Interview: Steve Martocci On Rewarding Fans, Activists

If you put yourself out there for a band or a cause, you should get something for it. And Steve Martocci has the technology to make that happen. The Sympact CEO has developed personalized email platforms that will allow bands – and nonprofit organizations – the ability to identify and reward their most faithful and generous advocates, perhaps by moving them to the front of the ticket line. Martocci is also a longtime friend of The Disco Biscuits, for whom he has developed an elegantly simple program for writing setlists.

Martocci, who grew up on Long Island, attended Carnegie Mellon University. While working for Cadence Video, he helped produce the Biscuits Progressions DVD and developed value-added merchandise. Martocci launched Sympact (as in "sympathetic impact") in 2006 with an online version of the Lance Armstrong-style charity bracelet. Using this widget, which could be embedded into an email signature or into any website, donors could track how much money had been donated to a charity and read up-to-the minute news. Sympact expanded this into a dynamic Flash technology that could target interested recipients through location and other characteristics. His company has developed dynamic email solutions for Starbucks, Thrillist, and 1-800-FLOWERS. Martocci's main passion, of course, remained music, and you can see his most recent work on the pre-order page for The Disco Biscuits' upcoming Planet Anthem album. (That's Steve and the Biscuits' Marc Brownstein sweating out a Caribbean Holidaze setlist.)

HeadCount: How did you start adapting your email personalization tech to our HeadCount partners through your Bandwith ticket-allocation technology?

Steve Martocci: Dan Berkowitz contacted me about about doing friends-and-family ticketing for the Grateful Dead. Ever since college I’ve had this vision of building a platform for rewarding fan contributions that would really let the band know who their biggest contributors were in terms of both money and time. This would allow the band to allot tickets and music to their biggest supporters, the people who helped grow their band from the bottom up.

So in a sense you've been working on the metrics of fandom.

Yes. Dan and I used to jokingly call this "the Joe Corbett Effect." John lives in Scranton and was largely responsible for the dense population of Biscuits fans in the area because he used to get them all to come to their shows. So identifying and rewarding fans like him could really help grow your band.

So you figured out Bandwith by working with the Grateful Dead.

You really can’t turn down working for the Dead. It was a wonderful experience. They'd been using fax forms, which made it easy to lose things in the shuffle. So we built a system where the band members send out invitations. There's a band allotment, and each member gets his own allotment, so the system allows you to split the total across different lists. Phish has done something similar. The platform is really nice. You can email and text message all your fans depending on where they live. It also tracks all the various passes and credentials the band issues.

I see you also have a program for writing setlists.

I was sitting backstage before a Disco Biscuits show watching Marc Brownstein write a setlist once, and I couldn’t believe what I saw. He had like fifteen pieces of paper he kept losing, and then he'd scream at his tour manager to find them. This was not an efficient process. So I went home and said to a friend, “I'm going to see how fast I can build a system to solve this problem.” I had a prototype within 24 hours, and by the end of the week I'd put together this simple drag-and-drop interface that could do what Marc needed. When he saw it, he was blown away. It was an instant success and he started using it right away.

I want to open up the platform and tie it back into some of my other idea of how fans could be rewarded. We wanted a simple way for fans to add requests to the system, which evolved into a Disco Biscuits iPhone app. I'm building it on a cross-platform framework that lets me put it on iPhones, Blackberries, Android, everything. It’s awesome because you have every setlist ever played, you have the ability to stream any show on right to your phone, and you have the band's news and tweets. That’s version one. Version two will begin rewarding the fans who’ve been investing their time and money.

I'm betting yo have some good ideas about how this could be applied to social activism.

I got involved in HeadCount relatively early on. The same platform I'm bringing to music could work with charity – the concept of showing how much money you give, how much stuff you do, and communicating with your network of friends and co-conspirators. I think HeadCount and technology are great for connecting us, letting us having conversations, and bridging gaps. But there’s a huge need for action. Particularly in HeadCount's case, people need to get past technology and take action. So recently I’ve been thinking about how we can reward people who do things as opposed to just talking about things. That’s where I see the gap. Donating time is worth so much. Using technology to recognize people’s contribution of time will become key.

What kind of rewards do you foresee giving people who donate lots of time?

I'm thinking of a ticketing system. Let’s say a band has 10 percent of tickets to a show or tour while Ticketmaster has the other 90 percent. The band has this web platform to track their fan's actions – such as how much money and time they've donated, how they've actually affected things. Look at a band like Arcade Fire, which who has a deep connection to Haiti. They could take 10 percent of their tickets and sell them exclusively to people who've donated ten hours to help Haiti. If you took your band's ticket budget and said, "OK let's dedicate 10 percent for social change," it shouldn’t be that hard of a process. HeadCount is in a really interesting position because they’re a well-recognized name. We could do this in different areas, such as sports and entertainment, but music is especially interesting because people treat it like a community. There’s a way to empower the band to push its flock in the direction they want to.

With a million online networking distractions, the challenge is increasingly to get someone to focus on your issue. How do you do that?

The way to get someone to focus is to put a carrot in front of their face. The one thing that’s kind of not great about all these online experiences is that nothing feels real. You do a little bit of this, a little bit of that, but I don’t think anyone ever really satisfied. The way to focus people is to organize real, solid events.