I've always been fascinated by the entertainment business, and a couple of weeks ago we learned a thing or two about sound design from Diego Stocco.
Larry Weintraub and I met when speaking on the same panel at Mediabistro Circus a week ago. He is the CEO and co-founder of Fanscape, a company that believes in creating a better connection between brands and consumers.
Over lunch we talked about the state of marketing communications, media, and our respective projects. This is my follow up conversation with Larry about his work.
How did you come to the decision to start your own company?
Larry: I’ve been an entrepreneur since I was 12 years old. I started by mowing people’s lawns and painting their houses. When I was very young, I mapped out a career for myself in the music business and did that from the time I was 15 until I was 28, the latter 8 years I’d spent working for a major record company, A&M Records.
When that record company’s parent company was sold, I decided it was time to strike out on my own and try running my own business. I could have gone to another record company but I knew that I’d always regret it if I didn’t try my own thing, which is why I started Fanscape.
When you started Fancape 11 years ago, was your focus exploring alternatives to traditional advertising from the beginning? Were there other types of services you offer today available from the onset? What I'm trying to get at here is has there been an evolution of your work in a specific direction?
Larry: Continuing from the other question you asked, when A&M Records was sold, there was a 6 month period while the transition took place. During that time, my business partner and I concentrated on coming up with an idea that hadn’t been done.
We’d both spent the last 8 years helping to market bands and we realized that the old way of developing artists wasn’t being done any more, the record business was focused on chasing pop hits. The history of the record business had been to put out a record, hope it got played on the radio, and then if you were lucky, millions of people bought your album.
Then when it came time to put out the next album, the record companies had to try and find the buyer again. No one had ever thought to keep track of the fans. Sure, there were mailing lists, but none of them were well maintained.
We created Fanscape as a company that musicians could hire to keep track of their fans and ultimately communicate with them. Thus, this was not really an advertising-minded business, it was a database management and customer service focused business.
Over the years it has evolved into what we now call social media marketing, but the same core components are intact, which is to communicate with the customer through open and honest dialogue.
There has definitely been an evolution of the services we offered. When we started we literally had people fill out address cards at concerts, then we entered them into a database, then we printed out brochures and sent them to people in the mail.
Within a few months we put that whole process online. Our focus early on was e-commerce and ultimately selling a product – a t-shirt, CD, hat, etc. But after about two years we evolved into a marketing company, shed the e-commerce and subscription services and became pretty much the company we are today.
The other evolution over the years has been our clientele. For the first 5 of our 11 years, we were exclusively music. We were a dominant music marketing company but as the music business lost their way, we concentrated on other areas such as film, TV, and now products/brands.
You are an active participant in many social networks and have direct experience with social media. How much did your direct involvement help you feel you understand its dynamics well enough to explain them to your clients?
Larry: For much of the past 5 years or so, education has been a major component of our business. I’ve had to explain to people why they needed to embrace social media; I literally had to simplify it because it was so confusing.
We used to start a conversation with, “you know how your kids are on MySpace?” or “Do you ever watch videos on YouTube?” – “That’s Social Media!” The term social media has actually evolved. First we were doing New Media Marketing, then Digital Marketing, and now it is Social Media (aka Digital Word of Mouth) Marketing.
It is all the same thing really – at least how we do it, connecting with people through the Internet. But most of our clients understood traditional media and the Internet was just this place they heard about but didn’t know what to do with.
In the last 2 years people have really woken up to it and that education process has become a little easier. Now, however, there are a new set of challenges, specifically measurement – and how our clients often want to measure social media the same way they measure advertising and search.
From the corporate side I have not been impressed with agencies over the years. Creative that did not sell and account teams that did not understand the business have by and large been a real challenge.
Social media is transforming work, the dynamics and business models. Yet, it seems that agencies have underestimated this shift. As an agency that was born around the idea of joining the conversation, does Fanscape have the opposite challenge - that of educating and enlightening clients?
Larry: Yes. I spoke to much of that in the previous question. The main thing that needs to be understood, and we’re not there yet, is that social media is not a campaign-based project. It is ongoing.
It is hard to really feel the effects after just 2 or 3 months. You have to build trust, you have to prove that you are going to be there and that you aren’t just popping in to promote your product and then you’ll disappear. It's very hard for a major corporation to understand that this is a division they have to have in their company.
It's merging customer service, marketing, and public relations. You can’t start a Twitter account, tweet for a few weeks, and then stop. Same with Facebook, YouTube, and on and on. But most companies run on quarterly systems and right now social media is primarily a project-oriented function and it needs to be put on the level with marketing, public relations, and customer service which never end.
Credibility and value are the currency of social media. Companies are struggling to figure this one out, especially those that are used to think in terms of their messages.
You have an advantage over internal resources in companies: as an outsider, your advice may be followed. How do you work with companies to help them build better relationships with their customers?
Larry: One common thing we hear is that companies want help making their media viral. Which, as you know, is impossible. You can’t make something viral, it is or it isn’t. If you have a community of people that like what you have to say, then you’ll have an audience to start your marketing with.
If you’ve built up a great report with your customers and they trust you and they know that you will give them good information then they’ll listen to what you have to say. If you want to show them a funny video, they’ll watch it. If they like it, they’ll share it.
I’m a big believer that every company needs to build a community around it and its product(s). This means creating an interactive online destination, i.e. a social network or socially minded website where people can interact with you and others like them.
You also need to have extensions in other communities where people congregate – Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Twitter, etc. But there should always be a consistent knowledgeable voice that can answer questions, ask questions, and inspire the audience. It’s a privilege to have customers come check you out, reward them, entertain them, engage them!
We tell each company this when we start a campaign. We let them know we need access to information and the ability to communicate with people and to allow people to communicate back – even if it’s negative. If you do this, then you will build better relationships with their customers.
What do you think is in store for agencies in the next 3-5 years? Will agencies rethink their dependency on media? Is there a new model in sight?
Larry: I like what Shiv Singh at the Razorfish agency says. He basically states that there is no traditional media and social media, it’s all one. My extended thought to this is that every form of media will have a component that is social.
A television commercial that you see during your favorite show is also available for viewing online. You can comment on it, share it with your friends, and maybe even re-do it through editing tools. If you are brand, you shouldn’t care. It means people are spreading your message.
This is counter-intuitive to the historical advertising and the agencies that deliver that. Usually the agency creates the message and it’s a one way street. I see this social convergence of media happening quickly and agencies will just have to keep that in mind when they are creating media. I really think this is already happening and happening quickly.
What is your personal secret sauce? How do you influence your colleagues and team?
That’s an interesting question. I don’t really know. I’ve always just been a hard worker who cares about the people around him. I also believe in collaboration and that everyone should collaborate on new ideas. I like to make everyone feel like they can contribute and make a difference.
Who would be your ideal client?
A client that is excited to try new things. A client who says, please show me all the great new things that we can do to market our products. And then they let us do it!
What questions do you have for Larry Weintraub?
[Larry at Mediabistro Circus, June 2009]