For years, the British rock band Radiohead has used the internet to successfully market what would otherwise be difficult-to-package material for wide audiences. Its strategies are ripe for borrowing and building from.
In 2000, the rock band Radiohead did something very surprising: It topped the Billboard 200 without the help of radio, traditional press, and MTV.
The effort was driven in large part by the help of the internet, where its label, Capitol, had essentially released the entire album, Kid A, letting people listen for free on the band’s official website ahead of the album’s release. Robin Sloan Bechtel, the label’s onetime head of new media, took advantage of the Napster-era tools she had in front of her to work around the band’s limited marketing palette for the record. It worked.
“Nobody in the industry could believe it because there was no radio and there was no traditional music video,” Bechtel told the late, lamented Grantland last year. “I knew at that point: This is the story of the internet. The internet has done this.”
It was only the first time Radiohead had won the attention of the public using the internet as its primary marketing tool, and last week the band did it again, jumping ahead of its release of A Moon Shaped Pool by using social media in unexpected ways to tell the world that the band had a new product ready to share.
Outside of the 1993 song “Creep”—a longtime karaoke favorite of mine—Radiohead isn’t a band known for being particularly friendly to the pop charts. But the thing is, the band’s marketing strategies translate in interesting ways, as proven by musicians that have significantly more mainstream appeal but have since improved on the band’s techniques. (See: Knowles-Carter, Beyoncé.)
And they translate outside of music as well. If you’re trying to sell a complicated thing to the public or a group of members, these techniques are gold. Among them:
When everyone else is zigging, zag. The lesson highlighted by the 2000 release of Kid A—to be an early mover in using a given marketing technique—is one the band has used repeatedly since then. The most notable example of this, of course, is the band’s 2007 release of In Rainbows, which allowed people to purchase the album for whatever price they wanted. That turned what could have been a weakness for the band (the fact that it didn’t have a label at the time) into a strength and helped keep the band’s marketing budget for that album relatively small. (Disclosure: In Rainbows is my favorite Radiohead album.) My colleague Joe Rominiecki made a pay-what-you-want pitch based on In Rainbows as recently as last year, though he admitted he wasn’t a big fan of the band. (It’s OK, I don’t judge him. Much.)
Lean into the culture of remixes. During the release of its prior album, The King of Limbs, the band won attention from fans thanks to an offbeat music video for the song “Lotus Flower.” The clip, which featured a lot of weird dancing from lead singer Thom Yorke, appeared to be tailor-made for the already-budding culture of memes, and that led to people putting alternate pieces of audio over the dance. Those memes had the side effect of promoting both the song and the album, and they got people talking. This strategy may cost you a little control over the end result, but it’s a smart way to build ongoing discussion.
Umm, I just got this in the post from Radiohead. Is the new album called Burn The Witch? pic.twitter.com/zv5QKnDeGh
— Niall Doherty (@NiallMDoherty) April 30, 2016
Give people something to react to. You probably wouldn’t think of deleting your social media profiles or your website—lest you lose all those backlinks and all that SEO mojo. But it’s no thing for Radiohead, a band that can use such a trick as an attention-playing grab. And that’s how the band spent its May Day this year—deleting thousands of tweets, Facebook posts, and Instagram photos, in what might have been an homage to one of its greatest songs, “How to Disappear Completely.” (I’m guessing they paid someone to do this for them, but imagining Jonny Greenwood on a deletion spree is kind of fun.) To go with this, the band sent a handful of cryptic leaflets to a few prominent fans—who, of course, immediately shared news of the images online. Both of these strategies highlight the idea of signal and noise, and the importance to, sometimes, flip it on its head. If you want to create some noise, deviate from the normal signal.
Create a discussion point. Last week’s release of the music video for “Burn the Witch” started a number of cultural discussions online because it presented a challenging, sometimes shocking piece of material that was full of cultural touchstones, some relatively common, others fairly unknown. This created a lot of online talking points: What inspired this piece of art? Was Radiohead reacting to the refugee crisis? Why the obscure reference to Trumpton? Is that a little Hot Fuzz we see in there? And where can I get a copy of The Wicker Man? Suddenly, after all the efforts to decode the crypticness, everyone’s talking about that thing you created.
The thing about these techniques is that while many of them work off the back of the band’s existing reputation—creating numerous iconic albums has that effect on people—they can be tailored to work for any brand, no matter its previous reputation or size.
A good example of this: Last year, the relatively unknown band Tanlines won a lot of internet praise for turning its website into a spot-on parody of something people were already familiar with: the Netflix website.
Breaking through the signal and noise that surrounds you on the internet requires a willingness to constantly revamp the way you market your message. Your association may not have the groundbreaking reputation that Radiohead has, but you most likely have an established reputation that could benefit from the same element of surprise that the band has mastered.
Putting everything in its right place sounds like a good idea, but real online marketing pros know the ground is always shifting.