Kerli Has Merchandise for Sale. Allegedly.

FEATURE: Kerli’s mismanaged Insta post: a sad tale of witchy goth pop… and user experience buffoonery.

Kerli has merchandise for sale. Allegedly.

FEATURE: Kerli's mismanaged Insta post: a sad tale of witchy goth-pop... and user experience buffoonery.

A couple of weeks ago, I published a post titled “Charli XCX is ‘the pop star of the future’ – and she has the digital marketing strategy to prove it”. When I wrote that article, I was excited about the idea of filtering my love of pop music through my marketing and media training. The thing is, I’m still excited about that idea. So, I thought, why don’t I, like, I don’t know, do it again?

So, this is the second part, episode 2, The Empire Strikes Back, whatever, of what may or may not become a new series: Marketing Pop. Now, I’m not in the music industry, and I don’t know these artists. Basically, I have no idea what I’m talking about. But these posts will be my own take, written in my own voice and my voice alone, on what is happening in the world where art, music and imagery collide with marketing, e-commerce and brand management. So here it is.

Marketing Pop, Episode 2 – Kerli: A tale of missing pop merchandise and UX buffoonery.

For those of you who don’t already know, Kerli is an Estonian pop singer who is known for dark, synth-heavy pop music and a gothic, Satanist-lite aesthetic. Kerli has mainly operated outside of the pop mainstream, with the exception of one minor hit in 2008’s ethereal Walking on Air.

While I have been aware of Kerli and her music for a while, I only recently started following her Instagram. Overall, her presence on the social media site is basically what I expected it to be:  high-fashion and goth-inspired photoshoots, stark graphic design promoting her brand, and long Insta-stories where she shares new-age wisdom stream-of-consciousness style to her fans, or Moon Babies. There was nothing here I found particularly brilliant nor notably alarming, mostly because it all felt very safe and on-brand. Today, however, I changed my mind.

The UX Honeycomb

Before I get into all that though, I need to talk about the boring stuff. As much fun as it would be for everyone to sit around and watch music videos from a time when dressing like a sexy baby doll was fashionable and not… distinctly awful, this series is about marketing too. So, I need to introduce you to the UX Honeycomb.

Via Semantic Studios

The UX (short for User eXperience) Honeycomb was developed by Peter Morville, a leading voice in the worlds of user experience and design architecture. He says that in order for a site (or any element of branded process, but I will be focusing on a website) to have value for its user, it must be:

Usable: does it work? Is it simple to understand?

Useful: does it fulfill the needs or answer the questions of the user?

Desirable: Is it aesthetically pleasing? Do the visuals represent the brand?

Findable: Can users find what they need? Is the navigation functional?

Accessible: Are all potential customers able use the site?

Credible: Does the site inspire trust? Are potential problems addressed?

If all of these elements are in place, the site will deliver a good UX, and therefore be of value to the user. Good UX leads to positive brand interactions, which lead to purchases.

But what does this have to do with semi-famous pop witch Kerli?

Good question. As I was scrolling through my feed, I found this post:

Reading the description, the purpose of the post was very clear. Shirts back in stock! Get them here! Here’s a link! I thought the post itself was visually appealing, even if the clothes aren’t to my personal taste.

Unfortunately, this is where things started to fall apart from a UX perspective. The first big roadblock I encountered was that the link in the description of the post was not clickable, I had to copy and paste it into my browser.  Usable? No.

Buckle up, this post is about Instagram too.

Now, in fairness to Kerli, I am aware that this is an ongoing issue for brands attempting to market on Instagram. The photo-sharing site notoriously doesn’t allow clickable links in the descriptions of images posted on its platform. In an article dedicated to this very subject, tech-advice website TechJunky explained the problem like this: “You can put any text you want in an Instagram post, but the service will not make the text display as a clickable link. Users are allowed one and only one clickable link, and that link has to be on their profile page.” This means no clickable links in photo captions. Instagram maintains that this is a spam-fighting rule that, conveniently enough, brands can pay for the right to sidestep. Brands who don’t want to pay for Instagram marketing packages often work around this by posting images or videos promoting specific products or content and then captioning with a phrase like “link in bio”. This method still requires potential customers to exit the post, click through to the brand’s profile and then click the “link in bio”. It’s a lot of extra steps, but it’s still easier than requiring your users to copy a dead link in the caption and then manually paste said link into their browser window to access your content, but that’s exactly the route Kerli has taken here.

Despite this, I was determined to do the damn thing, so I dutifully copied and pasted. After hitting ‘go’, I was taken to this landing page:

Okay.  It’s not an unattractive page from a design perspective and it’s easy enough to read and everything, but this is a purchase page for Kerli’s album, and I clicked on an ad for Kerli-themed shirts.  At least there is a nav button up at the top for ‘Apparel’:

Amazing.  The advertised products aren’t available.  After clicking around a bit, I discovered that the site I was on wasn’t owned by Kerli herself, but by a company called Ambient Inks. Ambient Inks is a company that creates branded apparel, posters, stickers and more for anyone willing to pay their fee. (I tried to make a fake order to get a quote, but I had to give them my contact information, and frankly, I don’t feel like spending the rest of my days fighting off a hoard of self-proclaimed ‘print-nerds’). This explains why the site is blue-and-gold even though Kerli’s brand is almost always presented in stark black-and-white, but it does not explain why the only products available at all were this CD and a vinyl album by a completely different artist. I would like to point out that, leaving the unrelated vinyl aside, the Kerli CD was both not what was advertised and also not manufactured by Ambient Inks, so the whole thing is confusing.

