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Topspin Media Turns Its Sights
on Independent Film

by Sheri Candler

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Recently, I was turned on to Topspin Media by my filmmaker friends Jon Reiss and Gregory Bayne as a sales platform they are using to help get their films out to an audience and handle the logistics of collecting payment, shipping merchandise and gathering email addresses of their fans. I attended one of Topspin's training sessions in their Santa Monica offices and walked away quite impressed with how the software worked. It really can be a great tool for building audiences for an artist and selling directly to them, bypassing the reliance on middlemen labels or distributors, but only if you have some basic milestones already in place.

Topspin Media is a software company, not a marketing services company, originally launched to help musicians. Many of their existing client base are musicians and bands; pretty well known ones too like David Byrne, Paul McCartney, Arcade Fire, and Trent Reznor. They have recently made the platform available to indie filmmakers by invitation only. Topspin was founded in 2007 by Shamal Ranasinghe and Peter Gotcher and in 2008, CEO Ian Rogers joined the company after leaving his post as GM of Yahoo Music. Rogers acknowledges marketing is difficult for artists and only getting more so as content is freely and cheaply available. Consumer attention spans are extremely short so it is really important to form direct relationships with people who have shown interest in an artist's work; attended screenings, previously bought copies, have actively talked about it online to others etc. The key is to capture that attention and keep it for all future work.

I interviewed VP of Pro Services Bob Moczydlowsky (Bob Moz) about how filmmakers should look at using Topspin, what successes the company has had so far, and building up a fan base to monetize work. Moz suggests filmmakers should have a website presence very early in their process. "The most powerful features of Topspin are marketing features that help you grow your audience, so I think filmmakers should start web sites and begin building an audience for their work as soon as possible. Direct media marketing for any kind of work (film, music, animation) happens in four steps: Awareness, Engagement, Acquisition and then Monetization. You can't skip a step," said Moz. I think this is a crucial point. Many artists want to skip from awareness to monetization, indeed this is how the film studio model works. There is no engagement or cultivation of audience, just start the advertising and one way communication for awareness and then launch as wide as possible and wait for the money to roll in. Indies don't have the luxury of large media buys and hiring big publicity firms to place stories in every publication and on TV. These 4 steps must be followed.

"Filmmakers should be asking themselves: 1) What am I doing to make my audience aware of my work? 2) What have I provided to that audience that engages them, or inspires them to take action, to pay attention? 3) How am I acquiring direct connections with my audience? This generally means email addresses, mobile numbers, Facebook Likes, Twitter followers, MySpace Friends... etc. Connections that allow you to communicate with the audience directly. 4) What are my plans for monetizing this audience that is connected to me directly? What amazing, non-commodity product can I offer these fans who have gone on this journey with me?"

"Topspin helps with all four of these tasks. We provide an integrated tool for managing your content, creating streaming audio and video players, sending bulk email, monitoring and growing Twitter and Facebook connections, and a super-powerful ecommerce platform that allows you to sell literally any kind of digital or physical product (including products that include both!). Put practically, filmmakers need to start thinking about being retailers instead of being wholesalers. There just aren't enough buyers out there for all the films getting made. So filmmakers need to start acting like entrepreneurs, which means planning to run the retail marketing and distribution campaigns themselves. I know some filmmakers hate hearing this because on the one hand it means lower fees and more risk and work on the artist, but I also think it means complete creative control and freedom from the commodity products, like DVDs. What does your film have in common with a Disney teen comedy? Nothing? Then why are you using the same marketing strategy and selling the same unit product? It's a great time for art," said Moz.

I found during the training that the software is quite in depth and takes some time to learn. A team member on the production will need to complete full training to get up to speed with all of the tools that can be harnessed. "Compared to Final Cut Pro or Photoshop, Topspin is simple! Topspin is designed to be used by marketers, and I think sometimes that process of modern media marketing is hard to grasp for the first time, and that reflects on the software a bit. Now, that's not to say that the software is perfect. We have a little ways to go to in terms of adding help links and great supporting docs, but we'll get there," said Moz. He also said customer retention is very high. "Once artists realize the value of having their audience organized and accessible to them, they start to understand they are suddenly empowered to create and release new works as often as they'd like, and that is a usually a pretty liberating and inspiring moment."

