How To Grow An Online Following [INTERVIEW]

1In this interview, longtime industry marketing expert Tony Harris speaks about his extensive experience in the music business, the changing face of social media, and how his company Deliberate Marketing helps to grow an artist’s online fanbase


Guest Post by Rick Goetz on Music Consultant

Internet marketing veteran Tony Harris founded Deliberate Marketing in 2002 as a response to the burgeoning need for aggressive online marketing for musicians and independent labels. Before starting Deliberate, Tony worked at internet marketing giants Fanscape and M80 Interactive Marketing, performing Online Street Team and Account Management for clients such as Raphael Saadiq, Smashmouth and Ca$h Money Records. After graduating from UCLA with a degree in Sociology, Tony dabbled in concert promotion, where he was instrumental in the discovery of Grammy-nominee Tenacious D.

Tony talked about how digital marketing has changed since the MySpace era and how his company helps musicians build their online following. He also shared some practical techniques artists can use to grow their fan base on Twitter and Instagram.

 Music Consultant: Thanks for chatting with me, Tony. How exactly did you get into the social media marketing business from the music business?

TH: When I came of age in the early ‘90s, the music business was attractive and had the illusion that everything you touched turned to gold. I actually grew up in the heart of Hollywood and was therefore surrounded by entertainment. I had always wanted to get into the music industry, and I lucked into my first internship at RCA Records when I was a junior in high school. When after 90 days interning they realized they really couldn’t have a 16-year old in the building for insurance reasons, I was heartbroken. After graduating from high school, I started at UC Santa Barbara and then transferred to Santa Monica College, though I ultimately got my Sociology degree from UCLA. While I was in college, I just started interning at every label in town that would let me in the door: Immortal Records and Buzztone Management, who were breaking House of Pain and Cypress Hill. Then an internship at Epic Records in the A&R department segued into a promotions internship at Columbia Records. My last internship was at Mojo Records in 1996, right at the time they were breaking Goldfinger and Reel Big Fish. At every internship I soaked up all the knowledge I could, thinking every one would materialize into a music business job. Needless to say, most of them didn’t, and all I had to show for it outside of the “experience” was crates of promo CDs.

After I left Mojo, I started promoting concerts in 1998, and got very lucky early on. I discovered Jack Black’s and Kyle Gass’ band Tenacious D, who were doing tiny shows at Largo and the Viper Room. After connecting with Jack Black, I staged a number of high-profile showcases for them at Billboard Live, a club on Sunset Strip where I was working as the box office supervisor. Another highlight was “El Vez Vs. Billy Wisdom” – a “Battle Royale between the King and Queen of Rock and Roll”. We staged it for January 8th – Elvis Presley and David Bowie’s Birthday – and it was a showdown between the acclaimed “Mexican Elvis” and the infamous David Bowie impersonator.

Every time I finished a big show, I would have to figure out the next one; that’s the nature of the promotions business. I decided to bite off way more than I could chew and decided to do the Wild Style’98 Reunion Jam. It was to celebrate the 15th anniversary of that movie. I got Fab 5 Freddy, Crazy Legs, Prince Whipper Whip, Chief Rocker Busy Bee and Grandmaster Flash to all fly out to Los Angeles. I was working with Charlie Ahearn, the director of the movie, and he sent me an actual reel of the film so I could show the whole film before the concert. I got Jurassic 5, who were just breaking at the time, to open.

On paper, it looked great but in reality, it was just a nightmare for various reasons beyond my control. It was still a critical success, even though I lost my shirt on it. But it was the beginning of the end of my time in the concert promotion arena. The actual end was an Anniversary Show for the the Fat Beatsrecord store. The headliner , Big L, was tragically killed in New York City a week before the show.

Still, these are exciting and fun memories. In 2001, I began working for the online marketing company Fanscape, and a few months later shifted to their competitor, M80 Interactive Marketing. Between the both of them, I learned all about Internet marketing, which at the time was online street teams, Internet newsgroups and Yahoo! communities. I worked with Smashmouth, Lit, Lil’ Wayne, Raphael Saadiq and others.

