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May 22, 2008

What American Idol Can Teach You About Marketing

By Li Evans

American_idol_top_3_season_7 I'm not an American Idol watcher.  But as a marketer, and one who loves social media and word of mouth marketing, there's nothing greater than seeing this powerhouse show in action.  Some of the time, the "Wisdom of the Crowds" works out, sometimes it does not.  Sometimes the crowds are with the judges and sometimes, the judges are just so way off base (and I'm not talking about Paula's weird & wacky actions).

This year was the first year I have actually not seen one episode of American Idol.  Usually I at least watch the first few episodes that feature the rather "quirky" performance, hey they turned out William Hung, so it can't be that bad, right? It's it's not unusual that William Hung's awful talents grab the nation by storm, he had a story, his story was "hey I gave it my best shot" and "thank you".  Two things that seem so rare on the entertainment world.

David Cook was this year's American Idol winner.  Interesting thing about it this year was that all three judges (that'd be Scowling Simon, Ever-So-Cool Randy and Whacky Paula ) the night before pretty much were crowning David Archuletta as the winner.  However, the crowds had a lot to say, 97 million votes later David Cook's story and talents appealed to the masses more than his 17 year old competitor's.

The thing that makes American Idol such a powerhouse, and such a "sensation" year after year, is that it's good at telling stories.  So good that sometimes it's the stories behind the contestants that propel the winner into the top categories, or even to fame if they don't win.  Sometimes those stories help the contestant win the hearts of their local audiences, too, as in the case of Temptress Browne of Philladelphia.

Storytelling is one powerful way to propel Word of Mouth and Social Media.  It gives people something to talk about, something to converse about, pass on, vote on, respond too.  Think I'm crazy?  Just look at American Idol's online community.  Just look at the news when American Idol fever hits.  The producers of American Idol have figured this out and use it wisely.  Just take a look:

  • David_cook_american_idol David Cook - This year's winner had a story.  His guitar has the initials "AC" carved into it, that's for his brothers.  The one who encouraged him to audition, and his older brother who's terminally ill with brain cancer, who as the story goes, made it to an episode against his doctors' suggestions back in April, and again made it to the finale to see David win.

  • Fantasia_barrino_american_idol Fantasia - She really just needs a first name, seriously. Fantasia, season 3's winner,  was raped by a former classmate in high school.  She dropped out of school.  Later, she became pregnant with her daughter Zion, but left Zion's father after he abused her.  Where's Fantasia now, she's gone on to be an award winning Broadway performer among other things, not bad, eh?  Now, if she could only get a website with her name, she'd be set! *cybersquatter alert!*

  • Ruben_studdard_american_idol Ruben Studdard - Overweight, African American Gospel Singer, the underdog to show tune singing carrot top, Clay Aiken.  That's the story that was spun there.  One of the closest votes to decide a winner, pitting social classes amongst each other.  Where's Ruben now?  He was singing "Celebrate Home" in the Finale's this year, along with that he's acting and still pushing out album's that produce numerous nominations for Grammies, Gospel, and Soul Train Awards.  Oh and one more thing, in Alabama in 2002 the governor of that state declared March 12th as Ruben Studdard day.

  • Kellie_pickler_american_idol Kellie Pickler - Yes, I know, she didn't win Season Five.  But this girl had a story that won the hearts and souls of her fans and propelled her to stardom beyond American Idol.  Kellie's story?  Well other than playing up the "ditzy blond" during her stay on A.I., her mom left her dad with Kellie at 2 years old.  Since American Idol, she's had two albums and she's won numerous Country awards for her song "I Wonder" which is autobiographical about her absent relationship with her mother.

  • Josh_gracin_american_idol Josh Gracin - Another one that I know didn't win.  He was a 4th place finisher in Season Two.  Boy did he have a story - he was a Marine! They even gave him leave time to participate, however he didn't get to tour with the American Idol show after it was over, the Marine's decided to use him instead.  Where's Josh now?  He's a pretty successful country music artist with 3 top ten hits (and another climbing the charts currently).

Carrie_underwood_american_idol I could go on about the stories, there's Chris Daughtry, there's Bo Bice, there's Taylor Hicks (hey he even made The Hoff cry!), there's Kelly & Justin and then there's Idol's most successful (after the show) winner Carrie Underwood.  If you didn't know when Carrie auditioned in front of the Fab Three, Simon proclaimed at that moment, she'd win Idol that year and go on to outsell every other idol winner before her - and he was (still is) right. 

American Idol's secret to its success, telling stories through all mediums - TV, it's website, radio interviews, in its communities. They've mastered not only word of mouth marketing but being social.

Think about this in relationship to your own business and how you go about marketing.  What's your story?  What's your uniqueness?  What makes you special?  People love and understand stories.  People retell stories, over and over again.  They are easy to relate, they are easy to remember and they are fun to talk about. 

People rarely spout facts & figures - stop and think, when was the last time someone talk about buying a car because it had a 11.5 gallon gas tank, a 8 cylinder engine and room for 5?  Unless it was a antique muscle car (muscle cars are a story in and of themselves), likely not. When someone talks about their car and why they like there's likely a story behind what brought them to the dealership, or how the dealership treated them or how good the brand or type of car has been to them. Customers don't by facts and figures, Customers, just like American Idol voters, buy stories. 

So What's Your's?

*Just an interesting side note, even The Hoff has his own social network.  Yeah go on, you know you want too. :P


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Interesting -- very thought provoking. Although these people definitely unintentionally marketed themselves by having such hardships to speak about but as a marketer or a company, one must think about their uniqueness and work off that for sure! Great article!

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