Riot Fest

HOW TO HYPE a music festival TO RABID FANS (WITH no confirmed lineup)


Client Objective

How do you convince an international audience to buy tickets and travel far and wide to a 3-day Midwestern live music event with no confirmed lineup? You show them how many wishes you’ve already granted.

The Idea

Zolturd is a fortune-telling machine – brought to life with a responsive microsite – who made it easy for anxious music fans to find reasons to pull the trigger on tickets and travel arrangements early. For the particularly stubborn, Zolturd even provided experienced festival-goers a chance to vote on their 15 favorite performances over Riot Fest’s previous 15 years.

  • Website Design
  • Vue.js development
  • Media Buying

If you’re from the Midwest, you’re probably familiar with Riot Fest – a 3-day, borderline-anarchic independent music festival that’s grown from humble beginnings in Chicago’s punk rock clubs to a total takeover of the city’s Douglas Park each September. It’s an event that draws an enormous, and enormously diverse community of attendees – many of whom commit to make the trek each year, even if they don’t know who’ll be playing.

How do they do it? It’s all about snark, and surprise.

From the festival’s inception in 2003, up until the year before its 15th anniversary, the campaign was the same:

Between April and May, Riot Fest made “The Announce,” publicizing its entire lineup (usually 70-100 acts) all at once. The remainder of the time leading up to the event was used to promote particular artists, single-day schedules, and post-show parties using social media. But the first push, on which organizers relied to keep buzz up for nearly four months, lasted just a single day, and relied on more, shall we say, “traditional” media to reach the audience it needed to cover its massive talent budget.

2019 was going to be different.

Riot Fest needed to introduce new fans from around the country to the festival, get its existing fans screaming, and sustain hype from “The Announce” over an extended period of time.

The team at COVERT NINE had a few ideas.

Don’t believe us?

COVERT NINE set out to turn that single day “pop” of traffic into several weeks–without IRRITATING POTENTIAL ATTENDEES anxious to finalize summer plans. For hardcore fans, Riot Fest is their summer vacation. they want answers, not riddles.

“We’re going to get so ****’d on social media if we try to tease this thing out for a week before the announcement.”

Anonymous Riot Fest Employee

The festival itself gives its fans a lot to talk about every year. But the way the team sees it, so does speculation leading to The Announce itself. So, how do you hype… well, The Hype? Riot Fest had noticed how much time its audience would spend each year e-screaming for the lineup to be released. This year, it was determined to turn that traffic to its advantage, and cast a wider net outside the Chicago area, and even the Midwest.

Of course, that meant providing any audience on the fence with a reason commit. And we built a machine to do just that. Riot Fest named the machine Zolturd. (They gave us no reason.)

Zolturd was a fortune teller inspired by the Tom Hanks ’80s classic Big. It would remind existing fans why they love Riot Fest so much in the first place. It would show new audiences what they had to look forward to. And it would give both a reason to keep talking all summer long.

COVERT NINE brought Zolturd to life with the help of an illustration from the Riot Fest team, some clever copywriting, and a Vue.js site that made it easy for its users to share their fortunes with social networks. Zolturd occasionally malfunctioned, spitting back hints about acts on the festival’s as-yet-unreleased lineup. But more usually, it alluded to inside jokes among previous festival-goers, who found themselves acting as defacto Tarot-readers for the uninitiated.

The internet, of course, was very pleased. After launch, COVERT NINE monitors frequently saw Zolturd user sessions lasting for entire workdays, and whole threads grew on Reddit that were devoted entirely to interpreting its messages in the lead-up to The Announce. Some fans even went so far as to attempt hacking Zolturd – and we were all too happy to berate their attempts:

Once the 2019 Riot Fest lineup went live, we went back to check the numbers. We knew Zolturd had been successful. But we didn’t know just how successful it had been:

Over the course of its 2 months live on the Riot Fest site, Zolturd had dispensed more than 200,000 fortunes, which were the impetus for more than a thousand extended conversations on Facebook and Reddit in just the week before and the week after The Announce. It had demolished all of our engagement benchmarks. Once we made Zolturd change form – to a more pleasing doppelganger of John Stamos – we stopped paying attention.

At this point, we had bigger fish to fry:

Riot Fest fans at this point had shifted focus to Zolturd’s inquiries about their 15 favorite performances over Riot Fest’s previous 15 years. And opinions were strong, and heated.

With the help of the Riot Fest content team, we had narrowed down 15 years of live shows to around 80 total over the years we felt encompassed ‘the best’ of Riot Fest.

We had asked fans to rank their top 5 favorite performances over the years on our site, and share with us what made them most-memorable.

And in just over two weeks, we had received more than 15,000 opinions.

Riot Fest tallied the results – not a small feat, given the volume – and published them in a series of blog articles on their site, with accompanying fan commentary and stories over the weeks leading up to the festival. The campaign generated more than 50,000 visits to the Riot Fest website throughout the season.

There was a lot of electronic shouting – but no one got hurt. And we’d be lying if we said we didn’t shed a few tears over how dedicated the festival’s devotees really are.

Who ended up #1? You’ll never guess -but you can find out here (how’s that for clickbait?) – And believe it or not, Zolturd is still running smooth as ever if you want to see what all the hype was about.

The results

200,000+ fortunes dispensed, hundreds of Reddit, Facebook, and Twitter posts over the course of two weeks surrounding the announcement date, along with 15,000+ entries into the 15 Years for 15 Best Performances contest we hosted on the site.