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8 - Musical.ly

I’m going to start with Musical.ly because I’m betting that unless you’re the parent of a seven-to-eleven-year-old, you’ve never heard of it. If you have, I’m betting most of you never once thought it might be worth investigating for any other reason than checking on your kid’s online activities. Musical.ly, like a lot of its users, is young and creative and eager to grow up. It’s a fun platform to consider, because I think it’s the one most likely to be underestimated. It’s also the one most likely to no longer exist once you read this book, because as of this writing, its popularity has been in decline for about six months. But you need to learn about it anyway, for reasons that should become clear in the next few paragraphs.

Despite the evidence that platforms that start out hot with young people can and do successfully cross over to an older audience, the majority of entrepreneurs will still dismiss Musical.ly, which is great, because it leaves the platform wide open for you to take it over. You’ll have fun doing it, too. Musers, as the users of Musical.ly are called, have turned this app into a creative phenomenon. Originally, it allowed people to make fifteen-second lip-sync videos, making public the rock-star impersonations and glamming that previous generations used to do in front of their full-length closet mirrors. Today the form has evolved to include original music, comedy skits, and even mini–educational videos. Ballerinas, makeup artists, gymnasts, jugglers, athletes, rappers, vloggers, and hams of all stripes—including Jiff the Pomeranian—are using the medium to show off their skills and style. You can create content as long as five minutes, compile video clips into stories, and collaborate on duets with other musers.

The company saw immediate favor among the tween and teen crowd as soon as it launched in August 2014, with people not only downloading it, but returning to it and engaging in high numbers.1 For the first months of its existence, it grew, but at a slow, steady pace. Then the designers decided to make a few minor changes to the app design, one of which included relocating the Musical.ly logo so that it wasn’t cropped out every time a video was shared on Instagram or Twitter. As soon as that happened, new users flooded the app. Learning from the mistakes of its predecessors, which too often tried to contain users to their platforms, it helps musers build their fan base by allowing them to share its content on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp. It now has 200 million users, 30 percent of whom spend thirty minutes or more there per day.2 No doubt a small percentage of musers are refugees from Vine, the defunct Twitter-owned six-second-video platform that was quickly overshadowed by Instagram video and Snapchat, thanks to their slightly longer formats and fun editing tools. The natural question is, of course, how will Musical.ly avoid Vine’s fate? One way is by aging up, creating features that appeal to their audience once those kids become teens, so they don’t graduate to Snapchat or Insta. And it will have to evolve to compete for the younger audience, too, as Snapchat and Insta start trending younger and younger. The way I see it, for Musical.ly to break away from its competition and gain momentum within the twelve-to-seventeen-year-old crowd, it will have to pivot the way Facebook did a few years ago, when it successfully transitioned into a mobile-first platform even though it was originally designed for desktop. Musical.ly is so young, it should be limber and flexible enough to be able to adapt itself to whatever is the next big thing that changes the platform paradigm. Maybe it’ll be voice. Maybe it’ll be something that we can’t even envision yet.

Clearly, emerging musicians have a natural opportunity here, but of course one of the best ways to become a big fish is to swim in a small pool, creatively adapting a platform to your needs. That’s the tactic I used to build brand awareness on Musical.ly. You might wonder why I, a forty-two-year-old businessman with few ties to the music industry, have any interest in garnering attention on a platform geared toward thirteen-year-olds. Simple: those thirteen-year-olds grow up to become eighteen-year-old entrepreneurs and twenty-five-year-old marketers. When I was twelve and dreaming of building businesses, no one knew what to call me. Entrepreneur wasn’t part of our lexicon. Today, entrepreneurs are pop-culture icons, and the kids are growing up watching Shark Tank. Maybe I can help inspire them to get where they want to go faster. Maybe one day we’ll do business together.

One of my earliest forays into the platform came about because I thought kids could get some value from hearing sage words from hip-hop artist Fat Joe on #AskGaryVee. To help the demographic find the show, I posted a clip of me jumping through the ceiling, set to Fat Joe’s “All the Way Up,” with the hope that if they liked what they saw, they’d keep watching and listening. If they did, they’d catch the meme I created from a clip of me pushing hard work, set to Rihanna’s song “Work,” or an inspirational video reminding people to always look up to the stars, set to Coldplay’s “A Sky Full of Stars.” I made another one of me remembering how much I hated school, how I’d sit in the classroom thinking that one day I would prove all my teachers and classmates who thought I was a loser wrong. Imagine how much that message might mean to a kid who’s getting the same shit today? What if just a few of those kids see it and realize there’s someone out there who gets them, and they find out what I’ve accomplished and think, Yeah. Me too. This is how someone like me, who’s not in the music industry and can’t sing, managed to tie business and entrepreneurship into a so called lip-syncing platform, not only to make a difference but to make fans for life.