After leaving M80, I had a friend who had a band who asked me if I could do what I was doing for those other bands for his band. My job basically entailed creating robust weekly email newsletters announcing their shows, releases, and managing the fan community. That was really where Deliberate Marketing Services was born in November 2002.

We went from doing Yahoo! communities and email newsletters, to really riding the MySpace wave when that came around. In 2003, we started working for the soundtrack record label Lakeshore Records (Napoleon Dynamite, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Underworld, etc.). It was through them that I was introduced to the film business.

Then in 2005, we segued into movie marketing through a fortuitous meeting at Paramount Pictures and we started doing MySpace campaigns for Paramount, including the first Iron Man movie, Cloverfield,Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Tropic Thunder and a dozen others.

1Music Consulting: What was it like working through MySpace back then?

TH: MySpace was such a great time when it first started, because it was so little effort for a big return. Steadily from that point, it’s become about more and more effort for less and less of a return on the social platforms.

Music Consulting: So, starting in about 2005-2006, it sounds like you just started following the trends and keeping up with the changing times, starting with MySpace, then Twitter, Facebook, etc.

TH: Absolutely. And I think we really learned a big lesson through MySpace. At the time, we had put all our eggs into MySpace’s basket, because we thought it would always be there. We put a lot of effort into building lists of friends, etc. When that collapsed, we realized we couldn’t do that when it came to the Internet. And we started becoming more of a jack of all trades as a company when we started working with Facebook.

Facebook was very different from MySpace from the beginning, having evolved out of the ashes of MySpace. MySpace was free with no real limits, but it imploded because of all the advertising and spam. Facebook was designed, marketing wise, to deliberately inhibit grassroots marketing. You had to pay for advertising in order to get visibility. Of course now, even when you pay for visibility, you often don’t get a lot of results.

Music Consultant: Is that’s why it got harder on Facebook, because they put up the paywall earlier? I’m guessing there is not likely to be anyone like Dane Cook, who came out of Myspace, getting big on Facebook.

TH: Exactly- that opportunity to harness the platform is gone. MySpace’s heyday happened during a time when you could build a following without investing tons of money in advertising. I think you can still do that on Twitter, which is a lot more open than Facebook. 

After the fall of MySpace, we started rounded out our services to offer more cross-network coverage. And over the last five or so years, the big agencies have finally woken up to social media and the money that can be made there and have built these robust departments around social media. They’ve started providing strong analytics, etc. I’ve been sometimes getting priced out of the marketplace as the pie gets cut up smaller and smaller and the big agencies swoop in. And as most companies with longevity do, we’ve had to pivot toward what it is we’re effective at that other companies aren’t providing and adding value there. And we’ve been able to pinpoint that value: our proven Twitter and Instagram fan acquisition outreach system.

Music Consultant: And you handle that for major movie studios and are still doing music, and your specialties are revving up Instagram and Twitter follower numbers.

TH: Yes. We worked with Lakeshore Records for about ten years as their sole social media agency, and now we’re working with the prominent Soundtrack label Varèse Sarabande Records, as well as some other music projects.

Aside from Twitter and Instagram fan acquisition, growth and engagement campaigns, we also offer other marketing services. We build and design “visual soundtracks” (You can see some examples here,here and here.  We also provide robust graphics and web design work with our talented in-house team and User Generated Content (UGC) moderation and support for television networks.

Music Consultant: The product you provide to boost followers on social media is, of course, not spammy. But, the big question I have for you is one that many artists have, because they worry about seeming disingenuous: Should an artist buy followers on Twitter, etc.? In my personal experience, I find that when an artist is starting out, the number of followers they can get just via friends, family and word of mouth is just not enough to make a compelling story.

