In the two years since Spotify launched in the U.S., young American business professionals (among other niche user groups) have wholeheartedly embraced the music platform with no reserve. Whether tethered to a laptop at their desks for more than hours a day or on the road tending to clients and prospects, today’s generation of nine-to-fivers – myself included – rely on Spotify to get them through the day in a sane state of mind.

Spotify’s U.S. user base doubled in 2012, making the current active users tally over 24 million people. More than six million of those are paying subscribers, which means approximately 18 million stateside listeners are consuming ads along with their music. This presents a huge advertising opportunity for manufacturers of headphones, speaker systems, and other music consumption accessories, as well as for promoters of large-scale events and festivals.

But what about products and services not inherently related to the music industry? Isn’t it fair that they too have a piece of the pie and be afforded the opportunity to put their brands in front of Spotify’s young captive audience? With only 20 percent of its user base paying for a subscription (and 80 percent of users being subjected to ads), Spotify happily opens its advertising door to interested parties – often at the expense of their users’ listening experience. While Spotify ultimately hopes users will be coerced into purchasing ad-free subscriptions, they bask in the glory of ad revenue in the meantime. (Note: I have emailed Spotify to ask if they have any rules or regulations mandating products and services define their relevance to a community of music consumers before being permitted to air advertisements on Spotify.)

The anatomy of a double fail

Last week I was so put off by an out-of-context ad that I took my annoyance to Twitter, as any other 20-something business professional would do in today’s world of instant, personalized brand engagement. The ad opened like this: Your favorite band just announced a new show date! But you have a UTI. Don’t let UTI pain keep you from the music! Try [INSERT UTI MEDICATION PRODUCT HERE] and get back to the music!”

From my experience as an ex-link-builder-turned-inbound-marketer, this ad is the equivalent of a spammy link drop. Who is this company to assume that simply because I listen to music that I’ve probably had to miss a concert due to a UTI? Even if I have, is Spotify really the time and place to try to have that conversation with me? It was time to use social media to call someone out on their BS.

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What happened next was surprising, bold and rash.

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At first I was taken aback. No apology? No attempt to justify the ad’s placement on Spotify? My friends were less kind than I, calling the community manager behind the AZO account rude and terrible at the job. After all, isn’t this person’s role to educate and inform people about the brand through engagement? Is this kind of response really expected to motivate someone to further explore the brand?

But then again, AZO was right. I actually never have had to miss a concert due to UTI pain. And I probably am lucky for that. Maybe the brand is simply asking me to sympathize with their customers, which I’m okay with. But I’m not the only person with complaints here (let’s not forget the debacle with Trojan commercials last holiday season), nor am I the only person getting boorish replies from AZO.

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So, who’s at fault here? Is it me, the agitated Spotify user being subjected to ads that are irrelevant and poorly targeted? Or is it the brand adversely standing up to users calling them out for their bad marketing channel decisions? At what point do today’s generation of tech-savvy listeners grow tired of unoriginal marketers who “cast the net” in lieu of personalized, targeted and (ideally) permission-based advertising messages? The answer is different for every firm in every industry.

Here are a few things to consider when evaluating new marketing channels for reaching your target audience:

  • Before even evaluating marketing channel options, make sure your target market is clearly defined, well-articulated, and segmented with user personas. A UTI company, for example, may be targeting athletes, frequent users of catheters, pregnant and/or sexually active women, elderly people and men with large prostates.
  • Once your target market is segmented, figure out where those groups are hanging out online and what questions they’re asking. Do athletes know that dehydration increases their chances of contracting a UTI? Where would they be most receptive to finding and utilizing this information? They probably won’t react to a tweet directing them to a sales-y post on your company website, but they might click on a guest article you’ve published on a reputable health blog.
  • Have a flexible, nimble plan in place for engagement. If a prospect tweets at a brand and no one is there to reply, did the opportunity to engage ever exist? If people are discussing your brand in a positive light, thank them, befriend them, retweet them and, most importantly, remember them for the future. These are your brand ambassadors and you never know when you’ll need to leverage them in the future for a product review, to sponsor a contest giveaway or publish a guest blog post from you.

On the other hand, when negative conversations are happening about your brand, you need to be present to moderate and do damage control. This is a crucial opportunity to educate, correct errors and prevent your competitors from snatching up your prospects and repeat business. Remember, everything is public and permanent on the social web. Community managers should never argue, insult or otherwise act unprofessionally. If all else fails, give them the Care Bear stare and politely move on.

As marketers embracing inbound concepts, it is your role to know your target market inside and out so you can meet them for conversations about your product in the appropriate venues. And if we’ve learned anything from AZO, it’s to keep your message clear of places it doesn’t belong. You think all concert-going music lovers have experienced UTI pain before? Urine for a rude awakening.