Even before I deployed these content strategies, however, when I was just gathering information so I could figure out how to build out my profile, I asked two of Musical.ly’s top users to make guest appearances on #AskGaryVee. On episode 198, I’m flanked by two fifteen-year-olds, Ariel Martin and Ariana Trejos. Definitely not my typical guests, but we had a blast. My audience and I got access to their insights, and they got the chance to show their skills on a big YouTube show. The thing is, my show is peanuts compared to the big venues where they’ve appeared, like the red carpet at the People’s Choice Awards. The real value to me is that when their fans Google them and find the Musical.ly memes they made while on my show, it will raise their awareness of my brand. When Baby Ariel is a humongous star (in 2017 she was listed in Time magazine’s third annual list of most influential people on the Internet), I’ll have the content that the world is hunting for in a few years when they want to see who she was in her early days.* Even if Musical.ly turns out to be a fad, let us remember that every season, brands pay millions of dollars to run ads against pilots for new series, most of which statistically will not exist after nine months. As of 2012, 65 percent of new shows are canceled after one season.3 It literally does not matter how long a platform lasts. What matters is that it exists. If you’re seeking to build your audience, go where the audience goes, wherever that may lead. Consume the platform’s content for a couple of weeks to get a feel for what’s appealing to users, then strategize how you can create content that will successfully penetrate that market. Get to know it and put your resources into it. Not all, mind you. Just some. More if you’re comfortable with the platform, less if you decide it’s not for you. But to label any platform as irrelevant shows a lack of imagination and vision. Don’t ever doubt that the designers of the platform have a greater vision for it than whatever it is you see now. Platforms evolve, either by design or by accident, when the market takes them in a whole other direction. If you get in early, you can evolve with a platform. Become a real presence on it, and its designers may even come to you and ask for your help. For example, they may give you early beta program access, letting you play around with new features they’re hoping to launch. Or you could get first dibs on creating fresh new content in a format or style no one has ever seen before, essentially creating a symbiotic relationship between your brand and the platform.

No one can finish a marathon without proper training. Whether you do it on the treadmill or the running path, you have to get to know your body, build your endurance, and figure out what physical, nutritional, and psychological practices extract your best performance. The same goes for social-media platforms. In 2012, I was bullish about an app called Socialcam that was successful for maybe nine months before it flopped. In those nine months, however, I learned strategies that served me well when Vine and Instagram came along.

The only thing you risk by taking leaps into the social-media unknown is time. You want to break out and live the life? You say you’re going to die if you have to spend one more day in your accounting job, but you’re not willing to risk your time in case a platform turns out to be a MySpace or a Vine instead of a Facebook or an Instagram? Who are you to be so fancy? When you’re nothing but a beggar, you don’t get to be choosy. Download every new social platform, taste it, and understand it. Drop it if it doesn’t work for you or you can’t get comfortable, but never reject anything without educating yourself about it first (which is good advice for like, life).

Musical.ly 101

Work those hashtags. I can’t believe we didn’t talk about hashtags in Crush It! In fact, I didn’t mention them in print until my third book! Riding hashtags is one of the bedrocks of social media and a key to discoverability. One of the quickest ways to build traction on Musical.ly, for example, would be to open the app, examine the trending tags on the Discover page, and work on producing great content around those trending tags so that you can be spotted by kids who would otherwise have no way to know you’re worth checking out. That includes the curators at Musical.ly itself, who are apt to reward good content by selecting it to be automatically featured when people open the app. That hand curation creates more random opportunities for you to be seen than you might find on other platforms. Don’t count on winning this virtual lottery ticket as your shortcut to stardom, though. The amount of hard work and creativity you apply to your content will be a much better predictor of your success. You can also create amazing content coupled with your own clever, original hashtags. Knowing your way around hashtag culture is an excellent way to give your quality content longevity and legs.

Collaborate. There was a time when the whole appeal of stars was their untouchable quality. It gave them mystery and cachet, and if we did actually get access to them, in the form of, say, an autographed photo, that meant a lot. But today’s stars are measured by their approachability, and they can pay a serious price if they get too Hollywood. Take advantage of this. There is nothing stopping lyricists or songwriters from uploading their creations, direct-messaging top musers, and giving them a chance to lip-sync or even perform their material. You could do the same thing with a funny skit, or a poem, or some other work. I’ve said it ad nauseam: the best way to reach out to a community is to become part of a community. Engage, comment, share, and create without asking anyone for anything. Become part of the community, and you’ll have a much better chance of getting someone to create a meme using your material, or better yet, create your own meme that other people fall in love with and share.

That doesn’t mean that if your brand would be appealing to twelve-to-seventeen-year-old girls, you shouldn’t spend any money on Musical.ly. It’s just that in this one man’s point of view, the top 1 to 2 percent of influencers on any platform are often overpriced. Not always; you might get lucky and find some who are great deals because, despite having the most reach, they’ve underpriced themselves. But eventually people get wise, so don’t count on it. Regardless, the enormous opportunity for marketers can be found in the middle and long tail of influencers. So if my brand were really attractive to tweens and young teens, I would spend 40 percent of my overall marketing budget on Musical.ly, and 40–70 percent of that amount directly on arranging deals with Musical.ly celebrities. The rest I would use to experiment with programmatic auction ads. Then I’d watch closely to see which performed better, adjusting as I go.

