Going dark on the web worked for Radiohead, but it won't work for you

Disappearing from the web is like a magic trick - in more ways than one.

When Radiohead unexpectedly erased its website and social media presence this week to promote a new release, the strategy sharply contrasted with the pizzazz-laden campaigns of other artists. Beyonce shocked the world last month with Lemonade, supported by a visual album release on HBO, and Gwen Stefani put on a live music-video production during the Grammy Awards to promote her new album.

Radiohead’s Internet presence began to disappear on Sunday, then reappeared on Tuesday with an Instagram post that included a 15-second clip of a stop-motion bird tweeting. Later that day, Radiohead released a full music video for its new song, "Burn the Witch."

A video posted by Radiohead (@radiohead) on

Consumers and PR pros welcomed the refreshingly quiet promotion with open arms. Radiohead trended on social media before and after the reveal, and media outlets and fans waited with bated breath for the British band to make its next move.

The low-key approach was a welcome change of pace, say experts.

"So often, we build campaigns full of back-to-back content, endless launch moments, and lots of noise," says Porter Novelli deputy MD and EVP Erin Osher. "I love a strategy built around the simple quiet pause, so what comes next feels fresh and wanted – not lost in the noise."

By being quiet, Radiohead actually gained more attention and broke through the clutter of "loud and predictable" artist marketing campaigns, notes Carline Jorgensen, Allison+Partners’ GM of Los Angeles.

She adds that the band’s sudden silence surprised the public – and surprise can be a powerful marketing tool, noting that studies have shown people are hardwired to crave the unexpected. Jorgensen notes that surprise is used so much in marketing because of its addictive qualities, explaining the rising popularity of companies such as Birchbox that provide customers with monthly "surprise packages."

Yet it isn’t for everyone. Like other marketing strategies, disappearing on social only works if it is authentic to a brand. Alyssa Garnick, MD of New York at WE Communications, says that brands have to check a campaign against a "pyramid of authenticity," composed of the industry, brand, and fans or customers

"If you start with the industry, it is music, these are artists, and they are expected to be creative," she says. "The music industry has a history of innovation, stunts, and playing with entertainment and social media, so it lends itself to this kind of creativity and marketing."

The strategy isn’t limited to the music industry. In October 2014, Taco Bell’s website and social media platforms went temporarily dark as part of a campaign to promote a mobile app. The campaign created buzz on social media as news outlets and the general public scrambled to figure out what was going on.

"[Taco Bell] got some criticism for cutting off the chatter with their fans on social media, but they had a huge number of loyal fans already," says Jorgensen. "They weren’t trying to create a following; they were just redirecting their following [from their social media pages to their new app]. That was forced marketing that worked well for them."

Erasing a social media presence as part of a marketing strategy must also be on-brand to succeed. Radiohead’s move wasn’t a shock to the public because the group has a history of doing disruptive stunts for album releases. In 2007, when the band released In Rainbows, it made the album available on a pay-what-you-want basis to consumers.

"Radiohead had a historical right to do this stunt," says Garnick. "They are known for doing innovative things that haven’t been done before."

Going dark also worked well for Radiohead because of its rabid fan base. For other brands, this strategy could cause confusion or even apathy if customers didn’t notice. Snap Kitchen CMO Tressie Lieberman, who was Taco Bell’s senior director of digital marketing and platforms at the time the brand went dark on social, explains this is why understanding a fan or customer base and knowing how they will respond is important.

"If you are going to go dark, it is critical you have a fan base that is going to respond to that and [it will] get them talking," she says. "As much as brands want to talk, it is much better when fans are talking on their behalf to their communities; that is where the authenticity in the storytelling comes to life." 

There’s also significant risk. The pay-off at the end of the social media silence must be worth it. By shutting down on digital, a brand risks alienating the fans and followers it already has, Jorgensen says.

Garnick personally attests to the success of Radiohead’s stunt. She says the band not only caught her attention, but also made her a fan.

"I am someone who has never considered Radiohead before and I went online and listened to their music and I like some of it," says Garnick. "So it is a good example of having the desired effect, which is not just creating fame, but also potentially adding fans."

Yet Radiohead’s success is unlikely to breed copycats. The experts who spoke with PRWeek agree that going dark on the web has a definite shelf life. Jorgensen compares disruptive and innovative marketing ideas to magic tricks; the first time they’re used, an audience might be wowed. Try it again, and they’ll roll their eyes.

"I think going dark has been done well by a brand [Taco Bell] and done well by a band," Jorgensen says. "I don’t think anyone should do it again soon."

A takeaway from this campaign, Osher notes, is that there are quieter ways to connect with consumers.

"We’re all consuming so much content, there's something that feels really modern about giving people quiet, room to think, [and] breathing space," she says.

And although Radiohead’s quiet approach juxtaposes the tweetstorms fans are used to seeing from popular artists such as Kanye West, Lieberman says both strategies are winners because they are true to their brands and communities.

"My whole philosophy on social media is that it is essentially like being a person," she says. "When you are being true to yourself, people respond to that in a much bigger way than when you are trying to be someone you are not. You want to create a conversation with the right people."

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