TH: As Twitter’s dominance as a platform reaches its apex, the phenomenon of fake profiles have emerged, and the tens of millions of bot accounts created by marketers are flooding Twitter with spam and noise. Thousands of fake accounts are created weekly, diluting and distorting the effect of this large community. As auditing tools allow more transparency into the authenticity of accounts, it becomes more and more crucial not just to build numbers, but quality followers – the ones that have true value as influencers, brand ambassadors and people who engage and spread awareness of the brand. The illusion of a massive following is often just that, with the reality being that only a fraction of the perceived audience ever sees content tweeted from the account. There’s usually an even larger number of inactive or low-quality followers, that are real users but not likely to see or share or engage in the content. I was quoted in this Associated Press article about the Fake Follower Industry. (You can find that article here)

It’s really important not just to show numbers and look good for the A&R department or the talent scouts, but to have true followers – real, authentic, engaged people who are going to share, because, everything else is hollow.

Music Consultant: It’s funny – there are a lot of industry people who don’t do a deep dive and don’t pay enough attention to what they’re seeing on an artist’s social media channel. I think there’s a certain amount of value early on that, fake or not, if you’re just jacking the first few thousand followers, you’re going to get industry people who will look at it and say, “Okay, they’re not going nowhere.”

It’s nice if you’re building a brand or a business of any sort to have a lot of people who care about you. When is the right time to spend money building a following?

TH: I agree that people often don’t look deeply enough to know when an account has a lot of fake followers, even though this is transparent to someone like me. I recently audited an account for a potential client who had 79% fake followers, and he didn’t even realize it.

That said, the perception is still important. But if I were an A&R person in this day and age, I would do my due diligence and dig to see not only how many followers they have, but also the kind of fan engagement they have: how many people are sharing their content, etc.

Music Consultant: It seems like everywhere you turn these days, you need to have a lot of followers on social media in order to get noticed. It’s not just talent scouts who are looking. If you want to get press coverage, there’s no story unless you have a big following. It’s democratized eyeballs. A periodical will not necessarily even write about an artist unless they know the artist retweeting or sharing that interview will bring them a certain number of eyeballs. Press people and journalists, booking agents, A&R people, talent scouts – all these people now need to see a huge following on social media in order to take interest in an artist.

TH: I see the attraction to buying fake followers in order to get those stories, but it’s a pyrrhic victory; when you do get that big story, and then you don’t get the spread rate implicit in your numbers after the fact, it’s going to backfire.

Music Consultant: Ultimately, I think you’re right. But I think there is great pressure for artists to peacock it a bit.

What does Deliberate Marketing provide artists that helps them gain true followers?

TH: We’ve perfected a solution called TwitProGro that delivers authentic and engaged Twitter followers to profiles through micro-targeted research. Our sophisticated method of harvesting and recruiting engaged fans to properties on the Twitter platform systematically grows the reach of the profile through daily grassroots outreach to the targeted audience.

It hinges on a proprietary tool we developed that enables the outreach to happen in scale. Our whole approach is to focus on not just quantity but also quality. We want to get the right kind of followers for people through micro-targeting. We search Twitter for people using certain hashtags or talking about certain subjects, or followers of a person’s competitors. We call it the F.A.C.E. system: “F” is for “finding” targeted fans to recruit to a community; “A” is for “aggregating” them into precise lists – funneling them into a list that we feed into our proprietary tool; “C” is for “converting” them into followers through the proprietary tool and; “E” is for “engaging” and activating the fans, which we do through direct messaging, “like”ing tweets and @ replies. 

The activation is a call-to-action. Once we’ve converted a follower, we want them to buy music, see a movie or otherwise engage with a specific piece of content. Twitter inherently has a direct messaging system, so we can send them a message thanking them for the follow and asking them to listen to a track on SoundCloud, watch a video, etc.

Music Consultant: You are someone who is able to pinpoint, through auditing tools, the people who are most likely to be followers and fans of an artist or a brand. How can someone without the means to pay for Twitter advertising or your service aggregate fans?

