What Michael Jackson can teach business about social media…

social media fansWhile the King of Pop may be dead – there’s no way he’ll be forgotten any time soon.  Thousands of years from now, I can’t help but wonder what future archeologists will think when they discover all of the media coverage the star’s life and death engendered.   I’m certain they’ll think our primitive culture worshiped the mysterious shape shifter as some kind of god.  I’m entirely  not sure they will be incorrect in that assumption.

Michael Jackson had what many businesses desperately want – recognition and a huge fan base not to mention award winning products.

When he was at his best – the Thriller days – everything he touched turned not to solid gold, but to solid platinum.   However, it’s interesting to note that after the release of the first single from Thriller,  industry insiders predicted the album would only be a”minor” success.    Obviously, no one was expecting the incredible success of the album which went on to release 7 of the albums 9 songs as single releases – each achieving top 10 status.

The wildcard was – of course – the masterful way that this musical genius would use a brand new medium – music videos – to create intense demand for what would become the best selling album of all time.

I remember when MTV debuted in 1981…it was within the first few weeks of starting my freshman year of college.  (A brief history lesson – back then – MTV was 100% music programming.  Yeah – really! There wasn’t a single reality show in the line up. Go figure.) No one really knew how this whole music video thing was going to play out in those days – but there was a sense that this whole music video thing was the start of something special.

Michael Jackson is the one who showed the world the potential of music video.

SOCIAL MEDIA LESSON #1: First doesn’t mean SQUAT

MichaelJackson did not invent nor did he create the first music video.   The very first music video aired was the one hit wonder  “Video killed the radio star” by the Boggles.  It played incessantly on MTV in the beginning – not because it was a great song – but because it had a video.  However, being first didn’t make the song or the group successful.

While Michael Jackson didn’t invent music videos – he did recognize the power of the medium.  By the way, Micheal Jackson’s earliest forays into the music video world were not stellar video accomplishments.  Some of his early videos’ production values were just as bad as the rest of the garbage playing on MTV at the time.   Music videos weren’t viewed as serious music marketing in those days – they weren’t even a side dish on the menu let alone  an entree.   Music videos were on par with the free peanuts offered at the bar.

However, Michael had a vision.  He broke new ground by recognizing that music videos didn’t HAVE to be confined to watching the performers play music and sing.  He produced a “mini-movie” for the title track of the album.    The other music videos such as “Beat it” and “Billie Jean” were produced with similar production values.  It was sheer folly at the time – to spend so much time and money on a music video.

Before his success – he was a madman.  After it, he was a genius.

Jackson understood the WHY behind using music videos as a marketing tools.  He understood that music videos provided  a way to make deeper connections with his audience.  Instead of sitting in an audience watching him sing [and dance] on stage – instead he could help his audience “visualize” the story behind the music.

Forget what you read – first doesn’t mean squat. The first social media site was Friendster.   Heard anything about them lately?  Ever?


See what I mean.  Doing it first means nothing.  Doing it RIGHT means everything.

SOCIAL MEDIA LESSON #2: Reach out, Listen and Learn.

Thriller was a tough act to follow – so Michael Jackson turned to one of the few people on earth able to mentor the musical genius- Paul McCartney.   Not only did McCartney collaborate on two hit singles with Jackson – but he shared sage advice which the superstar took to heart.  McCartney shared with Micheal Jackson the key to leveraging his income into true wealth – through owning the rights to other people’s music.   In a bit of an ironic twist, Jackson took this advice to heart and later competed with McCartney when ATV Music – the company which owned the rights to many Beatles songs came up for sale.

Many businesses start out as Micheal Jackson did.  In the early days – Micheal Jackson was eager to learn from those who had successfully navigated the path he wanted to take.  He listened – he learned – he collaborated.

Unfortunately -it was becoming obvious that creating Thriller – with 7 out of 9 songs becoming top ten singles – was a once in a lifetime achievement.  Part of the success of the Thriller album (IMHO)  lay in the then undiscovered marketing power of the music videos.  Once he illuminated the power music videos had to sell records – others quickly jumped on board.

While there were many imitators – Michael Jackson was still the “King of Pop”.  When he was open to collaboration and new ideas – he soared like no one before or since.

SOCIAL MEDIA LESSON #3: It’s easier to get negative attention than positive attention.

Suddenly – Jackson was faced with a difficult reality.  He craved the media attention success had brought – but media attention is fleeting – a sentiment which his sister  Janet expressed when she sang – “What have you done for me lately?”

Thus began the steady decline and inevitable fall of the King of Pop.   The creation of the media frenzy surrounding his previous success had involved dedication and hard work.  Michael Jackson craved the attention but didn’t have the patience to wait for the press to report on his next album release, so he began releasing attention gathering news stories about himself.    This act brought the never-ending intense personal scrutiny which Jackson quickly began to hate.  When he invited the demons in – he had no way of knowing that he’d never be able to get them to leave.

Instead of using the press to his advantage – the tables had turned.  The press was now using Michael to their advantage – to sell papers by featuring the escapades of “Wacko Jacko”.

Jack Hough writes in an article in the August 2009 issue of Smart Money revealed that stocks of companies whose names (and CEO’s)  DID NOT appear in the news perform better than stocks which are “media darlings”.   It appears it’s not just pop superstars who are seduced by the flashbulb flicker of the paparazzi.  However, research is showing that stocks of companies whose management focuses upon running the company instead of performing for the media outperform their counterparts by a significant margin.

