What social media managers and jazz musicians have in common

Jazz musicians are notorious for caring more about the music than the audience. People who run social media accounts can fall into a similar trap.


Don’t worry. I’m not going to tell you that social media management is like jazz because “you need to make every note count” or because you need to “improvise if you want to innovate.” This post isn’t about what social media managers and jazz musicians both do right. It’s about something they do wrong. Before PR, I spent several years working as a professional musician and still do some freelance music work a couple times a year. Over the years, I’ve met and worked with a lot of musicians, particularly in jazz, whose attitude towards non-musicians and audiences is encapsulated by this Charles Mingus quote:

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. We’d like to remind you that we don’t applaud here at this old place where we’re working, so, restrain your applause, and if you must applaud, wait ’til the end of the set, and it won’t even matter then. The reason is that we are interrupted by your noise. In fact, don’t even take any drinks, or no cash register ringing, et cetera.

They’re more interested in playing for the 5 percent of the population who will understand the technical cleverness of their compositions than the massive audience that’s just looking for something that pleases them aesthetically. Social media managers can be a lot like those musicians. Too often, we design and implement social and content programs that are more about pleasing our peers than our viewers. We build programs with simple metrics (number of blog posts per month, number of Facebook posts per week) that are easy to measure and look great on PowerPoint slides. We argue about how to court influencers, which management platforms are the best and how to generate conversations. But in the end, it’s the equivalent of a jazz solo that’s gone on too long. A few listeners are enthralled, but everyone else is bored. The vast majority of music fans don’t understand the basics of music theory. Sixty percent of active Twitter accounts have less than 100 followers. And yet we treat those people, our potential audience, as if they’re doing it wrong. Take this quote from a social media strategist at Convince & Convert: “Maybe I just don’t get it, but I don’t really see the point of Twitter if you’re not engaged and interacting. But according to these findings, 53 percent of Twitter users never post any updates.” That’s a bit like saying, “Maybe I just don’t get it, but I don’t really see how you can truly enjoy Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” without some knowledge of chromatic median relationships.” While it’s the sort of thing that might make your friends and colleagues think you’re smart, it’s absolutely not true. Maybe they enjoy “Giant Steps” because it helps them concentrate while they’re working. Maybe they simply think it’s pretty. The point is that there’s no right way to listen to music. Similarly, there’s no right way to use a social media platform. Personally, I like to follow the score when I listen to music, but I know that most people prefer to dance. Some people like to engage on social media. Others just want to keep up with their favorite celebrities or find interesting articles to read. The latter group, in both those examples, is not just equally valid, it’s also the majority and our biggest potential audience. We shouldn’t write those people off because they’re not using the platform the way we want them to. We should embrace them. So the next time you’re building a social media plan with a client or a colleague, don’t start off with jargon-filled questions like, “How do we maximize our reach and generate organic conversations while courting targeted influencers?” Instead, step into the shoes of the audience. Ask questions like: “What would catch my attention if I was waiting for the bus in the morning?” “What would I think is interesting if I was someone flipping through my social feeds while watching TV?”

Our job, before anything else, is to create content that answers those questions. Sure, we can spend time trying to network with influencers, but that’s just making music for other musicians. Even the best social media manager in the world can’t succeed by playing with her back to the crowd. We have to put the audience first. Zach Pearson is an account executive at Greenough. Follow him on Twitter @zach_p_pearson. A version of this story originally appeared on the firm’s blog.

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