"Open bar!" When I arrive for INBOUND ROCKS—the musical highlight of HubSpot's INBOUND content marketing conference held this week in Boston—the auditorium's dark, save for the purple glow of the screens behind the stage and a few orange bulbs. Peppy Top 40 hits play, but the energy here is that of a business meeting, more awkward small talk than the anticipation that precedes live music. Tables dot the space, serving as hubs for networking, or places to briefly set down a drink and pull out a phone, check Facebook or reply to an email—a constant sight at the conference.
"Open bar!" I hear again from my left. I head in that direction, grabbing a glass of wine on my way to the stage.
The musical artist for INBOUND ROCKS is Janelle Monáe—a seemingly strange choice for a content marketing conference, at least at first glance. Her sci-fi themed songs tell the story of Cindy Mayweather, an android who's fallen irrevocably in love with a human, in violation of the law—Mayweather and her lover are on the lam. Monáe's music is rife with themes of poverty, social justice, and alternative sexuality ("Robot love is queer!" shouts one of her characters during an interlude). But I'm not about to complain about the choice of performer—I'm a huge Monáe fan.
Break the rules to engage with your audience
When I get to the stage, I find a thin strip of duct tape trying to curl up from the floor about five feet from where Monáe will perform. The crowd—whether subconsciously or because of the security guards at either side of the stage—stands just behind the tape, shifting aimlessly. I move through the networking, the sipping drinks, the checking phones, settling into a spot close to the tape, as close to the stage as I can get without drawing the ire of the guards.
The background music fades out and the smoke machines turn on. Monáe's face on the screen fades too, replaced with a dizzying black and white spiral, her name tossed into the corner as if an afterthought. There's a bit of murmur to the crowd now, the general anticipation of something about to happen, but for the most part, the attendees continue to network, sip, check phones.
A man dressed like an orderly from a mental institution—white pants, white shirt, long white coat, white bow tie—takes the stage, approaches the mic. He looks out over the crowd, scanning for so long it seems at first he might be looking for someone. Then he scowls, raises his hands, palms up. He tilts his head down, and it becomes clear that it's the tape on the ground that's upset him.
He flicks his fingers quickly, drawing the crowd towards him. Everyone moves up to the stage, pressing as close as they can, the tape—and the guards—unable to stop them.
To get noticed, don't imitate—stand out
Though the crowd's now bunched at the stage, not much else has changed. Chatting, networking. The woman in front of me is checking her email on her phone, tapping out a terse reply, the purse over her shoulder tapping the same staccato rhythm on my arm. The band makes its way onto the stage—a guitarist, procussionists, horn players, a keyboardist, and two backup singers whose black and white dresses look made from the screen behind them. As they take their places, the music starts, but quietly, like it might stop again, like maybe the band is just warming up.
Finally, Janelle Monáe appears.
She doesn't bound onto the stage, there's no shout of "How you doing, Boston!?" Instead, an orderly wheels her onto the stage on a hand truck. She wears a straight jacket, looks sullenly at the ground. Cindy Mayweather has been captured. The orderly deposits her center stage, in front of the mic. The music picks up a bit. Barely.
Monáe takes a hesitant step forward, leans into the mic, looks up and, almost sheepishly, begins to sing.
Brand everything you do
The straight jacket doesn't last long; it's off within the first few bars of Monáe's first song, and with it her sheepishness disappears as well. When she started her career, Monáe was known for wearing a tux when she performed. The outfit she reveals tonight, while more white spandex leggings than satin piping, is still bold black and white, still signature Monáe. Her hair, too, serves as a signature—a high, perfectly quaffed pompadour.
From the unique, sci-fi twist of her songs to her physical appearance to her dance moves, she is unmistakably Janelle Monáe™.
Turn haters into advocates
By about the third song, it's clear that this isn't a normal show for Janelle Monáe. She's struggling to energize the crowd, to get the kind of reaction she normally gets. Most of the people here aren't here for her, after all. They're here because this is the evening's social event. These aren't fans who know every word to every song, these are inbound marketers—Monáe can barely get anyone to sing along.
The poor acoustics of the space don't help. When Monáe talks to the crowd, it's hard to hear what she's saying, and her lyrics are largely lost, too. You can see the frustration on her face. She even takes a short break—perhaps it's planned, though it seems more a chance for her to regroup.
When she returns, she is relentless. She dances fervently, bounces from one side of the stage to the other, grabs hands, shouts, goes through lyrics, over and over and over again, until everyone sings along. The woman standing in front of me still has her phone out, but she's not emailing anymore. She's tweeting: "You've made a fan out of me, @janellemonae!"
Give 'em what they love by surprising and delighting
When her fifth song ends, Monáe's made serious progress winning over the crowd—everyone's moving with her, swaying, clapping, waving arms, enjoying themselves. There's still texting and chatting, though, even among the people closest to the stage.
When her sixth song begins, the audience is hers. This song isn't another by an artist that many in the crowd hadn't heard of before tonight; it's not about star-crossed android lovers. This is the Jackson 5's "ABC". Everyone knows this song; everyone loves it.
The sudden change, this surprise turn into familiar territory, grabs the whole room. The energy in the crowd is palpable at last.
Make your audience want more
For the rest of Monáe's set, she runs the room. We dance and sing along with abandon. We quiet down and sit on the floor when she asks. She moves out into the audience, and everyone jumps up, follows her, tries to see what she's doing.
The concert, according to the day's agenda, is slated to end at 10PM—signs outside proclaimed in large red letters that the coat and bag check would close promptly at 10:30. Monáe steps off stage 9:59. Almost immediately, a crew begins to disassemble the equipment, unplugging mics, keeping to the schedule.
The audience is aware of all of this—there's no curtain to hide the fact that the stage is being broken down. Still, there are several attempts to cheer for an encore, scattered shouts of "One more song!" It's not until the lights begin to come up that the crowd finally gives in.
As we begin to filter toward the door, I ponder the disconnect between this performer I love and what's been discussed in the talks and panels I'd seen at INBOUND. Although there were no specific themes articulated for the conference, the conversations at INBOUND still seemed to revolve around certain ideas—a sort of Zeitgeist of content marketing present in turns of phrase and shared, core assumptions.
In the hour and a half that she performed, Janelle Monáe turned a bunch of distracted skeptics into advocates and champions hanging on every kick of her heels. And she did it using the same tricks and techniques that folks at INBOUND had been talking about all week. Maybe Janelle Monáe wasn't quite as odd a choice for a performer at a content marketing conference as I'd thought.
Distantly, as I finally pass through the door back into the convention center, shuffling along with the rest of the crowd, I hear the bartender shouting again.
"All through—we're closed!"