Friday, December 17, 2010

American Idol: Failure to Sell

A common understanding in marketing is that what people say on a market survey or in focus group are not always the best indicators of their actual behaviors. For example, a consumer can tell you that they like a product at first glance and would be inclined to purchase it. Then the product hits the shelf and people are not buying it like they said they would. This is called a product launch failure. Think New Coke or the DeLorean.

This is the condition from which American Idol suffers. On America’s most watched television show viewers vote weekly about which participant is their favorite. The network is surveying it’s consumers to determine which album people will actually want to buy. They wouldn’t want to launch a product without doing some market research. Unfortunately, the show’s premise is built around a fallacy that consumers will buy what they say they like on the show. Remember season five of American Idol? The winner was Taylor Hicks. The real winner, however, was Chris Daughtry. To date, he has sold more albums and been more successful than that season’s winner and winners of every other season with the exception of Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood. Yet he didn't win.

So what happened? My first thought is that American Idol is open to the public meaning than anyone can call and vote. Generally, a marketing survey or focus group is geared toward the consumer group of a particular product. They aren’t polling album buyers. They’re polling TV show watchers. Second, the format doesn’t allow people to showcase their best music each week. Being a great singer across all genres like 60’s night, love songs, or country music doesn’t equal great success. Most musicians have a genre and brand from which they rarely stray. With the exception of country artists and pop artists, rarely do musicians try to appeal to all audiences. 

Where does American Idol go next? I’m not sure that the net judges will re-invigorate the show they way the hoped. (I secretly wonder if they did focus groups or surveys to see who consumers would be more likely to watch.) Because the format of the show has not changed, I don’t expect next year’s winner to do any better in album sales than this year’s. If they want to sell albums, they need to find other ways to figure out which artists consumers want to hear more from. Another idea, albeit a crazy one, is to have each artist record a short album prior to the show’s launch. Whoever sells the most is crowned the winner. They will then be given the recording contract and can record a full length album. This could also be easily done in partnership with itunes which tracks the more relevant digital sales and doesn’t require expensive CD manufacturing. 

Once the hit British TV show X Factor is launched here in the US, it will be interesting to see who does a better job of producing a star.

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