Beyoncé has 13.7 million followers on Twitter, but her account is mothballed: it has only ever tweeted eight times, and the last one was on 19 August 2013. Yesterday, I got to find out why, by interviewing Lauren Wirtzer-Seawood on-stage at the Web Summit conference in Dublin.
She handles digital strategy for Beyoncé’s Parkwood Entertainment, a company that’s part management firm, part digital agency and part creative studio for its founder, president and CEO: Beyoncé Knowles.
Wirtzer-Seawood’s job thus encompasses social networks, Beyoncé’s own website, and partnerships – as part of the close-knit Parkwood team – of the kind that saw her boss’ last album shock the music industry and fans alike with a surprise iTunes release in December 2013.
On social networking, then. “We take a very strategic approach to platforms. Primarily we use Facebook and Instagram at this point,” said Wirtzer-Seawood. “Instagram is something that Beyoncé most of the time uses directly herself: she posts pictures. It’s her way of communicating to fans a little bit of what her personal life is like.”
So Instagram is essentially a “personal communications tool” for the star, while Facebook is used more for promotional purposes. “We’re very careful not to be too salesy in anything that we do,” stressed Wirtzer-Seawood. “That’s not the kind of relationship that Beyoncé has with her fans. She wants it to be organic, and she wants it to really come from her. And it does.”
But no Twitter. “Currently, we don’t use Twitter at all. It is a personal choice. I think as an artist, Beyoncé really prefers to communicate in images. It’s very hard to say what you want to say in 140 characters,” said Wirtzer-Seawood. “This is just a personal preference to her at this time. But also the Twitter channels are so crowded: it’s a different kind of experience that the fan has…”
One of the most interesting parts of her role at Parkwood is keeping clued-in on new social networks and apps as they emerge, including messaging apps from WhatsApp and Snapchat to Line and Kakao in Asia. But Wirtzer-Seawood warned that none of them will be adopted lightly.
“I would never open an account and not expect that we can continue to fill that channel forever: that it will continue to grow, and we’ll need to continue to fill it. That’s a huge responsibility,” she said.
“Beyoncé is a bit of a fringe case, and it’s not the same for all artists, celebrities or brands. But I find it really frustrating and annoying to see when somebody launches something new, whether it’s a new Facebook account or a new Snapchat account, and they do it for a period of time, then they go away for six months. It’s frustrating as a fan. I want to make sure if we use them, we use them well, and we use them strategically and we continue to fill the channel for a long time.”
Naturally, the last album launch cropped up in the conversation. Wirtzer-Seawood said it was a deliberate effort to present “a body of work” to fans without having it pre-judged or criticised by the media. “Giving this full package to the consumer allowed them to hear all of the content in the way that she wanted it to be heard, in the way she wanted it to be experienced,” she said.
There were quite a few people involved, with videos shot during Beyoncé’s tour, but “a very small group” knew all the moving parts: a team shooting one video wouldn’t know that a completely different team was shooting another, or that the video was for an album to be released so soon. Apple was a key partner, and as ‘partners able to keep a secret’ go, it’s one of the better ones.
“It was essential to the process, working with a team that also understood the value of maintaining a very small group of people who kept the secret, and understood how valuable it was to record sales ultimately,” said Wirtzer-Seawood.
We also talked about data during the Web Summit session: Wirtzer-Seawood worked at social games company Zynga for a couple of years before Parkwood, which she said gave her an appreciation of the value of gathering, analysing and acting on big data – but also a sense of the potential hazards.
“We pay very very close attention to data. I’m more interested in data than probably most people I know in the business, after spending a couple of years at Zynga,” she said. “I’m a little bit more keen on the importance of data and how to use it. I make sure I deep-dive into every piece of content… and really try to use that information in a meaningful way.”
She warned against the risks of simply collecting data without making sense of it, or in the case of artists, accepting the data given to them by their label without questioning what it means.
“Oftentimes bands will have access to something that the label might give them with topline information on YouTube and Vevo and Facebook and whatever else, but they don’t actually tell you what the data means, and why it’s important,” she said.
