While attention span and willingness-to-pay (WTP) decline, one music group from South Korea goes against the trends

Credits: Big Hit Entertainment

On November 30th, South Korean group BTS performed a medley of their hits in Melon Music Awards, turning the local award show into their own concert.

The apotheotic performance, acclaimed by fans and music writers as the greatest of the group’s career so far, is 37 minutes long. That’s almost 10 times the average length of social media videos.

That, however, didn’t stop the group’s fans (called “the BTS Army”), who are from all parts of the world, to give the performance 8 million views (and counting) after it was uploaded to the band’s official Youtube Channel, and keep it trending worldwide on Youtube for days after its release. Actually, many fans confessed on Twitter to have watched it multiple times.

A poor and quick look at these facts could dismiss what’s so unusual about it. One could think that the massive numbers BTS put are just another case of passionate fangirls going crazy for another teenage sensation. Or that there’s nothing extraordinary about fans professing their love for their idols.

Both assumptions are wrong, and both come from not following important rules in business: knowing who your audience is and finding a pattern.

Because, number 1: BTS members are not teenagers, and they actually have fans from a very large age range as well; and, number 2: attention, connection with brands, and engagement with content are becoming harder and harder to achieve.

BTS and their fans seem to be an exception to number 2.

Consumer trends observed in the digital age are leading brands and creatives to release content tailored for super quick consumption. Holding the attention of millions of engaged fans for almost 40 minutes is not an easy feat.

But, in the universe of BTS and their Army, feats like that are not surprising at all.

Known as one of the biggest and most influent fandoms in social media, the BTS Army is also distinguished for giving BTS (and even their subsidiary brands and related products, such as plushies line BT21) some of the things that almost no brand or company gets from their consumers anymore: attention, and willingness to pay (WTP) for goods that are doomed to extinction, or that they could easily get for free.

In an era when even digital sales are decreasing, BTS tops charts in dozens of countries, sells millions of physical albums of music sung in Korean (which, by the way, is the official language of no more than one country in the entire world,) and debuted 3 albums in #1 on Billboard US in the spare of a year.

The band is also known for releasing special songs for free on platforms such as Soundcloud — and for arousing passionate reactions from fans on Twitter asking for the band’s label, Big Hit Entertainment, to release said songs on paid platforms.

Credit: Twitter

Big Hit might not have attended the requests, but the BTS ARMY actually has enough projects to keep them busy. Earlier in 2019, for example, they recharted the band’s entire discography on iTunes. You read it right: entire discography. We’re talking about at least 12 albums & EPs charting at the same time.

With project management skills that would easily put many companies to shame, they also organize streaming projects, volunteer charity events on behalf of the band’s members, academic events to discuss the nuances of BTS’ artistry, just to name a few things.

It’s a groundbreaking level of engagement.

The BTS ARMY is also extremely detail-oriented.

While getting consumer’s attention gets harder every day, and content shock is a reality that might make brand voices disappear on the Internet, BTS has no trouble in releasing tons of extremely intricate content that will be thoroughly devoured by their ARMY.

The watchful eyes of the fans don’t miss a thing: from little hints to the BU (the band’s fictional universe whose story is told through their music, their visual & literary content), and references to Philosophy, Greek mythology, or Jungian Psychology in live performances (such as this year’s at Melon Music Awards), to doubles entendre and hidden meanings in the group’s witty lyrics.

Oh, by the way, these lyrics are in Korean, with no official translation provided by the band’s label. We’re talking about millions of non-Korean speakers spontaneously bending over Korean lyrics, seeking translations, analysis, and sharing theories through blogs and social media.

Attention and loyalty are the highest currency nowadays, and BTS is making a bank.

Actually, as I said before, passion and digital engagement are by no means a new trend.

However, the hot take here for businesses is that, in the case of BTS, said passion and engagement are being directed to consumer habits that are mostly considered dead.

Credits: Big Hit Entertainment, Big Hit Shop US, and Kyungnam Pharm

While many companies struggle to sell even the trendiest and most innovative things, BTS fans buy CDs and personalized ceramics.

While songwriters and producers are adjusting their creative process to capture the listeners’ attention in the first 7 seconds before they skip to the next song on Spotify, BTS’ fans give millions of streams to b-sides produced with old-school vibes and dedicate long Twitter threads to dissect the lyrics.

Taken alone, none of the deeds discussed here is all that of an odd practice, although all are quite rare.

In regards to “dead” goods, BTS Army buying CDs might not seem much different from, for example, the way the vinyl market is actually rising.

In regards to paying attention to lyrics, BTS Army’s dedication goes in hand with the rising of communities such as Genius, once a website solely dedicated to explaining rap lyrics, that grew to become a music intelligence startup for fans of all kinds of music content.

But have you seen one single brand achieve all this? At once? And by itself? While barely speaking the same language as most of their consumers?

The lazy approach would be to think of the group as a hot trend strategically marketed to profit the most they can while the momentum lasts.

But the fact that such a level of worldwide success was neither planned nor expected by BTS’s team is a good start to debunk that narrative (and that, alone, is worth another entire article.)

Besides, BTS is heading to their 7th year as a group, with no signs of slowing down. Doesn’t sound like an ephemeral pop teen sensation at all.

There’s obviously more to them than marketing. And while both BTS as a group and their connection with their fans & consumers can hardly be replicated, I still think they are one of the most interesting cases of the last years, worthy of at least a few serious analyses for the marketing and business fields — and what else not? The list of fields impacted by BTS and Army just gets bigger and bigger.