Managing Lady Gaga's 40 Million Friends

Four-year-old start-up FanBridge is the first choice for fan management

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Steven Cherry:

Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

Think about how many friends you have—in real life, or even your so-called friends on Facebook. 50? 100? 150? Odds are, it’s no more than 150. You might recognize that figure. It’s the Dunbar number, named for University of Oxford anthropologist Robin Dunbar. In our June issue special report on social networking, he wrote about whether the Dunbar number, which was developed for real life, applies to Facebook. The short answer? Even on Facebook and Twitter, we can’t really keep up meaningful relationships with more than about 150 people.

So what do you do when you have to manage more than that? What if you need to keep up a relationship with 40 million people? That’s about the number of fans Lady Gaga has on Facebook. Her solution? A little company called FanBridge. And it’s not just Lady Gaga. FanBridge has scored a number of other clients, big and small: the rock band Linkin Park; the rapper Lil Jon; young pop stars like Britney Spears, Imogen Heap, and Enrique Iglesias; and established musical icons like Carole King and John Legend.

FanBridge has become the most popular fan management tool out there. It may have started out managing e-mails for musicians, but it has branched out to all social media and now has as clients sports teams, publishers, even filmmakers. In January, FanBridge bought a Facebook-focused start-up called Damntheradio.

My guest today is Nick Lane-Smith, who was the founder of Damntheradio. After the acquisition, he became FanBridge’s vice president of engineering. He joins us by cellphone from San Francisco, where Damntheradio was based.

Nick, welcome to the podcast.

Nick Lane-Smith: Thank you, it’s good to be here.

Steven Cherry: Nick, FanBridge got its start with musicians, and this is a pretty chaotic time in that industry. In May, Lady Gaga singlehandedly brought Amazon to its knees when they had a one-day 99-cent sale on her new album. Back in February, she signed on with FanBridge. What was that like?

Nick Lane-Smith: It was definitely a surprise to get that call from the CO, and he asked, “Are you ready?” and I said, “Um…I don’t know.” It was definitely one of those moments. We had no real idea of what the traffic level was going to be from the Lady Gaga release, but we could kind of extrapolate from other sites that we had, other artists that we have on board, who are multiple, multiple times smaller.

They put up one of our Facebook page landing pages, and then they did a stream post, which had a link back to that page and was telling all of her fans—all of some subset that were on Facebook at that exact moment—of her 40 million fans—or I think it was 36 at the time—that there was some exclusive content that they could only get access to through this tab.

Steven Cherry: Then you had to actually manage that flow of requests.

Nick Lane-Smith: Exactly. So the minute that hits the stream, you have a huge spike of incoming traffic which slowly drops off, but it goes from 0 to 200 in, well, no seconds, so it’s kind of a shock to the system.

Steven Cherry: And so how did your servers manage it?

Nick Lane-Smith: Actually, relatively well. We spent most of the night tuning and tweaking and looking for bottlenecks and trying to figure out what was going on and where we could tighten screws to sort of lower the risk of things collapsing when that huge influx came in. The biggest problem we found was that we really just didn’t know what we were looking at. We’d done releases for Linkin Park in the sort of same scope, but they are a tenth of the size—maybe an eighth of the size—at that point. So we could only look at the traffic numbers and multiply them by eight and say, “I guess that’s going to be it,” but you don’t really know. So it was an interesting evening, I’ll put it that way.

Steven Cherry: So other than these stressful releases, what other stuff are you doing for artists?

Nick Lane-Smith: Well, we’re helping them manage their fan connection. And that fan connection can be through their Facebook pages, through their Twitter accounts, through their e-mail channels. So we help artists have a better connection with their fans at a variety of different location points. We also have these fan landing pages where they can ask artists direct questions and the artist can actually respond, and we’ve seen a lot of traffic from that and a lot of engagement between artists and fans.

Steven Cherry: Now some of what you do is location-based—I guess if a band is touring, you can actually send out specific e-mails to fans that are close enough to make the concert.

