Five SEM Lessons From Bonnaroo

Loyal readers know I’ll go to great lengths to find inspiration for my Search Insider columns, culling SEM lessons from fictional characters, Middle Eastern countries, Major League Baseball general managers, immortal CEOs, and even random sports.     

Today, my muse is the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, held this past weekend in Manchester, Tennessee. Ten years ago, at the very first Bonnaroo, my buddies, Matt, Lance, Bryan, and I made a pact to return for our ten-year reunion in 2012. Sure enough, we stayed true to our Word.



Here are five takeaways from Bonnaroo that can be applied to SEM:

1. A lot can happen in ten years. At the first Bonnaroo, we were four young dudes looking to catch some jams and the festival organizers were not ready for the onslaught of 70,000 attendees. Ten years later, we were four old men leaving behind six kids to relive some glory days and the festival is a well-oiled (albeit totally commercial) machine. Over the weekend, we started way too many stories with lines like, “Back in 2002, we waited in line for 36 hours to get in!” and “At the first Bonnaroo, we had to walk to the stages through the mud, uphill, both ways!”

As it relates to SEM, Eric Schmidt said it best, “The mistake we always make is we assume the success in the next 10 years will be the same as the success in the last 10 years. The dominant players always get it wrong.” In the summer of 2002, Bing didn’t exist, Yahoo had not yet acquired Inktomi, and Google was still a private company. There’s Siri-ously no way to know who or how we’ll be searching in another ten years.

2. It’s all about mobile. I have no idea how we survived in 2002 on BlackbBerries and flip phones. This year, we didn’t have to pack any CDs, maps, or cameras. Our smartphones did it all. We didn’t have to rely on shoddy cell service and sheer luck to find each other around the festival grounds. We could send instant messages or check in at various stages on Facebook. We also never had to use our festival guide, as each of us had preprogrammed the bands we wanted to see into the Bonnaroo mobile app. The app also had GPS location tracking overlaid onto the festival site map so we could figure out where to go -- especially helpful for those late night ‘Roo sessions.

Now, we all know mobile matters when it comes to search. Personal computers, cameras, navigation systems, and other point electronics are quickly becoming obsolete -- as are the marketing opportunities they afforded -- with integrated mobile devices taking their place. However, mobile search performs very differently in terms of clicks and conversions, so it’s imperative to create a mobile optimized website and set up separate desktop, mobile, and tablet campaigns.

3. The laws of supply and demand are immutable. The official Bonnaroo “general store” carried $5 bottles of water, $16 packs of cigarettes, and $6 cans of bug spray. With the nearest Walmart miles away and no one leaving the campgrounds to buy a pack of smokes, the price gouging was in full effect. Thankfully, a third-party ecosystem cropped up with a marketplace to fill any void you could imagine.

In SEM, we have one dominant player with the ability to control pricing if it wanted to -- but, fortunately, instead (for the most part) allowing an open marketplace to flourish. We are starting to see more instances of advertisers getting squeezed, though. Thankfully, we have a second major player building momentum, and a vibrant third-party ecosystem adding value to the entire supply and demand chain.

4. Sometimes you just have to improvise. Phish. North Mississippi All Stars.  Umphrey’s McGee. These are some of the bands in the Bonnaroo 2012 lineup that have helped define the jam band genre. These artists are notorious for never playing a song the same way twice and letting the energy of the moment dictate their musical output.

In SEM, we can have all the best-laid plans for campaign creation and optimization -- but we often encounter situations that we’ve simply never faced before and, therefore, carry no proven best practices. In these cases, the best practice is simply to wing it. But just like every Phish ticket comes with a code to download a free recording of the show to review and relive the moment, it’s critical that every improvisational move you make with your search campaign gets recorded and reported for future review. And, if you want to relive your next paycheck, you’ll be sure to course-correct when your jam falls flat.

5. Every now and then you need to check out. As we landed in Nashville and prepared to make the trek to Manchester, I tried to remember the last time I intentionally did not check email after a flight. I couldn’t. Needless to say, part of getting in the right mindset for Bonnaroo was leaving the day (and night) job behind. 

In this always-on digital age, sometimes you just need to put away your devices -- unless, of course, it’s the Bluetooth headphones for the Silent Disco -- and tune in to the world around you.  When it comes to overconsumption (digital or otherwise), perhaps Kenny Rogers put it best during his brief on-stage appearance with Phish during the Bonnaroo finale: “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.” And, seeing as how SEM is often the most profitable marketing channel, it’s also good advice to “never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table, there’ll be time enough for counting, when the dealin’s done.”

 See you at Bonnaroo 2022!

2 comments about "Five SEM Lessons From Bonnaroo ".
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  1. Monica, June 13, 2012 at 2:39 p.m.

    I'm so jealous that you guys have been going to To: for so long! My partner and I have been wanting to go for a long time and still have not been able to get away.

    That said, I think you're totally dead on as you talk about what's happened over the last ten years and what could happen in the next 10 years.

    The most important thing to remember is that we have to adapt with the current trends and not try to be hold-outs and keep our ears to the ground. Improvise or become extinct. Engaged where those we want to engage with can be found.

    As a musician myself, the way I sell music and even go about engaging club owners and fans is totally different than even 5 years ago. I use Facebook, a guest list application for getting fans to shows, YouTube, Amazon, Twitter, and many other social sites. Our band has created a mobile site and soon a mobile application. Moral of the story–leave no fan behind.

    Here's to being resilient and open. Funk on! Thanks for sharing your experience and the fun you had at Bonnaroo.

  2. Austin Kuhn from Liquid-Creative, June 13, 2012 at 5:27 p.m.

    I love it! So true. I was reading your post and I cannot believe it has been 10 years!!! Where has the time gone? I could not quit laughing when you mentioned leaving behind your children. Same here! As I dropped my child off at camp this week, I realized she has never experienced life without a TV, cellphone & air conditioning. I was so excited for her to experience a relaxed, simple life for just a week. I probably cannot think of one other place that everyone could go and be completely digital free and enjoy a week with just friends. It definitely makes me want to go back to camp.

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