I do want to give credit where credit is due. The ‘Contact Us’ link led to a contact form I could fill out to contact Ambient Inks, and the ‘Terms’ page did clearly lay out shipping, returns, exchanges etc. The fact that there were no available products to ship, exchange or return makes that all pretty beside the point, though, doesn’t it?

I wondered what Kerli’s fans were saying about this mess, so I went back to the original Instagram post to look at the comments.  Most were either simple fan gushing (“You’re Beautiful! <3”) or suggestions of other merch possibilities, as requested in the post caption.  The fact that in 61 comments, I couldn’t find a single person saying “hey, these products aren’t actually available” tells me that the initial copy-and-paste link requirement was enough of an inconvenience to stop most potential customers from clicking through far enough to even realize.

Kerli and the Honeycomb

I couldn’t find a picture of Kerli with honeybees so I went with butterflies because, idk, they’re both bugs whatever. Photo by Brian Ziff.

Let’s recap. Is Kerli’s site…

Usable? No. Usability was already a miss even before I realized the product wasn’t available.  The included link isn’t clickable. Even if that is a known obstacle when marketing on Instagram, don’t include it.  If I wasn’t working on this article, I wouldn’t have gone any further.

Useful? No. If we are defining usefulness as fulfilling the needs of users, definitely not. The Instagram ad created a need for a shirt, the site did nothing to fulfill that need.  At that point, a call to action to buy a CD is irrelevant.  It Is highly unlikely anyone is going to think “ooh, I want this shirt, let me go to the trouble of copying and pasting this link to get it.  Oh, there’s no shirt, BUT while I’m here…”

Desirable? Sure. The ad was nice enough looking, showcased the (alleged) products, and had a clear design aesthetic that represented Kerli’s brand well.  The site was a bit odd since Kerli’s aesthetic is almost always stark black and white and the site was blue and gold. However, misbranding aside, it looked nice enough, I guess.

Findable? Both yes and no. Obviously, finding the product in the ad is a joke.  But in fairness, I was able to find shipping options and the returns and exchanges policy very easily.

Accessible? I think so. The text was large enough, and high contrast. I have to admit that website accessibility is not an area of expertise for me, but from what I could see, it seemed up to standard. If anyone with more accessibility experience wanted to chime in and educate me further, that would be amazing. Aside from that, the navigation was easy to use, and all the links worked, so that’s fine, I guess.

Credible? Hell no. In the end, I find Kerli and her brand to be less credible than I did before.  I never really thought about it before, because I never planned to buy anything from her, but if (for whatever reason) I was considering it in the future, I would think twice because of this experience.

But I’m not a real customer.

I like Kerli, but I don’t realistically have enough love for her to want to purchase her branded merchandise regardless of her site’s UX.  However, putting myself in the shoes of someone who did, I can imagine the frustration and disappointment I would feel.  A mistake like this not only loses potential future customers like me, but damages relationships with existing customers and fans.  It’s not a good look.

EDIT: Someone has pointed out to me that the clothes in question ARE available at this link. But that’s a completely different website, so I’m standing my ground on this one. I genuinely hope Kerli fixes her ads, but my experience (2 hours after the ad was published) wasn’t great.

Charli XCX is ‘the pop star of the future’

FEATURE: Charli XCX is the ‘pop star of the future’… and she has the digital marketing strategy to prove it.

FEATURE: Charli XCX is 'the pop star of the future'... and she has the digital marketing strategy to prove it.

This feature originally ran on Andrew Henderson’s personal blog on October 9, 2019.

Haven’t you heard?  Charli XCX is the pop star of the future.

So many publications have made this claim over the last few months, it’s almost becoming a joke.  In fact, the claim became so prevalent that The Atlantic published an entire article refuting the idea.  The Atlantic aside, everyone seems to agree that XCX is “the next big thing” in pop music, and there are lots of theories around why.  While most articles cite her futuristic glitch-pop sound, others discuss her avant-garde fashion choices or sci-fi lite music videos.  Those facets of XCX’s artistry are deserving of the attention they are getting, but the array of think pieces devoted to XCX’s supposed futurism are missing a key element:  the forward-thinking nature of Charli XCX, the brand and business.

Art is subjective, but sales are not, and music marketing is a growing industry.  According to Forbes, the music industry saw a more-than-10% increase in revenue from 2017 to 2018 and schools like Berklee and the University of Southern California have begun offering courses in music marketing.

