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Jan 24 2012
9 notes Text MISC 194

User-Focused Party-Rocking

published in MISC Magazine, Fall 2011

and at NoodlePlay.com, January 2012

User-Focused Party-Rocking: Customer Experience in the Nightclub

Yale Fox is a DJ and nightclub sociologist living and working between Las Vegas and New York City.  In 2010, while working toward his PhD at the University of Toronto, Yale was contacted by a prominent Vegas nightclub – one of the highest rated in the world. So began Yale Fox’s transition from professional student to nightclub experience guru.  This year, Yale received a TED Fellowship for his research on how a customer’s behaviors within a system (the nightclub) are influenced by the DJ’s repertoire of song selection – as well as other factors (flashing lights, wait times, architecture, the staff and other patrons, and the unholy alchemy of Red Bull and vodka).

His company, the 194 Group, is part research lab, part experiential branding firm and part talent agency – representing an impressive roster of DJs and party hosts. For Yale, the live booking aspects of the business are more a networking tool and a signifier of their coolness equity, “when (a potential client) asks, ‘how do we know that you guys know what’s hot in music?’ Well our DJs are playing the hottest nightclubs in the world.” The talent agency maintains their presence in the nightclubs, and Yale’s thesis papers provide a theoretical grounding for their services, but “we’re a marketing firm,” he asserts, “enhancing brand experience through music.” The 194 Group refers to 194 dB, the loudest sound pressure level a human ear can perceive without being damaged and a double entendre suggesting the Group’s ability to amplify a brand through music.

Yale’s business partner Shez Mehra (DJ Wristpect), is a world-class DJ with a b-school vernacular and sensibility, who throws around phrases like “end-user-focused party-rocking.” Shez explains that there is often a conflict between what the client wants and what the customer wants, “A lot of times, the executives from a brand, the promoters, or the venue owner, will want to dictate how we should play.” For Shez, mixing songs for the owner of the club, or for the client, would be the DJ equivalent of designing your customer experience around the disposition of the shareholder. Of course, both the relationship with end-user and with the client, need to be managed. The latter requires a certain level of trust. “The client has one goal,” says Shez. “It’s either to sell alcohol or to spread the message about their product or service to the people in the venue. We do what we do to resonate with the end-user. Once they trust us to do that, they see it unfold in front of their eyes. They see the vibe. They see the sales and they see people leaving happily with their merch and talking about their experience.”

            For Research in Motion, 194 collaborated with Maritz to architect “BBM the DJ,” a series of experiential events to launch the BlackBerry Torch. The parties, exclusively for influencers—celebrities, athletes, bloggers, and executives—as well as for sales reps from various retailers and wireless carriers, were designed to get the right people excited about the product. Attendees were given a Torch upon arrival, and could add an account that would allow them to literally BBM their requests to the DJ. A giant television monitor, dressed as a BlackBerry, displayed the requests, at which point the DJ was tasked to play as many of the requests as possible while maintaining the flow of the night. Shez characterizes this task, the improvisational element of creating a customer experience, as, “catering to the situation,” a notion that applies to many business spaces outside of the nightclub.

While Yale’s research papers are distributed and discussed within the 194 Group in the form of white papers and internal memos—both Yale and Shez are quick to point out that competence in moving dance floors is only teachable a certain point. “Its hard to plan for,” Shez tells me. “In the BlackBerry Tours across North America, every city was completely different. What worked in New York didn’t work in Boston. You have to trust your talent to get into the psyche of the crowd.”

A recent 194 Group signee, DJ Mensa who also happens to have a background in psychology and marketing, adds that DJing is like creating any number of other customer experiences: “You say something with a song. Hopefully the crowd responds. Then you say something with another song and hopefully it perpetuates the conversation. I’ve always considered DJing a customer service. Develop a vibe that will hopefully peak at the right time.”

[More from my Interview with Yale Fox after the jump]


The Nightclub Customer Experience Equation: In Conversation with Yale Fox

Customer experience is a major concern of Yale Fox’s nightclub sociology research—what are the variables that influence an individual’s nightclub journey?  In an hour-long conversation, Yale commented on a variety of key nightlife touchpoints.

On the experience of alcohol:

There are a lot of things you can do to have an experience. You can go to a concert or a carnival and call that an experience, but drinking a legal substance that changes the way you interpret information is an experience in its own right. Alcohol is a chemical that dissociates your top-level cognitive processes and in doing so, it exposes your more or less primitive urges.

On the experience of music:

Music makes your brain produce a chemical called oxytocin – the trust hormone commonly released by the brain during mate-to-mate pair bonding. When men and women fall in love it makes them trust each other. Why it is released when people listen to music is part of the mystery of why music exists and why people love it. When people are dancing to music they love, they’re producing that trust chemical – if you can present information about your brand at the same time, you’ll be addressing a more receptive audience – and you can really make a splash.

On the distinction between bars and nightclubs:

At a bar, the main product you’re selling is alcohol, at a nightclub – like Studio 54, One Oak or Tao – it’s sex and social status.  Everyone in those nightclubs serves a purpose. They don’t hold more than 200 people, servicing only 10-15 tables. Everyone else is general admission—filler crowd.

On wait times:

The wait time to get inside a nightclub is directly related to how important you are to the nightclub. If you have money—five minutes.  If you’re a celebrity—five seconds. The doorman is the most important person at nightclub. They look at you and assess everything.

On bottle service:

If you look at the world through a nightclub lens, it’s a very interesting metaphor for a lot of situations. What happens when people come in to situations of power? How do they behave in terms of showing off resources? The number of bottles at your table becomes a symbol of your social status. At One Oak, there is a $20,000 bottle of champagne on the drink list. There’s no reason to buy this, other than to say that you can… People may say, “If I had $500 I would never spend it on a bottle,” but when they start making money they end up spending it on just that. Animals display “resources” as a measure of fitness. We’re not so different. Does our body, when we have these resources, urge us to display them in a certain way?