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Social Media and Viral Marketing

The Britney Spears Universe: Social media and viral marketing at its best

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Andreas Kaplan is Professor of Marketing at ESCP Europe where he currently serves as the Director of Brand and Communication Europe.

Michael Haenlein is Professor of Marketing at ESCP Europe.

Excerpt from  Kaplan A. M., Haenlein M., (2012), "The Britney Spears universe: Social media and viral marketing at its best", Business Horizons, Vol.55, Issue 1, pp 27-31.

Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter: the world of Miss Britney Spears

What would be your first thought, when you think of contemporary pop music and, more specifically, of edgier dance pop? Odds are that for some people, there are no thoughts at all. But for others, thinking of these music styles is equivalent to thinking of the 29-year-old US singer, entertainer and pop icon Britney Spears. Since 1999, when Miss Spears launched her first album "Baby, one more time," one cannot think of or talk about popular music without coming across her name.

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What makes Britney Spears so outstanding, next to her artistic achievements, is the near perfect way in which she and her employees rely on social media to build and strengthen her celebrity brand image. Miss Spears maintains her own webpage/ blog (www.britneyspears.com), two YouTube channels (Britney Spears and Britney TV), a Twitter account and a Facebook profile. Today, their usage numbers speak for themselves: In June 2012, Britney Spears had around 300,000 subscribers on YouTube, 17 million followers on Twitter and almost 20 million "likes" on Facebook. To put these numbers into perspective, Coca-Cola, the most popular brand on Facebook, has 42 million "likes," but only 500,000 Twitter followers and 65,000 subscribers on YouTube. In addition to these primary activities, Britney Spears also maintains a profile on MySpace  and has recently launched an iPhone application called "It's Britney," which provides official news and exclusive messages and allows users to assemble digital images of Britney and themselves.

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These platforms allow Miss Spears and her employees to be in close touch with her fan base and to interact with her target group on a daily basis. Instead of giving interviews to mainstream media, Britney Spears communicates important messages through her social media applications and reporters have to rely on these sources for press announcements. This generates a feeling of privilege and appreciation, since loyal fans, many of whom are following Britney Spears in real time, will get the information as soon as (or even before) official press representatives see it. Together with her team of employees, Britney also responds to some of the questions her fans ask on these channels. In doing so, the group around Britney Spears pays close attention to clearly indicating who is actually giving the responses. Postings made by Britney Spears herself, are marked using the "~Brit" signature.

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Although each application (i.e., webpage/ blog, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook) serves a specific purpose in the overall social media strategy, the team tries to integrate them as closely as possible. For example, two weeks prior to the launch of her new "Radiance" fragrance, Britney Spears posted on her webpage, Facebook profile, and Twitter channel: "Happy Friday people! Am I part of your future?" This post was followed by a link through which readers were transferred to the Britney Spears Facebook presence on which they could launch an application related to the "Radiance" advertising spot. This application used the main theme of the advertising spot (a fortune teller) and showed users different pictures of themselves and their friends in the form of a crystal ball. These pictures were embedded from the respective user's photo album on Facebook and followed by a video of the "Radiance" spot itself. On Twitter alone, this post received 1,052 replies and 666 re-tweets from 1,516 users. In addition to her seven million followers, these messages were read by about 500,000 people. In total, 43,000 people clicked on the link and used the "crystal ball" application on Facebook.

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The launch of "Hold it against me"

A particularly outstanding example of Britney Spears' social media and viral marketing strategy is the launch of one of her latest singles "Hold it against me" (HIAM). The single was first played officially on January 10, 2011 in the nationally syndicated Top 40 radio show "On Air with Ryan Seacrest" on Premier Radio Networks. But four days prior to this official release, on January 6, a demo tape of the single "leaked" and was available on YouTube. On the same day Britney Spears posted on Twitter:

"Heard an early demo of my new single leaked. If u think that's good, wait til you hear the real one Tuesday. ~Brit"

This posting, combined with the demo tape, resulted in substantial press coverage of the single even prior to its premier. For example, Mario Armando Lavandeira, better known as Perez Hilton, posted on his celebrity blog Perezhilton.com on January 6:

"With her vocals on that it's going to be an undeniable, surefire hit. I loved it. My own critique is that the demo sounds a little too much like Ke$ha. I hope that the finished song feels like a Britney song. Beside that it's still to me a hit song."

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A similar strategy was used during the launch of the music video of the single. Historically, music videos were launched simultaneously with the release of the single in order to be aired on music television channels, such as MTV and others, to increase sales. Yet, in the case of "Hold it against me," the video was not even produced on January 10, but instead shot about two weeks later, on January 22 and 23. During these two days, Britney Spears, her choreographer Brian Friedman and music video director Jonas Akerlund provided daily updates on Twitter about the progress of the video shoot. For example, on January 22 and 23 Britney posted, accompanied by a picture from her on the set of the video shoot:

"Day 1 of the HIAM shoot with Jonas. Such an incredible experience. I think this will be one of the best videos I have ever done. ~Brit" (Jan 22)

 "Day 2 is a wrap! #HIAM video coming soon … ~Brit" (Jan 23)

