Billboard recently named Taylor Swift the top moneymaker of 2015. Radiohead has sold 30 million albums over the years — perhaps the only popular band still in existence that successfully relies on record sales, not singles, to build a fan base. Its new song “Burn the Witch” was viewed more than 8 million times within the first few days of its release, and pretty much the Internet went nuts following the band’s digital odyssey this past week. Its 2016 tour, playing limited dates, is expected to be highly successful. Just don’t expect Radiohead to serve cookies at the concerts.
I’m not suggesting that businesses examine the Radiohead approach for some pearls of wisdom. The larger point is that even in an age of customer empowerment, when your fans can say what they want about you on social media and demand rapid response, how you engage with your customers depends on the kind of brand you are building, and it’s a mistake to pander to fans. For instance, you won’t find warm fuzzies on the Prada website — as of this writing, the front page is actually jarring and even off putting after a few moments. For that matter, Red Bull doesn’t exactly hug its fans — Red Bull gets in their faces. Neither brand is rude, per se, but their choice of content and tone in their outreach creates a certain edge.
Always understand your brand’s north star — what you stand for. And then find an approach to fan engagement that works for your brand.