Norah Jonestown

by , Sep 28, 2004, 12:00 AM
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Last week we talked about how marketers that are not leveraging community in the form of special interest-based e-mail newsgroups and forums are missing a huge opportunity. What we didn't have time to say was that it is important that those marketing efforts not be clandestine in any way.

In other words, if you want to see something backfire quickly, go to your favorite advocacy newsgroup and pretend to be an innocent third-party while pushing your company's products, like posting on the Widget Lovers newsgroup: "Hey, I just heard about this great new Widget from Widgetmaster. It rocks." Usually these kinds of posts are pretty recognizable by the group because they are one-time posts from an e-mail address like 343dxr@aol.com.

This tactic would provide a similar reaction as me walking down to Little Italy, popping my head into the local "Social Club" and shouting: " The cannoli in this place rocks!" I'd be identified pretty quickly as an outsider and suffer a pretty similar fate as those who try these tactics online.

But what happens when the brand itself is the subject of the community? The following story is true and something I was going to write about a year ago when it happened, but didn't get around to it. And while it is not strictly about e-mail, this cautionary tale applies just as well to any e-mail-based community as well as the Web-based community where our story takes place.

The brand is Blue Note Records, a jazz specialty label. For years Blue Note had an online forum where fans could go to talk about jazz, Blue Note artists, and increasingly over the years other topics like politics or baseball scores.

These were hard core fans who think nothing of spending most of the day discussing the minutia of Blue Note recordings and artists going back over 50 years. When a new release was issued, they got the word out, discussed its merits, and basically made anyone new coming to the site feel that they needed this recording in their collection or else.

I talked to a psychiatrist who was an expert in the field of jazz and communities. He told me there is a strong male identity to jazz communities and they feel threatened by females. Certainly in this community and for most of Blue Notes' traditional base, it is a male dominated world, not only in the fan base, but in the artists represented by the label as well. So, imagine what happened when its first million seller was not only female, but of questionable jazz pedigree. Welcome to Norah Jonestown.

Norah Jones is a very successful singer/pianist with a bluesy, slightly jazzy, very commercial sound that has put Blue Note on the map. The problem was, the traditional Blue Note fan base hated her and they were quite vocal about it on the forum.

I didn't make up the name Norah Jonestown; this was an ongoing topic titled on the forum. Suddenly Norah Jones won five Grammy's, Blue Note garnered a lot of attention, and suddenly a lot of people went to the Blue Note site and forum for the first time. Subsequently, new visitors read about how Norah Jones sucked, among other highly charged posts on the Blue Note site.

And, suddenly everything changed on the Blue Note forum.

Within days of Norah Jones winning the Grammy's, the traditional fan base logged onto their favorite home away from home to find that half of it was gone. Huge quantities of posts (including all of the political, sports-related, and anti-Norah Jones posts) just disappeared, along with an irreplaceable oral history of the jazz world chronicled in thousands of posts. The reaction of the community was swift and loud. Conspiracy theories, cries of betrayal, a few people pleading calm in the vain hope that some of the more historical posts would be put back all unfolded in a few hours of the news spreading. The loyal fan base felt stabbed in the back and they knew who to blame: Norah Jones. And that's when they started to move.

There were a couple of posts for alternative sites where the now-crazed swarm of angry enthusiasts might find a new home. And, off they went like a plague of locusts descending on unsuspecting sites. The Blue Note fanatics swamped smaller sites unaccustomed to the large mass and crashed their modest servers. The Blue Note mob brought down every other jazz site it landed on due to their numbers and massive usage. They also brought the ire up of the community they were displacing; these other communities started complaining about the rude Blue Noters that had invaded them like a conquering horde.

A few days after that the Blue Note forum closed its doors forever.

I spoke with Blue Note a week or so after all this happened and they had a much different perspective on the whole thing; they just had layoffs. The staff was overextended. They couldn't justify the cost and manpower needed to keep the forum up.

And they seemed oblivious to the uproar they had caused their fan base, because quite honestly, these weren't their fan base anymore. Their fan base were the people buying Norah Jones records. These other people were part of some other time and place. They were good for a couple of thousand in sales, but in their entire history didn't buy as many albums as Norah Jones sold in a few short weeks.

And the passion, loyalty, and emotional investment these folks had made in this brand over their entire lives - it was expendable, inconsequential, and misplaced brand equity. Welcome to Norah Jonestown.

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