Nick Lane-Smith: That’s correct. We offer some really advanced grouping inside of the e-mail clients that allows artists to pick—we like to refer to them as “superfans.” So a fan that has a really high activity rank, one that’s opened a lot of e-mails or perhaps done a lot of other activities. But then we also allow them to filter on a location-based granularity, so you can say all my fans in San Francisco, I want to send them this message about a concert that’s coming up and give them a chance to win a backstage pass.

Steven Cherry: So FanBridge also manages social media for the TV show “American Idol,” for the beverage Gatorade...what do you do for companies like that?

Nick Lane-Smith: Usually it’s they have some kind of content that they wish to distribute. One of the hard things about being a brand is that you need to—I guess “American Idol” already has content, but something like Gatorade needs to partner with some kind of artist to spread their name. And if you want someone to engage with the Gatorade Facebook page, it’s best if you have some sort of digital content like an exclusive video or some sort of audio that they can listen to and get really excited about.

Steven Cherry: So maybe they would use an artist for, I don’t know, a commercial and then have the entire song available or something like that?

Nick Lane-Smith: Exactly, yeah. They’d sponsor an artist or actually get one of their existing sponsored artists to maybe just do an interview, and they release that exclusively through a platform or provide a different custom content.

Steven Cherry: So you have, I guess, about 100 million fans of one brand or musician or other, and…

Nick Lane-Smith: I think it’s 110 now, but…

Steven Cherry: [laughs] Oh, wow! Nick, there’s a whole category of software—customer relationship management or CRM—this involves big companies like SAP and And I guess companies like Gatorade would be trying to manage their fans as customers or potential customers. Are you using CRM software internally, so that this is just CRM with a wrapping around it, or does this potentially displace CRM for a lot of applications?

Nick Lane-Smith: It’s definitely all custom stuff that we’ve made ourselves. We see it more as—CRM is definitely a huge product out in the marketplace and extremely useful to a lot of companies—but we see ourselves more as an FRM, or fan relationship management, platform. So it sounds very similar, but it’s a lot of distinction and subtlety in there. Fans aren’t necessarily customers; maybe they’re just someone that really likes your brand, buys occasionally or doesn’t buy at all, but speaks highly about it. So you want to foster more of that relationship as sort of a two-way street instead of just seeing them as someone to monetize, you want to engage them, and that’s I think the most important difference in fan relationship management.

Steven Cherry: So I guess even if you’re Gatorade, you have your customers on the one hand, but then you want to actually manage your fans differently.

Nick Lane-Smith: Yes.

Steven Cherry: Very good. So, one final question: Just looking at all of this philosophically or in a theoretical way, I’m curious what you think about the Dunbar number. Is it relevant to what you do?

Nick Lane-Smith: I think it actually probably is, as far as artists need to engage with their fans. And we offer one of the major tools, this fantastic fan rank that helps artists pick out who are their superfans, their top-level fans, and then foster that relationship, foster that fan connection, so that they know that the top few fans in San Francisco that always go to their concerts, always buy their tickets, always tell their friends about them, they can know and they can focus that attention and engagement on that. You definitely need to be able to foster a relationship with all of the fans simultaneously, all 40 million if possible, but focus is extremely important.

Steven Cherry: Very good. Nick, thanks for joining us, and I guess we’ll see you on Twitter and Facebook, or at least we’ll know that you’re out there or behind the scenes.

Nick Lane-Smith: Definitely. Thank you so much for having me.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with FanBridge vice president of engineering Nick Lane-Smith about using technology to manage millions of friends. Speaking of social media, the podcast is now easier than ever to find on iTunes: Just search for “Spectrum podcast” and look for the Creamsicle-colored orange logo. And please follow us on Twitter, @spectrumpodcast, one word. For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

You can also follow us on Twitter, @spectrumpodcast.
This interview was recorded 28 June 2011.
Segment producer: Ariel Bleicher; audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli

Photo: nellyfus/Flickr

NOTE: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners and may not perfectly match their associated interviews and narratives. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum's audio programming is the audio version.