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Rascal Flatts Sets Fans A-Twitter on High-Tech Tour

Rascal Flatts Sets Fans A-Twitter on High-Tech Tour
By Joseph Hudak
© 2012 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.
Rascal Flatts may be the star attraction of this summer’s “The Farmers Insurance Presents Changed Tour,” kicking off June 15 in Hartford, Conn., but it’s the fans themselves who will see their names up in lights. Or, more precisely, on the enormous video screens at each tour stop.
Always ahead of the curve in social-media promotion, Rascal Flatts, who on April 3 released Changed, their second album for Big Machine Records, is furthering the unique Twitter initiative they debuted during last winter’s “Thaw Out 2012” tour. The interactive campaign lets audience members display their Twitter handles, tweets and even photos on screens flanking the stage before the band’s set.
It’s a simple but wildly effective bit of digital marketing, and a surefire way of keeping fans engaged. After all, who doesn’t want a few seconds of fame — or a new, exciting way to connect with their favorite artist?
To afford audiences that chance, Rascal Flatts partnered with Mass Relevance, an Austin, Texas, outfit whose software collects, filters and moderates information (in this case, tweets) for strategic use by their clients. The company creates a “visualization” — essentially a Web page branded with the logos of Rascal Flatts and tour sponsor Farmers Insurance — to provide a canvas for the tweets. In turn, the tour projects that visualization onto the venues’ screens. All that’s required is a common AV projector, an Internet connection and laptop, and a predetermined hashtag to group the tweets. For the winter trek, the band selected #ThawOutTour.
“The great thing about this is that the day before you come into a city, you can start talking to the fans in that city by using the hashtag. For instance, right here. They’re just buzzing,” said Rascal Flatts’ Joe Don Rooney, gesturing toward the crowd gathered at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., for “Thaw Out Tour 2012”’s penultimate date. Seated on his bus with Gary LeVox and Jay DeMarcus on a late February evening, Rooney and his bandmates talked at length about why the tweet-to-screen feature is so successful at engaging audiences.
“It becomes a web of people talking about Flatts,” Rooney said. “As long as they use the hashtag, they can say anything and it can go right to the screen.”
That assumes, of course, that the tweets do not contain obscenities, spam or anything else deemed inappropriate for a crowd of Country Music fans.
That’s where the parameters of Mass Relevance’s program come into play. “You can set all these automated rules to filter out, say, profanity, really short tweets or anything with a link,” said Sam Decker, the company’s co-founder and CEO, who provides a similar service for NBC’s “The Voice,” Giants Stadium, Katy Perry and other clients. “The tweets go through those rules in less than a second and, just like that, we’re filtering out half. Then, from the 50 percent that weren’t filtered out, you can approve what goes up live on the screen.”
Oftentimes, that secondary approval process — hand-moderating, Decker calls it — is done off-site, away from the arena or amphitheater, by a member of Rascal Flatts’ management firm, Spalding Entertainment.
“The beauty of the technology is that I literally can moderate from anyplace in the world,” said Amanda Cates, Director, Online Marketing, Spalding Entertainment. “The parameters filter what I’m seeing and that helps me get the most relevant and most premium content available on the screen.”
Some of that high-value content comes straight from the CMA Award-winning trio itself: The band members’ tweets have a direct link to the screen. “They can be automatically approved,” explained Decker, “so Rascal Flatts can have a dialogue with the fans in the stadium from backstage.”
They can also oversee contests for fans to win seat upgrades and meet-and-greet passes.
“We’ve been trying to think of some new ways to take advantage of having such a large database of Twitter followers, like contests and things like that,” said the tech-savvy DeMarcus, who used Twitter in February to reveal he and wife Allison were expecting a baby boy. He also tweeted photos and videos during the Changed recording sessions last summer. “The fans get instant gratification when we’re in the studio. It’s neat for them to feel like they’re more connected to us in some small way.”
“It’s 2012 and you’ve got to roll with the times,” LeVox concurred. “This lets our fans know what’s happening every single day.” Still, he admitted he doesn’t tweet all that much, despite having 25,000-plus followers. “I’ve got carpal tunnel,” he joked. “I thought Twitter was just a way to play fishing and hunting games.”
