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10 Things I Learned From Managing NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Contest social media campaign

Last November the NPR Music team invited me to oversee social strategy for its first Tiny Desk Concert Contest. NPR Music values music discovery, so the goal of the contest was to find an unknown musician (without a recording contract) to play at the Tiny Desk. The rules were simple: submit a YouTube video of you and/or your band playing an original song at a desk. No frills or fancy camera work necessary (and absolutely no auto tune!) We were looking for raw talent.

The challenge of the project was to get the word out to a diverse group of unknown U.S. musicians, especially those who do not currently follow NPR Music. By the end of the submission period we had nearly 7,000 entries and tens of thousands of people engaging with us. In some cases, dozens of artists were involved in the production of a single entry. Social media was by far the strongest driver of traffic to our contest announcement page.

In less than three months, this competition spawned a close-knit online community of independent musicians who continue to connect with and support one another. Thousands of people still care about this contest even though there was only one “winner.”

So, how did we do it?

It was a team effort. This project involved so much more than social media coordination. The NPR Music staffers that helped develop the social strategy deserve a shout-out: Rachel Horn, Jessica Goldstein, Lars Gotrich and Maggie Starbard.

Here are ten takeaways I’d like to share about our experience running a national music social media campaign.


1) Find the Internet agora for your community.

Of course, there isn’t just one. Look beyond the obvious choices, such as Twitter and Facebook, to find the nooks and crannies of the Internet where your target audience is already thriving. For this contest, we wanted to reach out to artists who hadn’t yet made it big. We also hoped to enlist the support of their fans. Reddit was the perfect place to start; it’s one of the best platforms to find specific, interest-driven communities. The most successful post about the contest, which landed on the reddit homepage, was on the subreddit r/listentothis, an active, diverse community of people who like to share and discover music from new or overlooked artists. I also reached out to the many other subreddits that regularly host lively discussions about making music. I could talk about my love of reddit for ages. You can read more about my strategy here.

2) Create a campaign hashtag, and actually use it.

Actor Delaney Williams gets it. #TinyDeskContest is concise, straightforward and aggregates most social media posts about the contest. A universal campaign hashtag makes it easy to keep track of who’s engaging with your content, and more importantly, helps the audience connect with each other and follow updates.

I created a column in Tweetdeck tracking mentions of #TinyDeskContest (I also kept a column for “Tiny Desk Contest” because, alas, some people couldn’t give two hoots about hashtags!) Every day I would favorite or retweet contestants who used the hashtag in a interesting, engaging way.

I recommend interacting with contestants through your personal handle in addition to your official Twitter handle. People are more willing to share and connect when they recognize a human face behind a campaign.

3) Ask for support from others in your organization.

Thankfully, we had the help of hundreds of people across NPR who spread the word through social media. We even enlisted the talents of NPR stars like Ari Shapiro for a YouTube series, #TinyDeskMoments. Our member stations and other NPR departments also gave the campaign a major boost on social. Make sure to provide your supporters with social media language (handles, hashtags, etc). If you make it easy for them to share, it’s more likely they’ll follow through. 

4) Share regular updates, even the stuff that seems minor.

Twitter is great for daily updates (like a countdown to the end of the contest submission period). We also created a Tumblr to post contest news and share videos we liked. This gave us: 1) A way to curate and share content without investing a lot of time in online production through our website. 2) A way in to a new community. Cross-promotion from the NPR Music and NPR Tumblr helped us reach people who consume NPR content only on that platform. 3) A record of all the media we used to spread the word about the contest.

5) Understand that not everyone uses “new” social media.

Most people have an email address, however. Newsletters are no longer considered a novel social media platform, but they’re still an effective way to stay connected with an audience.

Our team created a contest-specific email address and used it to send a weekly newsletter to contestants. Every Friday we’d send a roundup of the most important updates from that week, so entrants could stay in the loop even if they weren’t regularly checking social media.

6) User-generated content is a gift.

Why create new content when your audience is already giving you great stuff? I worked with our multimedia team to produce video mash-ups of contest submissions (filmed in unusual locations, at DIY desks, in all 50 states, etc) for Facebook video countdowns to the winner announcement. This was a fun way to highlight the creativity of entrants and share submissions that may not have made it on our Tumblr but still deserved recognition. 

7) Collect feedback and analytics as you go.

Keep a weekly analytics log. Don’t obsess about the numbers every day, but make sure to review them weekly so you can see what’s working and adjust your social strategy accordingly. I noticed Facebook was continually driving a lot of traffic to our contest page and Tumblr, so I focused my energy on creating content tailored for Facebook, such as those mashup videos.

I also took screenshots of great moments of engagement (as well as the times things didn’t go so well) and placed them in a Google Doc to review once the campaign was over.

8) Embrace audience-led engagement.

A few weeks ago, I noticed that a contestant created multiple social accounts under the name “Tiny Desk Community.” At first, this unnerved me. I was convinced that he was trolling, exposing my gross ineptitude for my job, trying to steal my job or * gasp * all three.

I quickly realized that organic movements like this one are a sign of success. They’re proof that you created a useful space for people to connect. You don’t have to facilitate every interaction, but you can give these efforts a boost. Now I use the Tiny Desk Contest Tumblr to highlight contestant meet-ups and concerts.

9) Fail, succeed, replicate, repeat.

We experimented with so many new tactics during this contest. Bob Boilen did his first reddit AMA, Music intern Drew Sher and I added almost 700 contestants to a Twitter list and Rachel Horn and I wrote this Google form to solicit feedback about the experience from contestants.

Some experiments succeeded more than we could have imagined, others flopped. For example, our Instagram audience loved our posts about the contest videos, but Twitter users generally didn’t care for them. But you won’t find the best platforms for your content if you don’t experiment.

10) None of us are superhuman.

(Not even Beyoncé.) There are so many ideas I didn’t check off my to do list — A/B testing and segmenting our email newsletter, for example, or dipping into other music communities, such as SoundCloud and Bandcamp. We made do with the resources we had, and now we have a long list of ideas for next time. Instead of dwelling on what you couldn’t do, celebrate your successes and use what you learned in your next project.

My favorite comment about the contest comes from Tiny Desk contestant Gyasi Ross: “I didn’t even win and I feel like I’ve already gotten so much out of the contest in terms of exposure for my music. Connecting with the other artists and seeing what people around the country are doing is inspiring and it helps to know that I’m not that far off of the mark.”

To me, that means this project was a success.

And here’s something else to celebrate: anyone with Internet access can now watch contest winner Fantastic Negrito perform a Tiny Desk Concert, a powerful set full of soul and grit.

I wouldn’t be surprised if you felt like sharing it on social media. Just, you know, make sure to use the hashtag.

Questions about the Tiny Desk Contest social campaign? Send me a tweet @kateepm.