The video premier was at 09:56 pm on February 17, more than three weeks after production and over a month after release of the single, when the clip was shown in parallel on MTV and the music video website VEVO, a joint venture between Sony Music Entertainment, the Universal Music Group, and EMI. Starting two weeks prior to this official release date, 14 teasers were shown on YouTube on a daily basis under the motto "14 Days, 14 Teasers, 1 World Premiere." The first 13 teasers were between 5 and 13 seconds long, while the last one, aired on February 16, lasted 30 seconds. Each of them generated between one and five million views. The premier of the video clip was accompanied by a live discussion on MTV.com at 11:00 pm during which choreographer Brian Friedman and Jordan Miller from BreatheHeavy.com, together with some MTV celebrities, expressed their thoughts about the clip. In parallel, Britney Spears commented on Facebook and Twitter:

"Without further adieu, I present my video for Hold It Against Me, directed by the wonderful Jonas Akerlund. Hope you guys love it as much as I do. If you didn't I'll kung fu kick you like I did to that chick in the video. ~Brit"

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Results of the single's launch

The reactions to the single, video clip, and overall launch strategy were beyond comparison. The leaking of the demo tape on January 6 resulted in over 2,000 video responses, in which fans used the music and vocals on the tape to develop remixes of what the final song could look like. While some of these videos were only watched 1,000 times, others received 700,000 views or more and became so popular themselves that they managed to create their own fan base. Similarly, prior to the video launch, over 400 videos with potential choreography for the new song were posted on YouTube, some of which received more than 100,000 views. Britney Spears and her team encouraged this development of user-generated content by including links to some of these videos on BritneySpears.com. For example, a choreography produced by one fan on February 9 was featured on BritneySpears.com on February 16, one day prior to the video release, and received over 180,000 views on YouTube. It goes without saying that being featured on BritneySpears.com was perceived as a huge privilege by all fans, resulting in a further increase in the amount of user-generated content.

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The financial results of the single were consistent with this abundance of user-generated buzz. During its first week, the single was downloaded 411,000 times from iTunes, the exclusive distributor during that period. This was the best sales week for a digital song in the history of Britney Spears and the most successful debut of a single with a woman as lead artist. Unsurprisingly, the song jumped to the top of the iTunes charts in 16 countries: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the US. The site PlentyOfFish.com increased its traffic by 20% and according to TMZ, the product placements in the video alone generated 500,000 dollars of profit for Britney Spears.

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Detailed cost information regarding the social media activities of Britney Spears are hard to find. Yet, given that all applications can be used free of charge for both personal and commercial purposes, the only element of relevance are salary cost for the social media team. There is no reason to believe that promoting a new single through social media applications should be more or less (work) time intensive than doing so using more traditional means like TV, radio or print media. Nevertheless, at equal cost, a product launch using social media is likely to be more effective due to the ripple effect inherent in these type of applications. A significant share of the buzz and visibility around "Hold it against me" was not directly generated by Britney Spears but through user-generated content, created by Britney Spears fans themselves. The return-on-investment (ROI) for the launch of "Hold it against me", or any product launch relying on social media usage for that matter, is therefore likely to be substantially higher than the one of a more traditional launch campaign.

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Lessons learned

The launch of Britney Spears' "Hold it against me" is a prime example of how companies can use social media to support the introduction of new products through viral marketing. Specifically, we see five major areas in which other firms could take Britney Spears and her team as an example of how to use social media applications.

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Choose carefully: Britney Spears made the strategic choice of concentrating their efforts on three main social media applications, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, in addition to their own webpage/blog BritneySpears.com. Given the abundance of social media sites, firms need to choose carefully in which communities they like to be involved, in order to avoid excessive complexity. While firms that have a lot of information to share might prefer the interactivity of Twitter, others probably see a better fit in Facebook, where infrequent postings are less of an issue, or in a personal blog that allows a better control of the information flow and resulting comments.

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Pick the application, or make your own: Britney Spears has decided to combine social media applications managed by third parties (i.e., YouTube, Facebook, Twitter) with a personal blog that is under full control of her and her team. Even major applications such as Facebook might disappear or decrease in popularity. A nice illustration of this point is the social media application MySpace, which substantially lost importance as Facebook gained in popularity. While Britney Spears still maintains a presence on MySpace, it is of decreasing relevance within the portfolio of social media applications used by the pop icon. This example shows how essential and probably even vital it is to have a very solid official site that is going to stick around, similar to the BritneySpears.com webpage/blog.

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Ensure activity alignment and media plan integration: Substantial effort is made to ensure that information available on different social media applications is aligned and consistent with the overall Britney Spears media strategy. Such activity alignment and media plan integration is an important cornerstone of any social media strategy. For example, Britney Spears frequently does not issue any press releases but communicates all information through her social media applications. This ensures that data available through traditional media and online is consistent.

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Be active and interesting: The launch of "Hold it against me" illustrates very well the importance of being active and interesting when using social media. By leaking demo tapes, posting teasers and, generally, spreading the product launch over a period of several weeks, Britney Spears has clearly met the taste of her fans, as indicated by the significant amount of remixes and choreography posted on YouTube. Many companies who have lacked success with social media applications have done so because they either fail to give regular updates or simply use those tools to distribute off-the-shelf advertising messages.

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Be unprofessional and honest: The team pays close attention to communicating with their fans in the same language they speak themselves. As indicated by the quotes given above, the language used for updates on Facebook and Twitter is colloquial and therefore consistent with the way friends would speak to each other. There is also a clear indication who is the author of the message and it is made very explicit that only messages signed "~Brit" are actually posted by Britney Spears. Such honesty is important to clearly differentiate between messages posted by the Britney Spears team and postings by Miss Spears herself.

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