The tour hashtags do bag big numbers online. From the time they roll into a market to a few days after the show, Rascal Flatts is regularly a trending topic (a subject that receives an exceptional amount of tweets), which sparks interest in the concert and can ultimately help sell tickets and albums.
“We run the tweet-to-screen as soon as the doors open until the first act takes the stage, and then in between sets,” Cates said. “And what we find is that we’re trending in every city we are able to track. I think that helps further drive awareness for what we’re doing.”
It comes down to harnessing the technology that’s available, Decker stressed. “The whole goal of a trending topic is to get not just volume, but meaningful volume,” he said. “Let’s say that one band prints their hashtag on a vinyl banner and hangs it on the arena wall, but another band puts theirs up on the screen and gives people their five seconds of fame. There will be at least a 10-times difference in the amount of tweets that occur when people see that they can be a part of something.”
In other words, it establishes an active community among the fans, even ones who may not be at that night’s performance. “As the tour progresses, the fans know what’s happening (with the hashtag) and those at home are sending messages onscreen to their friends at the show,” said Cates, who added the campaign isn’t limited to Rascal Flatts and what LeVox calls their “fan-ily.”
During the “Thaw Out 2012” tour, devotees of opening acts Sara Evans and Hunter Hayes took advantage of the tweet-to-screen campaign, and fans of Little Big Town, Eli Young Band and Edens Edge will be encouraged to do likewise during the “Changed” jaunt. “Their communities are in there tweeting and talking too,” Cates said. “It pulls the fan bases together.”
DeMarcus believes the secret behind the Twitter phenomenon is that it humanizes celebrities, offering a public glimpse into their private lives, their daily routines, their fast-food meals. “It’s obvious from certain actors who tweet how much their fans adore the fact that they care enough to say, ‘I’m going through a drive-through at In-N-Out Burger right now.’ It’s unbelievable how much it matters to them,” he said.
“It’s an equalizer,” Rooney chimed in.
“If you’ve been in the business for a while and you’re new to Twitter or Facebook, it’s easy to dismiss it as a passing fad,” DeMarcus added. “But it’s not. It’s an effective way to stay connected and pass along information, and is going to be even more effective in the future.”
Decker hopes that Flatts or a similarly forward-thinking act will help Mass Relevance stretch the limits of social media to bring the audience deeper into the cyber experience. “One of the ideas that we’d love to put out there is to host a Q&A or live-by-request performance through tweets,” he explained. “Rascal Flatts would be on their bus and we’d filter in questions or requests via Twitter. It’d be an engaging fan experience as they’re going from city to city.”
Yet the Flatts camp is also aware that Country Music lovers often enjoy a tangible product even more than an abstract tweet. To that end, the band released a special version of Changed as a ’ZinePak. Basically a mini-magazine, the format includes a copy of the CD and a set of collectible Rascal Flatts guitar picks, created by the ‘ZinePak company in New York City.
“It’s a little magazine that folds out and has information about each one of us,” said DeMarcus.
“It’s a little deeper than just an album package,” elaborated Rooney.
“They’ll get to know us as people and what’s important in our life,” LeVox said. “It’s not just us as artists or what they perceive Rascal Flatts to be.”
How will the guys and management help promote the ’ZinePak? Through social media, naturally. Team Flatts will also be using the one-two punch of Twitter and Facebook to spread the word about the Farmers Insurance-sponsored “Star for a Day” contest. By entering on Facebook, fans at each tour date can win their own dressing room, access to backstage catering, and a visit with the band. (A national winner will be awarded a trip to Nashville.)
“It’s all about giving everybody something new,” DeMarcus said.
But it’s also something personal, Rooney believes. “I think Twitter is great, but I think that people love the human touch,” he said, rocking back in his chair on the bus. “Especially when you’re an upstart artist, you can tweet that you’re in a city and say, ‘At this time of the day, I want to meet you guys.’ We do meet-and-greets every night before the show and hear their stories, and that human touch is what they really long for.”
Rooney clearly appreciates the power of the 21st-century “tweet and meet,” as it were. “We have a special moment with fans that you can’t really have through Twitter,” he said with a grin. “But you can set it up through Twitter.”
On the Web: www.RascalFlatts.com

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