1 (1)TH: Know who you are and who your audience is. That’s the first thing I try to figure out when I am working with someone: Who is the audience for this, and what am I trying to convert? The better I understand who someone is, the better I am able to target and the better results I get. Usually the wider the net I cast, the more general the information I have, the worse results I get. I think it’s always best to start by picking the low-hanging fruit first, the users who are most likely to become immediate followers, and work outward from there.

So, whether someone is going to use TwitProGro, advertising using native Twitter ads or just manual work on fan growth, they need to understand who they are, who their fans are and what the marketplace is. You can grow your fan base manually, but it is a lot of work.

Music Consulting: And on Twitter, would you start manually building by following your “competitors,” in other words, similar-sounding bands?

TH: That would be effective. But in my experience, you get a lot more bang for your buck targeting peopletalking about a specific band now than you do just targeting that band’s followers. You want to find people who are actively engaged now and not just those who at some point or another followed the band. A lot of those people might not be active on Twitter anymore, whereas the people who have tweeting about the band or targeted hashtags and are active on the platform are much more likely to see you.

Music Consultant: And when do you run into a ceiling where you can’t follow any more people, how do you get through that?

TH: Historically, you can’t follow more than 2,000 people when you have fewer than 2,000 followers. Once you cross that 2k threshold, you can follow ten percent more than follow you. That is why it’s so important to unfollow the ones who don’t follow back or interact with you at all: It’s crucial to manage the ratio to keep from hitting those arbitrary blocks.

Music Consultant: And what are some good search terms to use when manually finding followers?

TH: As mentioned, I prefer to target based on search results rather than looking at the followers of other profiles. Anyone can search through Twitter for keywords. And it’s important to remember you can search using negation. For example, you can find people talking about the band Spoon without talking about “knife” and “fork,” so you can fine-tune results and scrape only the exact users you want to target. You can target exact phrases. You can also geo-target to find people talking about something in certain areas. Twitter has very sophisticated search parameters.

Music Consultant: Fishing for follow-backs on Instagram as an artist seems more complicated to me. I get how it would be effective for a bikini model. But how does someone with a virtually unknown product get attention? How can you figure out which hashtags to use?

TH: The three variables that we’ve been able to harness on Instagram are follows, photo likes and photo comments. Using the hashtag #rockband for an unknown act is not going to be incredibly effective. For film, we’ve had great results hashtagging the name of the movie or the names of talent in the movie. It is a little tricky on Instagram when there isn’t already an angle, which makes it challenging for unknown bands. Needless to say, the more specific you can get with the targeting, the better the results will be.

Music Consultant: I usually advise artists to tag bands they are playing shows with or collaborating with and venues where there shows will be, then use hashtags with similar artists, locations, etc. But how can you make the best of that? Are there ways to know how many people are looking for or using a certain hashtag, etc.?

1TH: Instagram is a much tougher nut to crack than Twitter. Our arsenal for Instagram is much less sophisticated, and we are still learning as we go. There are resources out there that allow you to see what is trending and then tap into that. You can buy fake likes and comments on Instagram just as you can on Twitter. But because Instagram is a visual medium, it often feels more spammy than it does on Twitter. And I’ve observed a real uptick in spam on Instagram lately.

Music Consultant: I’ve definitely noticed that the ads have become more prevalent, and I’ve noticed a lot of suspicious-looking profiles.

TH: I can say that as a company, we’re definitely getting results by applying the same principles we use to grow Twitter profiles on Instagram. We look at follows, photo likes and photo comments and harness the intrinsic power of hashtags. It’s, once again, about recruiting and engaging targeted users on the platform. We are also making sure images used are consistent with the brand.

In the meanwhile, I think bands also have to build their audience the hard way: Hit the Internet streets every day and post likes and comments, look for people talking about relevant subjects and harness the fan bases of bands and artists who are a little bit bigger than you. Find all those angles and exploit them. Then you just hope that some of your hard work sticks.

To learn more about Tony Harris and the work he does with artists and other brands, visit the Deliberate Marketing website.