Musical.ly is the perfect place for a performance-oriented person to sell a performance, but it’s also a place where a performance-oriented person can sell pencils, or açaí juice, or fidget spinners. An artist could make a video of himself painting or drawing, set to music. A writer can make a video that evokes her mood for the day. I make inspirational and motivational memes out of larger pieces of pillar content; my best hits have been made by clipping a word or phrase from one of my rants and setting it to music. Wanna hear me speak Russian? Check out my “Hustle” Musical.ly video. Also, see how I managed to link my ALS ice-bucket challenge to Gwen Stefani’s “The Sweet Escape.” That’s probably the best singing I ever did in my life.

Creative people can be creative anywhere, and the most creative people do it where no one else has tried before. More often than not, people who produce content for people like themselves often hit their mark better than people who are one step away from their audience. I do well with alpha guys because I have alpha male DNA. I’m also hugely empathetic, so I can also deeply connect with emotionally intelligent people who are patient enough to get past the alpha DNA. A dancer intuitively knows how to produce content for other dancers; someone who has transformed his life through self-development knows how to reach others seeking a similar epiphany. Your creativity will be the variable to your success on this platform—and any other.

Imagine This

Let’s say that after working for years as a professional singer and actor, you decided that you were done pursuing stardom and made the choice instead to take over your family’s summer camp, located in the woods just outside the limits of your hometown. This is an exciting move. Imagine, you are finally going to stay in a home long enough to invest in some real furniture and get a dog. And you aren’t leaving the industry entirely; you plan to add more acting and musical theater classes to the camp so you can continue to share your passion and expertise. You smile as you imagine the all-camp variety show at the end of each summer session.

Unfortunately, you didn’t take over a thriving business. While once yours was one of the only camps of this kind in town, over the last decade or so, several more have been established here and in surrounding areas, and business has gone down. In particular, summer camp registrations are nowhere near where you think they should be. Once you had to drop a session because too few children enrolled. You’ve tried everything you can think of to grow the business, but compared to the newer, fancier options to choose from, your camp seems a little nerdy and old-fashioned.

While you’re hanging out with your eleven-year-old niece one day, she shows you a video of herself lip-syncing. It’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen—a fifteen-second closeup clip in which your niece bops around, sometimes backward, making duck faces and shooting hand signals to Kesha’s “Praying.” It’s like an excerpt from a music video. You ask if her mom knows she’s playing around on a site where anyone can see her. “Sure,” your niece replies. “All of my friends are on it. It’s just a place to sing and dance.”

A social-media platform embraced by eleven-year-olds who love to sing and dance. What’s this thing called again?

You set up a Musical.ly account and start filming yourself performing your favorite songs. You ask your campers to help you pick the song, and you let them direct you. They’re impressed—for an old person, you don’t look or sound half bad when singing their music. (For the record, you’re thirty-five.) You’re not even lip-syncing, you’re the real deal, straight up. You create micro–music videos that not only showcase your talent, but also the camp. You film from a different location every day—the boathouse, the pagoda, the archery field, the arts and crafts pavilion, and of course, the amphitheater.

One of the girls asks if she can film herself with your phone. You send home a permission slip asking parents’ consent to let the kids make Musical.ly videos on the camp account. They know their children are already there, and most agree. From then on, every day, a new camper gets to produce four pieces of content for the camp Musical.ly account. Kids are fighting for their chance to be Muser of the Day; it becomes the biggest reward they can get, and all the kids start working extra hard to be helpful to earn their time. There’s an added benefit to letting the kids control your platform: it’s a great learning strategy. Instead of figuring out for yourself what kids want to see on Musical.ly, you let the nine-to-eleven-year-olds show you. You now get to watch them, take note of their behaviors, and get a sense of how they think about hashtags and trending topics. Again with the parents’ permission, you let the kids document their camp Olympics, scavenger hunt, final campfire, and all the camp traditions that have marked the summers for three generations.

Every child who makes a Musical.ly video immediately tags his or her friends so they can see it. The kids also show it to their parents and their parents’ friends. They show it off at school when classes start again in the fall. Over the course of the year, awareness of your Musical.ly page and the camp slowly begins to rise. By spring, when parents start thinking about which camps to register their children for, the name of your camp is fresh in their minds. You seal the deal when the kids inform their parents that they’ve all decided they want to attend camp together during the same session.

You become the most popular, fun, hip camp director ever, and your popularity soars, along with awareness of the camp you run. Registrations double, and your performing arts classes are so popular you start to offer them during the rest of the year. You initiate a music video class, which includes teaching the kids the steps to famous music video routines. Within five to eight years, the camp is just one of the summer options available through your new city-based school for performing arts. You’re a smaller star than you’d once hoped to be, but you’ve never been happier.

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