What do Frank Ocean, Louis CK and Beyonce have in common? This year, they all surprised their young fans with major new releases. Last month, Frank Ocean ended a four-year wait by casually dropping two albums, one visual (Endless) and the other musical (Blonde). In January, Louis CK stunned fans by debuting a new TV series online, “Horace and Pete.” And Beyonce is definitely the queen of surprise, dropping two unannounced visual albums (Beyonce in December 2013, and Lemonade this April), before doing a hush-hush, extended performance at the MTV VMA’s last month, which brought down the house.
Why forgo a big launch typical of, say, a new Adele album or HBO series? There are three reasons why surprise debuts might be the wave of the future, not just for albums, but for other artistic works, and even products in other categories:
1. They allow for more creative freedom.Blonde, Beyonce and Lemonade are all deeply personal works. Recording in private with no announced release date gives artists near-total freedom to explore and take great risks, without worrying about meeting a deadline, or having fans, journalists and label execs breathing over their shoulder.
Other artists have complained about being forced to make compromises and rush out an unfinished work to meet an artificial deadline. But having a very quiet, open-ended creative process allowed Frank Ocean and Beyonce to spend years crafting their work, and release it only when they deemed it perfect. They also didn’t have to worry about facing a press tour and a bunch of public appearances to discuss intensely personal work. Consider how your brand can adopt this working style, which Apple has made so successful across multiple product launches.
2. They reward loyal fans. Those who diligently follow Frank Ocean were able to piece together cryptic clues to realize he was about to release a new album (actually two). One fan even changed his travel plans to visit a pop-up store, acting on a hunch that he’d be able to get the new album there. And the BeyHive was abuzz over seeing Queen Bey at the VMA’s, even before the official MTV announcement.
With fans now able to follow their favorite celebrities and brands across so many platforms, it’s tremendously motivating to give them an early heads-up that new content will soon be available, rather than having them find out with the rest of the world. Consider how to make social media a place where true fans can access and discuss exclusive content, rather than just a place that regurgitates widely-known information.
3. They provide a more positive discovery experience. Consumers, especially younger ones, are used to getting a “hard sell” for every product and entertainment franchise, and having it shoved down their throat for years, to the point that they feel like they’ve already experienced it by the time it finally premieres. There’s a backlash building to this, as seen in part by the disappointing box office receipts for so many movie sequels this summer.
However, an unannounced release earns goodwill by providing a delightful surprise, and allowing fans to go on a journey of discovery. They feel like they’re empowered to “pull” content toward them on their own terms, rather than having it aggressively “pushed” out to them. Consider how you cultivate a sense of “surprise and discovery” in your customers, from so-called “Easter eggs” to loyalty rewards to providing moments that lend themselves to going viral.
Surprise launches aren’t just for the super-famous; content creators and brands of any size can follow the same strategy by developing a strong online community; nurturing that community with two-way dialogue and exclusive news and content; and then putting major new releases in front of that community quickly and exclusively, for them to provide feedback and evangelize it to the world. By following those principles, you can change a launch from a potential lemon to sweetLemonade.