Using live video  to attract loyal fans and pull in brand support? Sound like a genius move.
Lines of people have been appearing in the Gowanus neighborhood in Brooklyn. Proving that websites can be social and that there are still great free shows around for people who know where to look, these crowds have been queuing up to see their musical idols interviewed live and in person. And they’re not the only ones clamoring to get a look: Brands have been lining up, too.
The shows are created by Genius, a music website  that started life in 2009 as Rap Genius, then broadened its appeal by shortening its name a few years later. Genius bills itself as “the world’s biggest collection of song lyrics and musical knowledge.” While Genius creates several online shows, the one fans are lining up for is called Genius Level. The idea is to spotlight icons of the music industry. So far, it’s presented interviews with Terius “The-Dream” Nash  and DJ Premier .
The brains behind Genius Level are Brendan Frederick, the company’s chief content officer, and Rob Markman, its manager of artist relations. Markman has a long history as a music journalist and has interviewed many high-profile acts. Genius had already found success with a show called Verified, where an artist breaks down the lyrics to one of his or her songs, explaining what it all really means. The site followed that up with Deconstructed, where a producer explains how a particular hit song was made, and IRL, which focuses on a hot young artist going through the evolution of his or her career. In all three, Genius brings fans a deeper level of information about songs on the Hot 100 chart, the ones everyone is talking about.
With Genius Level, the company decided to pivot and focus on the veterans who created the current music industry. The idea was to present real icons with a quarter-century of experience behind them and a lifetime of wild stories to tell. Right away, Frederick and Markman decided if they were going to do this project, they needed to do it big. That means working with a live studio audience and really creating an event out of the whole evening. This was the first live/online hybrid event Genius had done, so there was a lot of nervousness around getting it right.
Genius is well set up to host live productions, as it happens, since its Gowanus office has an event space capable of holding 400 people. The company has held concerts, parties, and lectures there, but never a live show. The stage is in the middle of the audience, which creates an intimate experience for guests.
Given that Genius is a lyric-oriented website, Frederick and Markman felt the first Genius Level guest should be someone known as a songwriter. That led to them booking Nash, one of the best-known songwriters of the past 20 years. If his name isn’t familiar, his credits are: He’s worked with Rihanna, Beyoncé, Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, and Jay-Z. Besides being a songwriter, he’s a recording artist in his own right. With Nash, the producers knew they could dive into the creative process of a hugely talented artist and generate a lot of excitement around their event.
For their second episode, Genius choose someone rooted in hip-hop, since that’s part of the brand’s DNA, and chose producer DJ Premier, aka Chris Martin, perhaps better known as half of the iconic ’90s duo Gang Starr. Since then, he’s worked with talent like Biggie, Jay-Z, and Nas. Like Nash, he had plenty of stories to tell—about his own creative process and working with important rap talent.
In crafting the interviews, Genius looks to its community of passionate music fans. It asks them to submit questions ahead of time, integrating them into the interview. The interviewer even credits the fans who posed the questions. In preparing for the first episode, Genius held a contest on Twitter in which the person who suggested the best question could come to the event and ask his or her question in person.
“We had a guy who came, he was a huge fan of The-Dream and was super excited to be there,” Frederick remembers. “He asked his question and The-Dream was like, ‘Did you ask me this on Twitter? You sent it to me like 100 times didn’t you?’ And the kid was like, ‘Yeah, I was a little overexcited.’ So The-Dream already had seen the question and knew it and this kid had been so excited he tweeted at him like 100 times.
“We love those moments of just connecting someone who’s a super fan with the actual artist to find out something, that question that they’ve been dying to know this whole time. Even for our community members who couldn’t be at the actual event, just for them to see their question asked and see their name in the video was, I think, really exciting for them in a similar way.”
For both of the episodes created so far, Genius asked people who wanted to be in the audience to RSVP, and received about a thousand responses each time. The organizers capped both events at about 200 guests, because any larger would look too packed on video.
Booking the talent was the first step in creating Genius Level, getting the audience was the second, and the third was getting brand support. Genius wanted to create an experience for fans at home and in the studio, and for that it needed brand participation. It found brands were happy to come on board. The first episode included participation from Tidal, Levi’s, and 1800 Tequila. A step-and-repeat displayed the branding for red carpet pics, as did all the event signage. Tidal sponsored a photo booth, and 1800 offered what the organizers called “the exclusive pour.” For the second episode, Cîroc took over pouring duties, while Breather, a coworking space company, joined in. Sponsors get access to Genius’s mezzanine, which becomes an exclusive VIP lounge during the events.
Brands were involved in all the messaging for the Genius Level episodes, including invitations and teaser content presented ahead of time. When the videos came out, brands were listed as presenters. Naturally, host Markman wore Levi’s in the first episode to promote the sponsor. Brands didn’t have a say on the editorial content, but The-Dream pulled them in anyway. During the first episode’s taping, he thanked the sponsors by name without any prompting from the organizers.
“My impression is that it was a great opportunity for them to be involved with a real, authentic music moment with someone who is a real veteran and has a ton of respect, and to have their brand associated with that is something that we were excited to do,” Frederick says.
This kind of authentic moment is what today’s brands are clamoring for. The online audience is savvy and fickle, and often uses ad blockers to tune out online distractions, Frederick says. But the Genius Level series presents content with substance about a topic viewers care about. It lets fans educate themselves on musical history. Being part of that is a real opportunity. It’s also the rare music event that appeals to both younger and older music fans. Older fans know the guests from their early days, while younger fans want to hear how these icons influenced a new generation of talent. It’s musical history made relevant for today, and it bridges a gap between fans.
The first episode was viewed more than 2 million times. It also garnered Genius a wealth of social media activity—about 8.5 million social impressions across various platforms. The second episode was released only shortly before this interview, so the numbers weren’t all in yet. Based on what he was seeing, Frederick thought views would be around 1 million.
“We’ve certainly had more successful videos, but in terms of trying to show the younger generation how exciting these icons can be, I think this has really exceeded our expectations as far as how much of an impact it can make,” Frederick says.
Following the live events, participating brands were happy with both the on-site footprint and the reach they got with at-home viewers. The challenge for a live event, Frederick says, is not only pleasing the few hundred in the room, but extending that to the millions of potential streaming viewers. His company pulled it off, and the brands noticed.
Genius distributes videos on its site using a Brightcove player, and also through YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. It doesn’t put full shows on Instagram and Twitter, but posts highlight clips designed to pull in the viewer. Twitter has a video limit of 2 minutes 20 seconds, so Genius looks for stories that work in that space. The Facebook audience skews a bit older, so Genius posts clips there that will appeal to older fans. Sponsor branding appears even on highlight clips.
While Genius has only done two episodes so far, there are plenty more to come. Frederick plans for it to become a bimonthly event, and has several possible guests under consideration. Eminem, a longtime friend of the site, is his dream guest, he says. This means brands that want to get involved in a live event involving millions of passionate music lovers will have plenty more opportunities to do just that.
[This article appears in the November/December 2017 issue of Streaming Media Magazine as “Using Live Video to Pull in Fans and Brands? Genius.”]