By leveraging social media to her advantage, Beyoncé sold over a million copies of her latest album in less than a week. In 2013, it's an industry-shifting feat rarely seen. So how, exactly, did she do it?
Girls love Beyoncé, and so does the Internet. She proved as much last Thursday night when she sprang her brand-new, self-titled album onto her eight million Instagram followers with a short video and just one word: Surprise! And indeed it was.
Just five days after the album’s unexpected iTunes-only release, the reigning queen of pop had already sold over a million copies of the digital 14-song/17-video package. Going platinum in a week is a significant, laudable achievement. Going platinum in a week in 2013 is MacArthur Genius Grant-worthy.
Much ado has been made about the fact that Beyoncé eschewed conventional promotion for the album. Yet she’s been on our radar nonstop this year, from an HBO documentary and sitdown with Oprah to performing at the Superbowl halftime show and a sold-out global arena tour—all of which are traditionally markers of a release promo cycle. She was everywhere, and especially on the Internet, but there was no A$AP Ferg-style countdown to a release date, nor even a two-week-long heads up like Jay Z.
Beyoncé seems to have gained a preternatural understanding of the online zeitgeist over the past couple of years. Her music and corresponding images are conducive to highly tweetable, hashtaggable, rebloggable, giffable bite sizes.
Instead, there was just the Beyhive, the loosely collected, digitally organized fan club that works as a de facto arm of her promo department. Over the past year or two, Beyoncé has stepped up her social media game, experimenting with different platforms before ultimately settling on Tumblr and Instagram as her primary self-branding tools—visuals are, after all, essential to her persona. “When I’m connected to something, I immediately see a visual or a series of images that are tied to a feeling or an emotion,” she said in a video released alongside Beyoncé.
She joined Tumblr in April 2012, along with a revamped website and the launch of a member-only Beyhive blog full of carefully curated images and links to things and people she, or maybe more accurately her handlers, are interested in. It takes a cue from bestie Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP newsletter but updates it for a younger demographic with perhaps less disposable income but infinite Internet prowess and clout. Whereas 140-character-long soundbytes make Twitter an ideal messaging tool for the wordy Kanye West, for instance, Beyoncé excels at Tumblr and Instagram, which she joined earlier this year. We can’t get enough of her life and she knows it.
Beyoncé seems to have gained a preternatural understanding of the online zeitgeist over the past couple of years. Her music and corresponding images are conducive to highly tweetable, hashtaggable, rebloggable, giffable bite sizes. “Now people only listen to a couple of seconds of a song,” she laments, albeit insightfully.
Within minutes of the album’s appearance on iTunes, the tweets and Tumblr posts and Instagram captions began rolling in: screen grabs of the visual album’s most iconic images, hashtags from Beyoncé’s most memorable and impactful lyrics. It arrived as a self-perpetuating inside joke. For many, this is likely how they first discovered news of the album at all.
Since then, there’s been a rollout of more traditional advertising targeting ye olde fans who still live outside of the insular Internet bubble; among them: television ads, YouTube placement, and the eventual delivery to physical stores. But the initial social media push is what gave Beyoncé the urgency that was responsible for its momentum. According to data from Twitter, within twelve hours of the announcement, Beyoncé and Beyoncé had been mentioned at least 1.2 million times on Twitter. That’s 1.2 million essentially free pieces of advertising, perfect for a generation whose news comes in the form of Twitter links and Facebook shares.
“There’s so much that gets between the music, the artist and the fans. I felt like I didn’t want anybody to give the message when my record is coming out,” Beyoncé said by way of explanation of her stealth. “I just want this to come out when it’s ready and from me to my fans.”
Though she’s referring specifically to the lack of a release date announcement, Beyoncé also touches on an important part of what makes her social media presence and strategy essential to her mammoth success: the message is all hers to devise and share.
In an unrelated criticism of Rihanna, dj and artist Venus X accused the pop star of being obsessed with Instagram and needing a new image to post every day. But, Venus X’s ethical gripes aside, is that so bad? Since having latched onto Instagram, Rihanna’s fanbase anecdotally seems to have grown beyond the traditional Navy. Her style and self-avowed bad girl demeanor is almost as brand-defining as her music, and being able to counteract gossip rag and paparazzi characterizations is powerful.
Even when it’s not pegged to a specific product—physical or cultural or otherwise—Beyoncé and Rihanna control their own narrative through image-based social media. The noise never dies, but they determine what it sounds like.
Rawiya Kameir is a regular contributor to Complex, and has written elsewhere for The Toronto Standard, Thought Catalog, and The Daily Beast. She tweets often at @rawiya.