Evidence shows that if your goal as a business owner is to gain media attention – then your business will ultimately suffer.  This is probably because it is far easier to get negative press than positive press.

SOCIAL MEDIA LESSON #4: Fans are no replacement for real relationships.

We’ll skip now to the end of the King of Pop’s life for what may be the most disturbing lesson of all.  We now learn that over the past decade – Michael Jackson was becoming increasingly isolated.  People are coming forward – sharing how they tried to steer Jackson from the path of destruction – but Jackson responded by cutting them out of his life.

While his meteoric rise was marked by collaboration and communication, Micheal Jackson began his fall when he began isolating himself.  He had fans – but no REAL relationships.

Real relationships involve an element of pain.  When you write a blog post that is misunderstood – it smarts.   However, it makes you a better blogger.  You learn to communicate better.

This is perhaps the most important lesson a business can learn from Michael Jackson regarding social media.  Micheal Jackson wrapped himself in lies to protect himself from the pain of real relationships.   His obsession with avoiding pain led to his untimely but inevitable death.

SOCIAL MEDIA LESSON #5: Feedback is essential – not optional.

Social media can provide PAINFUL feedback for companies – however that painful feedback can and should be used to make the business better.

When a blogger writes a negative review  about your business – there are two paths you can take:  You can address the problem or blame the blogger.

Building a following of 30,ooo Twitter followers is worthless if you don’t take time to  listen.  Building a blog and then turning off comments because you don’t want to hear what customers are saying is a similar waste of time. The magic in social media are the people behind the screen names.   Real people – real connections.

Trying to manipulate social media into a lead generation marketing tactic is a social media strategy doomed to failure.  Others have tried – [eg. Walmart]- and failed miserably.  Michael Jackson’s manipulation of the tabloids unleashed a torrent which tortured him to the end –  don’t make the same mistake trying to manipulate your social media marketing into doing what it’s not made to do.

Social media is about connections – PERIOD!  Those connections will not always be profitable and they won’t always be pleasant – but they sure as hell beat the alternative.


  1. Michael Jackson’s death was initially blamed on stress, the stress of the upcoming concert series. However, as you point out, he had definitely dug a hole so deep, it was impossible to dig himself out. Any observer could see how he could have repaired those relationships, but I’m sure he could not see it himself. He couldn’t accept feedback of any kind – obviously a fatal flaw, and a lesson for all of us, painful as it may be at times!
    .-= Carol | Stress Eating´s last blog ..Stress Eating and Hormones =-.

  2. Hi Kathy – This post may very well be your TOUR DE FORCE on social media. Each of your take-aways is worthy of extensive discussion in its own right. You are so correct in using these examples to emphasize it’s about the personal and the authentic. Great analogies! Good job!

  3. Absolutely spot-on and well-written. With one (essential) correction: it’s MICHAEL Jackson, not “Micheal”.

  4. I agree with Betsy – you have written great analogies here.
    I remember hearing there is a little crazy within every genius.
    I think Michael had a hard time dealing with his fame. He never really had a childhood. I will emphasize not even close to a normal childhood. In my opinion that is why the Neverland Ranch became his fantasy domain. Like Peter Pan he never wanted to grow up.
    This is a great read for his fans as well as the concept of media networks.
    .-= Bunnygotblog´s last blog ..Eleanor Roosevelt: Speaking Volumes, Part 2 =-.

  5. Carol-
    Great observation about the stress factor! spot on!!!

    Thanks. I’m blushing.

    Jame – oops! My LD is showing. I’m horribly dyslexic and i shows badly here! Thanks for the editorial help. This post is going to live for a while and I’d HATE to have that grain of sand there- irritating people for years to come.:)

    Bunny – welcome! I love the “a little crazy within every genius.” Maybe crazy is an essential element of genius.

  6. Thanks for this well thought our post that does a great job of illustrating your points. I just like to add that sometimes being first does mean squat and a lot more IF you are also willing to do what it takes to get it right. First can be an edge if exploited properly so that edge can be maintained. Not easy but certainly worth shooting for.
    .-= Tom Volkar / Delightful Work´s last blog ..Why Rock The Boat? =-.

  7. enjoyed this post a lot. love the parallels too especially about MJ not inventing videos, but he did recognized the power of the medium.

    social media and networking is about making connections, but often times those connections are not as real as we would like to believe. just like some of mj’s friends.
    .-= Natural´s last blog ..Herstory In the Making =-.

  8. You’re one brilliant and dedicated blogger Kathy. Astounding post. Two thumbs up 🙂
    .-= Davina´s last blog ..If You Could, Would You? =-.

  9. Tom – You’re right of course. If you can get it right AND get there first, there’s incredible advantages to being first. The problem – getting it RIGHT.

    Natural – GREAT point on the “value” of friends!!!

    Davina – thanks!

  10. This is spot on as always Kathy! I like you analogies. I think there does have to be a little bit of ‘crazy’ in all genius – if you do a ‘normal’ thing how can it be any different than what everyone else is doing? ‘Crazy’ is the way forward….
    .-= Amelia Vargo´s last blog ..SEO Friendly Web Development – Canonicalisation Video =-.

  11. Amelai – I LOVE “Crazy is a way forward’ – priceless!!!

  12. “Normal” is boring. “Unique…and Proud of It”….now THAT…changes lives.

    Never be afraid to stand up and declare, Look at MY ideas – confidence breeds admiration.
    .-= Barbara Ling, Virtual Coach´s last blog ..BY Invitation ONLY – Income Fitness Launch =-.

  13. A hearty AMEN Barbara!


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