“It’s one of the reasons our website is so valuable. Although we have the social platforms, we also have Beyonce.com, which is a place where I can really dig deep into that data and figure out who the fans are and what they’re sharing, and how to communicate with them really effectively. Data is key.”
What data doesn’t do is influence the creative work itself: Wirtzer-Seawood isn’t going into meetings with Beyoncé and suggesting that her next album be 12 more Drunk In Loves, but with 10 more beats-per-minute and a mention of the word ‘ring’ in every chorus, because the data suggests that will be popular.
Unthinkable? Yes, but one thing Zynga was criticised for in the past was that its data was exerting too much influence over its games: the creative product. “At Zynga I was exposed to the importance of data, and they had so much detail,” said Wirtzer-Seawood, stressing that this was a positive thing. “But what oftentimes would happen: it seemed like some creative decisions were based on that data.” Which was not so positive.
“You take the data, so that when Beyoncé comes in and says ‘hey, I have something new for you to market or sell or communicate, I can say ‘I know who’s going to want to use that and share it’,” she said.
What is Beyoncé like as a boss? “She’s brilliant: she’s a creative genius, she knows who she is, and she has definitive opinions about all things related to creative. Anything that you see posted to the public has gone through her approval. Every single item,” said Wirtzer-Seawood. And all of that content has been created in-house at Parkwood.
I wondered how YouTube and video fits in to the Beyoncé digital strategy? Her deal with Columbia means that her official music videos go onto a Vevo-branded channel, but there is a separate Beyoncé YouTube channel for other kinds of clips: “Anything that’s not a music video: something backstage at a concert, or a charity event that we’ve done,” said Wirtzer-Seawood.
Interestingly, though, Facebook native video – uploading videos to Facebook itself rather than posting YouTube videos on the social network – has become a big priority for Beyoncé’s team.
“A couple of months ago, I noticed that the traction of Facebook native video increased exponentially. I would say May or so to July. So I started to upload quite a bit more content as a native to our channel, and saw unbelievably impressive results,” she said.
“So much so, that I asked the Facebook team to make the view counts public, because a fan can be much more inclined to watch a video with 70 million views than 270! And as of last month, Facebook made view counts public, so that everybody can see that.”
For example, a recent video of a performance from Beyoncé’s HBO special has been watched more than 11.2 million times. “We’ve had great success with it, but again, we don’t flood the channel with stuff that won’t be really important to fans,” she said. “It’s about the right content: things that people want to see, and which are relevant and authentic to the Beyoncé brand.”
That said, YouTube remains important as a “secondary support channel” because, as Wirtzer-Seawood put it: “YouTube is a place for video, and if you search for something that is a Facebook native
it’s virtually impossible to find it.”
All of these Facebook views are organic, rather than paid-for: Parkwood isn’t juicing its views through Facebook ads, which bucks the trend of digital marketers fretting about declining organic reach for their posts. But isn’t Beyoncé an outlier in that regard? “Yeah,” said Wirtzer-Seawood. “I think it’s the nature of the fanbase. She has around 70 million Facebook fans: it’s a huge number, and the fans really want content all the time.”
Might they want that content delivered through an official Beyoncé mobile app? As things stand, there isn’t one, and that’s another decision taken by Parkwood after considering the technology options and fan behaviour patterns (data, again).
“The problem with an app is very similar to what I was mentioning before about newer social channels. If an artist is going to develop an app, it has to be compelling content that they continue to feed, day-in day-out, on a regular basis. And that is very hard to do,” said Wirtzer-Seawood.
“For most artists, they don’t have content available every single day. They finish the tour, and so there’s nothing there! An app ends up becoming this place for Twitter feeds to be pulled in, and it gets quite boring.”
But she also questioned whether fans want dedicated apps for their favourite stars. “As a fan, if I’m 15 years old and i have five artists that I love, am I going to download those five apps and switch between each app as I want see what’s going on? No. I’m going to still be on Instagram and Snapchat and perhaps Facebook, and i’m going to consume all their content anyway,” she said.
“I don’t really know at the moment whether there is a place for an artist-focused app in the ecosystem. If it does get to that point, it has to be something that clearly hasn’t been done before and is compelling in lots of ways.”
Main image from Beyoncé’s Facebook profile.