Picture it: 1999. It was the year of “Austin Powers,” crop tops and Old Navy. Some of us were slogging through general teen angst and “Dawson’s Creek” on the WB, the only escape teen ennui. Still a relatively new technology, the Internet was barely an afterthought. In 1998, The New York Times predicted that by 2005, the Internet would become as irrelevant as the fax machine. Most industries at the time underestimated the power of social networking, digital marketing and branding, simply because they didn’t know how to leverage it. The music industry in particular remained wary of embracing the Internet, fearing Napster would decimate sales.
Then there was Bree Nguyen, a humble 16-year-old fangirl who created a winning strategy to boost the latest single by her idol, Mariah Carey.
Using the power of online community building to turn her passion into a career, Nguyen did what an entire team of seasoned marketing executives at Columbia Records could not: she single-handedly got Mariah’s music video on TRL, turning “Heartbreaker” into an instant chart-topper (that’s “Total Request Live,” for any Gen Z’ers that didn’t witness MTV in its heyday.) Let’s take a look at some of the key techniques Nguyen used that are still relevant for today’s influencers. They’re still, “all that and a bag of chips!”
Creating a space for a passionate community
In the 90’s, plenty of Millennials (and a few Gen X’ers) probably remember putting up a poster of their favorite band in their bedroom. At 16, Nguyen created a digital version of that experience: she created a fan site on the Internet for Mariah Carey, along with a message board where users could geek out over their favorite diva. More impressively, she taught herself to code by reverse engineering her favorite sites through trial and error until she created her site. Now fans had a digital space to share their admiration for their favorite idol.
Eventually, Mariah announced a three-city record store tour, where she’d visit LA, Chicago, and New York to sign CDs for her fans. All across the country, users swarmed to Nguyen’s message board, expressing their excitement and trying to figure out logistics. Where would they stay, how would they meet, whose parents would drive? She unexpectedly came home from school to find over 6,000 emails from fans on her forum, asking for details and wanting to engage. The sheer amount of messages crashed her computer, surprising a young teen who had never had more than 14 emails in her life. And the letters kept coming.
Engaging an active audience with a call to action
Nguyen then came up with a plan to meet her idol. She printed 10,000 of the letters, copying and pasting each one individually into Microsoft Word (Clippy must have been exhausted that day.) Then she sent the entire binder of fan mail to Mariah’s camp and waited.
Mariah’s manager at the time called Nguyen on the phone as soon as she received it. She thanked her, and in a time before the term “influencer” had ever been coined, asked her: “How do you know 10,000 people?” Also: “What’s a message board?”
Soon, she cut to the chase. She asked Nguyen if it could be possible to get Mariah’s new song, “Heartbreaker,” on Carson Daily’s “Total Request Live.” Getting a song requested on TRL meant instant visibility, a significant fanbase, and top sales on the Billboard 100 charts. Mariah’s team hadn’t yet been able to break through, and the countdown was fiercely dominated by Britney Spears, The Backstreet Boys, and Christina Aguilera. All artists with message boards, official sites.
Incentivizing a campaign and measuring analytics
Nguyen utilized the earliest version of digital analytics at the time: a site counter that registered how many fans called in and requested “Heartbreaker” on TRL. To give them incentive, she created an “Attack TRL” campaign, complete with banners and icons that fans could put on their own sites, as well as a prize system. The most votes would get 10 autographs straight from Mimi herself, second place would get a t-shirt, and so on. Her rabid fanbase went into action. And to the surprise of everyone at Columbia Records, Mariah was finally put on the countdown.
This marketing strategy launched a decade-long career for Nguyen as she went on to work with artists like Linkin Park and My Chemical Romance. And as a reward for Bree’s hard work, she finally got what any teen girl in the 90’s could have only dreamed of: two WAV files from Mariah personally saying she was thankful for her hard work and dedication! As a pioneering influencer, Nguyen used her unique skills and creativity to get a song on the Billboard charts, using techniques that even seasoned veterans hadn’t yet grasped at the time. And, spoiler alert: she works here at Run the World now!
Although this success story happened in the era of Dunkaroos, Tamagotchis and slap bracelets, there are tried and true lessons that can still be applied to the web today. Creating deeply engaged online communities and serving each of the hierarchies within them is still important for any influencer. Any online campaign starts, at its roots, with an enthusiastic fan base. A place where community members can converse, share thoughts, ideas, and passions. Over twenty years later, technology has evolved beyond Geocities forums as a way to connect. Virtual conferencing and video chats are a more intimate way to reach large audiences no longer limited by 56k modems. Won’t it be exciting to see where the power of digital networking and online events can take us in the future?
Watch Bree on Run The World
On September 2nd, 2020, Bree hosted “The Untold Marketing Stories Behind The Biggest Stars.” Watch the recording here.