Last week Beyoncé stunned the music world with the surprise release of a new album. Yes, she released 14 new songs and 17 music videos, with no long marketing and public relations buildup over the course of many prior months. The album's release set social media on fire. Mashable reported that the album generated 1.2 million tweets in the first 12 hours after the release. The Twitter volume peaked at more than 5,000 tweets per minute. Did the surprise release make sense? Would she have been better off doing the usual public relations ramp-up employed by most recording artists?
Beyoncé's strategy reminded me of a great HBR blog post from May 2013. Advertising executive Scott Redick penned a post titled, "Surprise is Still the Most Powerful Marketing Tool." He made several arguments for why surprises can be so effective. Here's an excerpt:
Surprise is like crack for your brain. Scientists at Emory and Baylor used MRIs to measure changes in human brain activity in response to a sequence of pleasurable stimuli, using fruit juice and water. The patterns of juice and water squirts were either predictable or completely unpredictable. Contrary to the researchers’ expectations, the reward pathways in the brain responded most strongly to the unpredictable sequence of squirts. “The region lights up like a Christmas tree on the MRI,” said Dr. Read Montague, an associate professor of neuroscience at Baylor. “That suggests people are designed to crave the unexpected.” Birchbox, a subscription service that sends customers a box of mystery beauty products each month, and Phish, the rock band that never performs the same show twice, proves that entire business models can be built around this insight.
Redick also argues that surprise can amplify emotions, and that unexpected events often stimulate changes in behavior. Moreover, he points out that surprise can be fairly inexpensive at times.
Is surprise always the right strategy? Clearly not. In this case, Beyoncé has a huge following. Thus, she has the luxury of relying on surprise. She knows that people will notice her album's release, and that it will generate a great deal of online buzz. For new or unknown artists, surprise used in this manner will not likely lead to such positive results. For well-known brands in other industries, though, the lesson is clear: Perhaps the usual formula of publicity prior to a product launch does not always prove to be the optimal strategy.