If your marketing is aimed at the closed loop of power users or  first-adopters, you may not break free of that circle and achieve  mainstream  acceptance.

If your marketing is aimed at the closed loop of power users or first-adopters, you may not break free of that circle and achieve mainstream acceptance.

By Dan Vedda

Last month, I talked about Walt Disney and his relentless focus on the customer experience. I think that his approach can be applied to the way we present the music products industry. As we do that, though, it raises another question: Just who is our customer, anyway? I think that a number of trends—both social and technological—are broadening who our customers are and changing what they need from our industry.

To realize the dream of music making as a mainstream activity, including everything from Recreational Music Making to school music to lifelong hobbyists to career professionals, we need to understand that pros are a fraction of our customer base (not unlike pros in golf)—and, as the goal of “music for all” is approached, an ever-diminishing fraction. Add music as a hobby and wellness activity, and even the school music portion of the market is a smaller fraction.

I see this trend in our student enrollment. Although school players are still the majority, more than 20 percent of our students are adults. More than 15 percent are age nine or under. Think about that: More than a third of our enrollment isn’t the “traditional” demographic. Plus, they’re a different kind of student. What they are doing, the reasons they do it and the way they do it (groups, level of activity and involvement, and span of time active) do not simply add numbers to the mass of music makers. They represent new ground.

Dealing with a growing and potentially shifting user base isn’t just a music products thing. I read a blog post from Rick Webb in Betabeat (www.betabeat.com). In one installment, he took app marketers to task for concentrating on tech savvy early adopters when the market has shifted to average “social” users.

When you have more than 10 million users, you are not just targeting the interactive audience anymore. The primary question we hear about apps at that size is whether or not they can cross over into the mainstream, right? So why market just to the digital elite?
He cites Malcolm Gladwell’s “mavens”: The people to whom we look to understand what to buy and what to consume. In the app world, the mavens are the tastemakers—but they may not be the bleeding-edge early adopters. Among music consumers, there’s a new breed of mavens, as well. When a third of your customers do not participate in school music programs, the band director’s influence is nonexistent for them. When a growing number of your combo kids are not kids—perhaps not even playing with others in a group—peer influence is diminished. When you’re an adult hobbyist and you don’t even know anyone who plays in a band, whom do you listen to?

That’s not to say that there isn’t any influence—it just comes from a different direction. Who influences the little students? Their parents’ peers, and those with kids already involved become the mavens for their circle. The Internet is an influencer, too. All the research parents do—about everything—turns into opinions gleaned and acted upon. There’s an “Angie’s List”-like network when it comes to activities for the little ones. I have a young mom Facebook friend who posts a blizzard of where-to-go, here’s-a-coupon, my-kids-loved-it items every week and, judging from the “likes” and comments, she’s a maven to her crowd.
The adults have their own circles and, again, they often sidestep power users and other “traditional” tastemakers. Fewer adults read guitar mags—either pulp or no-pulp versions. Their points of reference can be out of date, obscure or obsessively (and counter-productively) detailed, because they listened to the guy in the next cubicle who “knows” guitars because he played in a frat band in the ’80s.

My point here is that there’s both a circle of influence we’ve mostly ignored and a sort of “maven vacuum” that we can try to fill. Stores with a teaching studio have a leg up on this, because their faculty is already in a position of influence. If your experience is anything like mine, though, some faculty members can’t shift gears to understand the needs of the nontraditional student.
Although a staff member may be able to fill some of that void, I always feel a little discomfort about it. When the same person who “influences” someone regarding equipment choices is also in a position to profit from that influence, people get a little funny about it, and rightly so. Better to have a customer who’s an avid hobbyist, saxophone geek or super-parent to generate some buzz. Groups fostered by a store—whether a drum circle, acoustic picker’s night or jam session—can bring together customers; a maven can emerge from among them. The important part is to find the maven and market to him or her.

The influence of brands and endorsers is increasingly fragmented and ineffective. There is no longer a guitar hero who speaks to all players. It’s like expecting NASCAR drivers to influence all car buyers. Although iconic brands still exist, they don’t have the same resonance for newbies. There are new names coming out every week, too. Mavens offer filtration.

That’s the point that Webb made in his blog. If your marketing is aimed at the closed loop of power users or first-adopters, you may not break free of that circle and achieve mainstream acceptance. Some music stores are just fine with that. They prefer to talk to people who speak their language. Essentially, they preach to the choir. But, if we’re ever to see the big numbers in our stores that I think are not only possible but, in fact, on the verge of exploding, we need to use every tool we can to find these mavens in the wild.
Many of us already use Facebook and Twitter. But don’t overlook the possibilities of Yelp, Google+ Pages and other emerging “influence” sites. Don’t underestimate the value of being an information aggregator and presenting a curated, digestible education section of your Web site. But, above all, start thinking “outside the case” and finding ways to communicate with the new mavens. They will open doors—and keep yours open.

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