Liam Payne and his manager Steve Finan O’Connor from Kin Partners knew they needed to stay connected with fans when COVID-19 shut down the touring business, but how? There were dozens of different paths to follow with social media tools, video-conferencing technologies and paid streaming platforms available, but it was all uncharted territory. After surveying his options the former One Direction singer his manager settled on an unconventional, but ultimately successful strategy.
“We just decided to give it all a go and see where it led us,” jokes Finan O’Connor. Payne built his strategy around Twitter, YouTube and Instagram — where he has more than 100 million combined followers — but he has also turned to video-conferencing platform Zoom at the beginning of the pandemic to host small online get togethers with fans who contributed to his preferred charities.
At the recommendation of business manager Alan McEvoy, Payne selected Veeps, the streaming platform launched by brothers Benji Madden and Joel Madden from the multi-platinum punk and rock group Good Charlotte.
Benji tells Billboard he had seen artists on the platform use social media to drive traffic to their shows, but had never seen a team experiment with different platforms in real time and so quickly hone in on converting fans into online ticket buyers. For Payne, this meant identifying his most committed fans on platforms like YouTube and Instagram Live and then using tech like Twitter and Zoom to create pathways into the ticket buying queue and eventually into the show.
“They’re doing fan engagement that I just haven’t seen anyone do,” Benji says. “They really listened to the fans and watched what people reacted to. Liam is not just showing up and doing the live show. He’s spending weeks talking to fans, building out his own livestream world and tapping into all the modern ways that we see people communicate and interact and put content into the world.”
Yesterday Payne announced his third live stream event on Veeps, a Halloween party and show with tickets starting at $10. Finan O’Connor said much of the work Payne did building his online audience during the pandemic has focused on maximizing human connection while finding ways to deliver meaningful and direct experiences. Between his first and second show, Payne quadrupled the number of tickets sold and broke the record for most tickets sold to a single show on Veeps platform. Below, Finan O’Connor talks about what he and Payne learned as they developed their pandemic strategy in real time.
Help Fans Find You in Unexpected Locations
“Social media is like an onion — there’s millions of people on the outside layers and you’ve got to peel away those layers before you have something you can cook,” explains Finan O’Connor. That meant focusing resources on finding, engaging and communicating with individuals willing to spend a few hours with the U.K. singer “without bothering the other people who don’t really want to hear you right now. ”
Early on, they noticed that thousands of fans were queueing up early for Payne’s Roundup Show on YouTube, where he checks in with fans and talks about the different projects he is working on.
“There were 60,000 to 70,000 people sitting in a waiting room for half an hour before we premiered an episode, just between themselves talking about Liam, One Direction or whatever else,” Finan O’Connor says. “So Liam went and sat the queue with them and started talking with his fans and answering their questions.”
Fans started getting excited to have Payne in the queue but, others wanted proof it was really Payne and not a member of his team. So the “Midnight” singer hopped on Instagram Live and began streaming himself answering fan questions on YouTube.
“He was able to talk directly to people in the moment that actually really wanted to be part of it,” Finan O’Connor says, growing his numbers both on YouTube and Instagram. To build off the momentum, Payne now starts an Instagram Live stream prior to shows, telling his audience there (“160,000 to 200,000 fans,” says Finan O’Connor) that the concert is about to begin in Veeps, then turns off that Instagram feed and starts the show, first with support acts and then his main performance.
“When we finish, we go backstage and we don’t stop the show — we carry it on for at least an hour [on Veeps],” Finan O’Connor says. “He’ll chat with fans and do contests through Twitter to receive free tickets for the next show. Fans will vote for their favorite fans and Liam will announce the winner live on Veeps.”
Include the Crowd in the Show
Performing in an empty room while fans watch at home can be a challenge for artists used to feeding off their fans’ energy, but after watching a soccer game with cheering artificially added to the game, Finan O’Connor had an idea: add in sound recorded from previous live shows to make Payne’s concerts on Veeps feel more realistic.
“They’re shouting his name and five to 10 minutes in, you forget that these noises are not happening in real time,” Finan O’Connor says. To mimic fans being brought on stage during a concert. Liam would feature people who had been filmed prior to the concert talking about how the pandemic was affecting their lives.
“Fans would say, ‘We’re struggling. We love this. You’re giving us more and going out of your way,’ and that’s when it really hit Liam — hit him big time — because he able to give fans something they really needed,” Finan O’Connor says.
Knowing many fans were struggling financially, Payne also sold tickets on a “pay what you want” basis, starting at $10, with a portion of ticket sales going towards the Trussell Trust Charity, which fights poverty and hunger issues in the U.K.
“It was important for him to make the shows about something bigger,” Finan O’Connor says. “He wanted fans to feel like we were all in this together.”
When Payne first started thinking about how to approach the online concert series, he met with Benji Madden to get some ideas and inspiration for what had worked for other artists, like Brandi Carlile and LP, on the Veeps platform.
“Benji told him that he wouldn’t be doing just one show. It would be regular shows, building a deeper connection with his fan base in the same way an artist does when they tour in the early stages of their career,” Finan O’Connor recalls. “Unlike a live tour where you repeat the same show in each city, his tour has a brand new show each time. Benji was right. The fans have loved the interaction.”
Because Payne has fans all over the world, he’s also tried to accommodate different time zones. But since it can take weeks and sometimes months to plan a show, Finan O’Connor came up with an easy work-around — watch rebroadcasts of his shows live with his fans. “We watched along with the crowd, kind of like a director’s cut, and he discussed how the songs were written and being played and he was laughing and having a good time,” he says. “We went on for an hour and 45 minutes and it was almost like a radio show.”
The strategy helped quadruple ticket sales from the first performance called LP Act 1 on July 17 to his LP Act 2 show on Aug. 29. During the rebroadcasts Payne would be “watching the comments and memes videos on Twitter, stop the show, press pause, and showing what someone says there or what someone posts here,” he says. “When you’re playing a concert, you can’t just stop in the middle of the show and chat with people, but with the rebroadcasts, we can stop and bring in two fans via Zoom and ask question and interact and make the fans feel like they’re really engaged in the concert. It’s just taking the power of live-streaming into an entirely different dimension.”