It’s not just music marketing that has exploded recently, either.

“Music has changed more in the last five years than in the last 50,” wrote brand strategist Nidhi Dave in her article 22 Digital Marketing Trends You Can’t Ignore Going Into 2020. (2020 is the future, see?  Dave’s article will be the primary source on current marketing trend analysis for this essay).

Charli XCX and her team took advantage of this trend and rolled out a thoroughly modern digital marketing campaign ahead of the release of her third studio album, Charli.  In order to understand the progressive nature of the Charli release campaign, though, one first needs to take a moment to look backwards.

Charli XCX has a checkered history with promoting her music by traditional means, such as TV appearances and magazine ads.  Promotional efforts for a now-cancelled album, including a performance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! was poorly received by the general public in 2016/2017.

This, paired with a security breach that leaked many of the unreleased songs online, resulted in the entire album being scrapped.  With the exception of a few (frankly excellent) singles quietly published throughout 2017 and 2018, most of that album never saw the light of day.  It hasn’t been all bad news, though.  In 2017, Sandbox listed the release strategy for her single ‘Boys’ as one of the top music marketing campaigns of the year.  With a history of mixed results, though, XCX and co. would need to try something different the next time around.

In early 2019, Charli XCX announced work on a new album, and immediately a huge, primarily web-based marketing campaign began.  The majority of this campaign took place on Instagram and Twitter, with sponsored posts being shown to people who have engaged with her content before, or who fit the target demographics of her audience (primarily gen-z, Europeans and the LGBT community).

Personalized advertising, using AI-assisted ad targeting is becoming more and more commonplace.  Nidhi Dave explains it like this: “AI can analyze consumer behavior and search patterns and use data from social media platforms and blog posts to help businesses understand how customers find their products and services”.  She says that by 2020, 60% of businesses will be using artificial intelligence in increase profits.  In addition, an Epsilon survey found that 90% of surveyed consumers said they find the idea of personalized ad targeting “appealing” as opposed to generic ad blasts.

Leading up the album, most of Charli XCX’s targeted ads focused on creating excitement for the new album, but following the record’s release in September, the focus of these promotional materials has switched to be about the following tour, new videos or merchandise options. There are now sponsored ads geotagged to specific areas, promoting those specific stops of her tour.  Most of these ads (both for the album and the tour) featured video of her performing, or animated versions of the album artwork with clips of her songs playing in the background.  A survey conducted by marketing software development company HubSpot found that over two-thirds of consumers preferred to discover new products or services via a short video than through any other source.

In addition to the sponsored content, XCX has been posting an almost nonstop stream of shareable content and live videos to her personal Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts.  Most of the live videos are behind the scenes videos of her working on music videos or at concerts, or even just her in her hotel room talking about how excited she is about the album and tour.  According to product designer and digital marketer Alexander Bickov, social media stories are one of the top tools for digital marketers due to their cost-effectiveness, ease of engagement with consumers, and access to a younger audience.

In terms of shareable content marketing, XCX is posting lots of memes about her and the album that fans send her to her own account, as well as funny outtakes from the album art photoshoots etc.  According to Julia McCoy at the Content Marketing Institute, content marketing costs 62% less than traditional marketing overall and is as much as three times as effective, and Cision PR Newswire reported on a study which claimed user-generated content may influence purchasing decisions for as much as 90% of consumers.  Of course, all of these fun posts are fully shoppable, with users being able to click or swipe from the post to purchase pages for concert tickets, album sales, or links to her music on streaming services.

In addition to content marketing, XCX has been using a music-based form of influencer marketing.  According to Dave, influencer marketing is a system of social media marketing that uses thought-leaders like celebrities or individuals with large social media followings to bring awareness of a brand to a larger audience.  Charli XCX has brought this mentality not just to her marketing, but to her product itself.  Her new album features collaborations with many other alt-pop and electronic artists, who then are also promoting the album on their social media pages.  She also partnered with visual artist Ines Alpha on the artwork for the album and its associated singles.

XCX has resisted the idea that her collaborative efforts exist just for marketing purposes, though.

“For so long, collaboration has been a marketing tool to gain the benefit of both fanbases,” she said in an interview with Celebretainment.  “My collaborations are genuine and personal.”

This ethos may be reflected in the music itself, but the marketing impact remains the same.  Across fifteen tracks, there are thirteen featured artists, all of whom are doing cross-promotion on their own socials to their own fanbases.

All of these digital marketing tactics are in addition to more traditional means of music marketing like scheduled television appearances interviews with radio shows and magazines.

This means that she is addressing her potential audience through the web, television, radio and print advertising simultaneously.  Multi-channel marketing has been a staple of the marketing industry long before the rise of digital-first advertising, but now more than ever, it is necessary to be on the cutting edge of new trends, technologies and strategies to stay on top.

Charli XCX and her team have created a marketing campaign unlike anything they have done before, showing that they have learned from their mistakes and have found how to best reach her unique audience through multiple forms of digital marketing.  The future of music marketing is here now, and she is ready for it.