Business should busk.

What marketers can learn from street performers.

I’ve always thought that buskers were “Carnies with Talent”, working their way around the world entertaining suburban dads decked out in a Tilley hat and a willingness to be embarrassed in front of a crowd of assembled strangers. Now, given your average street performer makes less than minimal wage over a 40 hour work week, it may not seem like there’s much to learn from them. But there is.

Busking is the epitome of the cold call.

No brand awareness. No liquidation sale. No inbound marketing techniques. A busker has the unenviable task of selling their product in an environment filled with the direct  competition and booths with food and face painting that distract their customers even more. In one 20 minute set, they have to build an audience, deliver their product and then ask for voluntary payment. Is there a more pure business transaction in the world? I doubt it. Here’s what we can learn.

1. They build a unique product.
When you’re competing against other performers, you can’t simply do what the other guy is doing. Even if you’re juggling stuff, you have to look unique, act unique, sound unique and in some cases, smell unique. And when you hit the stage, you better have invested the time to perfect your product. Who’s going to invest the time watching someone perfect their bit when there are so many other perfect options available?

2. They use the audience to build an audience.
Stepping into an empty space, a busker has to immediately create interest in his or her product without the benefit of a social media agency to help them do it.

To build an audience, they simply start with one person. They’ll politely ask an innocent bystander to get involved. “Can you hold this? Can you stand there? Can you put your hand up?” Volunteers aren’t given the 3 year strategic plan and asked to share with their friends – they’re just asked to do something simple. They’re involvement intrigues others to at least stand around and wait to see what’s going to happen. Even the most skeptical will wonder what we’re missing when a crowd starts to form.

3. VIP access for early adopters.
Why hang around waiting for something to happen when there are so many other options? Well, anyone who has been to a busker festival knows that the early adopters get front row seating. They get to see more and hear more and if they’re lucky, there’s a chance that they’ll actually get to star in the show. There should be a reward for those who stuck with us even when there wasn’t any show to speak of. I hope I never forget that.

4. Make ‘em feel special.
A positive attitude creates a positive experience. Every time someone does something, says something, or volunteers to join the show, the professional busker initiates a response with the age-old, “Let’s give Phil a really big hand, folks…” And it doesn’t just make the volunteer feel ridiculously special. It creates intrigue for customers who may be bored at another show. We consumers don’t want to think we’re missing out on something. With this strategy, the bigger a crowd gets, the bigger the crowd will get.

5. They use humour.
I don’t think puns or sexual innuendo are funny. Apparently, I’m in the vast minority. While crowds bellowed at lame one-liners, I was heard muttering, “They think this shit is funny?” Oh well. Regardless of the specific tone of the humour, I think we can all agree that humour is critical when building relationships.

6. They ask to get paid. 

Can you imagine if agencies had to complete a campaign before asking, “How much do you think that was worth?” Yikes. Part of me thinks agencies would actually make more. Well, that’s what these folks do every day of the week. And those who are good at it make more. When they make more, they can perform more.

The approach is usually honest: “I do this as my job and the festival doesn’t pay me.”
It’s rational: “Can you see a show this good for $10 for your entire family?”
It’s promotional: “If you give $20, you get a free DVD.”
It’s humourous: “If you give $10, you’ll go home happy. If you give $100, you’ll go home with me.”

I always feel bad asking for dough. I think I may change my approach.

It’s not like I’m asking brand managers to get a guitar case, work on stilts or juggle their product while it’s in flames. But there’s a lot we can learn from our nomadic creative colleagues. We all want to build community, give a good show and create applause. But unless people put money in our cap, we won’t survive.

If you want to check out more photos I took at Buskerfest, click here. 

2 Comments

  1. Great article, Ron. I definitely agree that this is a pure marketing event. I don’t think the busker can count much on referral or repeat in the buskerfest context. He books into an event and competes in realtime and the folks at the back are a few steps away from his competitor.

    • Ron

      Thanks for reading. They certainly can’t count on much referral business which is also a plus in a weird kind of way – they don’t ever have worry about CRM.

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