Most companies like to show you how they have helped an established artist with a new campaign or large clients with plenty of money to spend, but I was impressed that Topspin also highlighted some musicians who came to them with very little audience attention, no label contracts backing them up and how their software helped to build up connections and engagement so that they could successfully sell direct. "We've seen a lot of middle-class bands have success with Topspin. Fanfarlo built up a great audience with a super-clever sharing campaign around a limited time offer and an endorsement from Sigur Ros. Trash Talk does very well, and recently Rad Omen has been blowing me away with their creativity and fan engagement. There are about a thousand artists using Topspin now, and the bulk of them are decidedly middle-class. Oh, and I love what SONOIO is doing, too. That's a great example of non-commodity, art-centered products creating a real business for the artist and a killer experience for fans. You can actually buy a synthesizer inspired by the band's music and built by one of the band members. It comes loaded with stems of the album, so you're literally 'playing the album.' It's pretty amazing stuff," said Moz. Though his examples are from musicians, I actively encourage filmmakers to rethink the products they are selling to their fans. It doesn't have to be just the film as a DVD or download. Think of artistic or experience centered products, things not easily copied, that your audience values just as much.

It does seem that to be successful, the artist needs to have SOME kind of following already in order for Topspin to work. Online and during the training course, there was a recommendation that Topspin is more for artists who have at least 15,000 Facebook fans, 10,000 unique website visitors per month, an email mailing list of at least 2,500 or have made at least $5,000 in content related income in the past year. Indeed, the email mailing list was cited as the most important factor as those are fans who have given you express permission to contact them and are much more likely to buy your work. Also, determining what products and packages to offer needs consideration. "Assuming that you 'build it and they will come' is the worst mistake an artist can make online. You have to have both supply and demand. Demand for your artwork comes from marketing -- make people aware of your work, engage them in some way, make sure that once they are engaged they can easily share your work into Facebook, Twitter, email, etc. Now, after all that, you have an audience. What does the data say about them? Study them, then offer things for them to buy. Build demand, then create the products," said Moz.

One of the points brought up during the training day was the lunacy in bringing fans onto the website and then directing them off again to buy product, for example installing an iTunes button or an Amazon button on an artist's website which connects the fan with a different platform for transaction. The data of that fan will stay with the 3rd party provider, not with the artist. They can contact those buyers again with other products to sell, but you can't. When new work is ready for sale, there is no way to directly communicate with past buyers because the data is not accessible. Topspin integrates seamlessly with any website and captures all data for later use by the creator.

Topspin takes a percentage of revenue on products that are sold. "Topspin has a very simple business model. We've built an app that helps you sell things, and we earn a percentage when you do. We charge a small annual fee to use the software, then a sales commission on each sale. That commission gets smaller as the total sale price grows," Moz said. Obviously, it is in their interest to work foremost with artists who are likely to have a high amount of sales, but they find that buyer behavior for lesser known artists is similar as that for well known artists in conversion rate, what people are willing to pay for, how much they will spend, it just happens on a different scale. On a pure percentage basis, 10% of fans will buy top tier items as opposed to lower cost ones, no matter who the artist is. The actual revenue is different based on the size of the artist, but the percentage of sales is similar.

I wondered if there was an optimal time for artists to start using Topspin, when they have something to sell, when they are starting in production and want to build audience, when? "It really depends on what step in the process the artist is on. If you're in awareness, engagement or acquisition mode, you shouldn't be too concerned with products just yet. Sure, you'll know that ultimately there is a film to sell, but first and foremost, you need fans. So giving away content, creating production diaries, releasing the behind the scenes up front, things like that should be top priority. Create demand. Topspin is great at this -- create an offer that is 'give your email address in exchange for a download.' Make that download amazing. Fans will not only give their emails, they will also share that offer into Facebook and other outlets and create more exposure and distribution for it. Remember -- the number of sales you make is going to be a small percentage of the number of people you can communicate with. So the more people you can communicate with directly, the greater chance you have of making sales," Moz said.

Some of the best advice I took away from the training was: collect more email addresses. Those people who are so interested in you to give that kind of personal information will be the biggest buyers of your product. Also, participate in any platform either online or offline where you can have direct communication to fans expressing their interest in what you are doing. It could be social media sites or offline events like meetups, conventions, conferences. The email list is the most accurate indicator of how many paying fans you have, more so than social media numbers, so it is imperative to collect email addresses as you go.

For more information about Topspin Media, visit or find them on Facebook and Twitter.

To look at the campaigns from some of the musicians mentioned:

Sheri Candler is an inbound marketing strategist who helps independent filmmakers build identities for themselves and their films through the use of online tools. She has promoted short films, narratives and documentaries including The High Level Bridge (Toronto, Sundance, SXSW); Undertow [Contracorriente](Sundance, Frameline), Ride the Divide(Documentary Channel) and consulted with countless independent filmmakers on their content marketing and social networking strategies. Sheri is co-authoring a book , "Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul Presented by PreScreen-Case Studies in Hybrid, DIY and P2P Independent Distribution," due for release digitally in September 2011. Follow her at

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