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Radiohead: A content marketing and branding masterclass

For those unfamiliar with the intricacies, it can be hard to wrap your head around how content marketing works, and where it differs from traditional advertising, At Castleford, we believe that a good old-fashioned case study is one of the best ways to explain the process, especially when we can use them as a thinly veiled excuse to talk about our favourite things…

This week, we’re going to look at how Oxfordshire mega-band Radiohead reinvented the wheel in online music marketing. But first, a quick primer/reminder on why content marketing is such an effective tool compared to traditional advertising.

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Content marketing versus traditional advertising

As the name suggests, content marketing is marketing with content. So far so simple, but things get more complex when you introduce the concept that not all content, is content marketing. Here’s how Content Marketing Institute (CMI) breaks it down:

“Content is everywhere. There’s product content, sales content, customer-service content, event content, employee-generated content, marketing and campaign content. Even advertising is content. With content marketing, you are attracting an audience to a brand-owned destination versus interrupting or buying an audience on someone else’s platform.”

This is the big difference, and when you wrap your head around it, everything becomes a little more simple. Advertising content says “look at me, buy me,” where content marketing says “I’m what you want, find me.”

The trick is in making your content marketing as valuable as possible, encouraging the largest possible audience to seek it out. For our money, it’s hard to think of any content more valuable than an album of new music from one of the world’s biggest bands.

Radiohead: A content marketing case study

While Radiohead has always eschewed the traditions of the music industry, it was back in 2007 that the band really took things to a new level with the release of their seventh album In Rainbows. Content marketing wasn’t a widely used term back then, but a similar-sounding phrase, ‘contrarian marketing’ was used to describe Radiohead’s approach.

The concept was relatively simple. Instead of billboards, tv spots and radio ads, the band would simply release the album on its own website – for free. Well, not quite for free. Those who ‘purchased’ the album were encouraged to pay what they wanted, or what they thought the product was worth, in the form of a donation. The International Business Times described the strategy as one of the biggest steps in the career of the group who “invented digital music marketing.”

“No matter what version fans chose, the only place they could get it was Radiohead’s website, a radical notion in an era when Apple’s iTunes Music Store had started to look like a central, unavoidable partner in digital music sales,”

And it worked. The New York Times reported that over 3 million copies were distributed in the first year of In Rainbows’ release. While many of these were effectively given away for free, the album still made more money than either of Radiohead’s previous two albums. In addition, the radical strategy generated so much buzz that In Rainbows stayed in the news for far longer than it might have with a traditional release. Meanwhile, huge loyalty was generated in fans by the ‘generosity’ shown by a group of rockstars, who in 2007, well before the rise of streaming services like Spotify, had no reason to give anything away for free.

It also didn’t hurt that the album was incredibly good, going on to win Radiohead their third Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album. Plenty of artists had released free music online before, but never a full album of new material that could easily have been sold for $30 a pop.

Since 2007, plenty of musicians have tried to hop onto the ‘pay what you want’ bandwagon.  Everybody from Wilco to Gorillaz to Prince to Death Grips has done it. Some acts like Run The Jewels have even gone so far as to release every album for free, despite the huge number of people who simply download without paying a cent. Why?

Well – with the notable exception of that one time U2 loaded their 2014 record Songs of Innocence onto everybody’s iPhones while they were asleep – because it works.

Releasing an album for free is a pretty low price to pay for intense loyalty, which in turn drives things like concert ticket sales and purchases of other merchandise. This is where the content marketing comparisons come in. You might be thinking that it’s a stretch to compare a musical album to a blog post, but what they share is an ability to provide value to your audience. To return to CMI’s definition, that value attracts “an audience to an experience (or “destination”) that you own, build, and optimise to achieve your marketing objectives.”

Jigsaw Falling Into Place: Lessons from In Rainbows

So, what are the key lessons that content marketers can take from Radiohead’s release of In Rainbows? First of all, there’s the importance of quality. The strategy wouldn’t have worked anywhere near as well if the product hadn’t been up to scratch. Secondly, it’s important not to overlook how unexpected the release was, especially given the state of the music industry back in 2007. We all like to be pleasantly surprised, and if your business can provide a high quality article or pdf that potential clients weren’t expecting to find, it’s far more likely that they’ll convert.

These are the two biggest takeaways to keep in mind, but Business2Community (B2C) points out a few more that you perhaps wouldn’t have thought of. One is the importance of having a great website, with B2C explaining that: “If Thom Yorke and the gang didn’t have a reliable, reachable website, their independence from record labels would have never allowed them the e-commerce success that they achieved.”

By following Radiohead’s example and surprising potential customers with high-quality content that costs nothing more than filling out an online form, businesses can use content marketing as a tool that doesn’t just generate leads, but also builds intense brand loyalty.

Our new album is available now at www.radiohead.com

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The band is still up to their old tricks more than a decade later, releasing latest album A Moon Shaped Pool with almost no advertising, and generating the same sort of critical and commercial response as In Rainbows. The band continues to push the boundaries of how it markets itself, and there’s no reason your business can’t do the same.