We can either follow our instinct
Or take advice from every joker
We can either be distinct, or wind up merely mediocre
I’d rather be nine people’s favorite thing
Than a hundred people’s ninth favorite thing.

For the past year, those words have been a mantra at Social Signal. When we tackle a new social media project, we’re always balancing the size of the audience we’d like to reach (you know, a few hundred million or so) with the desire to engage meaningful participation. And meaningful engagement is most likely when you focus on becoming nine people’s favorite thing.

The line comes from [title of show], up for Best Book at tonight’s Tony Awards. We were lucky to catch [title of show] a couple of weeks after it opened on Broadway last August. The show had us in stitches, but as we listened to the cast album repeatedly over subsequent months, it was the show’s deeper insights into the nature and experience of creativity that stuck with us.

[title of show] has reached me in a way that only a handful of shows, novels or movies ever have: it’s wormed its way into my mind and heart and become part of who I am and how I see the world. If the show succeeded in making itself my favorite thing, it’s no coincidence that its creative voice comes from a team with a deep appreciation and talent for my own creative medium: social media.

TOS co-creator Jeff Bowen had a successful Internet marketing business long before TOS hit Broadway, and the TOS site, YouTube presence and MySpace and Facebook pages show what social media can do for both a brand and a creative voice. Drawing on both the show’s lyrics and its skilled use of social media, I’ll show how you can tap the power of social media for both expressive and marketing power.

You are not your blog

I’m standing here, just left of center and something ain’t clear:
When did I sign on the line of this decree?
Stuck in a show where I am playing me.

[title of show] is a musical about two guys writing a musical; composer-lyricist Jeff is played by real-life TOS composer-lyricist Jeff Bowen, librettist Hunter is played by librettist Hunter Bell, and actress-buddies Heidi and Susan are played by actress-buddies Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell. The TOS cast share more than names with their characters; the line between person and persona is blurred. And yet there is a distinction, just as there is a distinction between the persona of a blogger and the person who blogs. As reported in the New York Times last year,

Berresse…keeps the lines between his actors and the characters from blurring by using a simple device. Hunter Bell the actor is simply Hunter. Hunter Bell the character is Bunny Hunter — the profile of a bunny being what you get when you take two fingers from each hand, representing quotation marks, and put them on top of your head. It has been helpful. “Sometimes I’d say, ‘I would not necessarily make that choice, but I understand that for the 90-minute structure, Bunny Heidi is going to make that choice,’ ” Ms. Blickenstaff said.

Remembering that people who attack — or praise — your blog posts are attacking your blogging persona, and not you personally, will go a long way to preserving your sanity online.

You are your audience

Nothing guarantees it will stand out, and its future is unknown…
But we can’t do it all alone.
Untitled Opening Number

If you want your brand, product or campaign to stand out, don’t try to do it alone: invite your customers or audience to be part of what you’re creating. [title of show] baked audience participation into its marketing with a blog inviting audience comments and highlighting fan videos; fans responded in droves. It created badges and buttons for fans to put on their own sites, extending the TOS marketing reach. The day the Tony nominations came out, I was far from the first commenter on the New York Times’ site to decry the single nomination TOS received — build loyal and engaged fans, and they’ll let the world know how many awards you really deserve. And TOS created a dynamite widget for the likes of me to spread across the web.

You can’t take attention for granted

HUNTER: I don’t want this to be just sketches and novelty songs linked together. I want there to be substance, not just fluff, not that there’s anything wrong with fluff. But I wanna strive for something that makes people really pay attention, you know what I mean?
SUSAN: Huh… I totally stopped listening.

No matter how much you pour into your blogging, twittering, flickring or other social media efforts, and no matter how great its value, you’re doing a dance with an audience that — like Susan — may or may not be paying attention. The art of social media lies in finding ways to get and keep attention, and the TOS use of social media is a great case study in how valuable that attention can be. When the show lay dormant after a couple of years of working the off-Broadway circuit, the creators launched a “[title of show] show” on YouTube, with episodes imagining the show’s longed-for move to Broadway. The episodes caught producers’ attention, and the show did indeed get its Broadway run.

Your heart is at least as important as your brain

I aimed for the sky, a nine-year-old can see so far
I’ll conquer the world and be a star, I’ll do it all by the time I’m ten.
I would know that confidence, if I knew a way back to then.

Social media is at its most compelling when it’s playful and authentic: when you’re speaking from your nine-year heart, with the benefit of your thirtysomething (or twentysomething, or fiftysomething) brain. There’s a lot of online chatter about social media smarts, but at least as many social media successes have emerged from passionate expression; from people who’ve found their way back to then. The TOS site is a great example of what happens when brains and heart meet: the site has a polished design with an easy-to-navigate interface, and both the site and blog overflow with the playfulness, irreverence, profanity and humor of the show itself:

Do you guys know that when we were dreaming of the dreamiest place for [title of show], we all had the Vineyard at the top of all our dream lists? We never thought we would actually get to do our play there… And then we squeezed our little golden pony, and it pooped out our dreamiest wish. That golden pony is awesome. You have to get one.
Heidi, on the TOS blog

Your voice is worth sharing

You have a story to tell, a novel you keep in a drawer.
You have a painting to paint, but you’re lazy like an old French whore
You have a movie to make, Shrinky Dinks you can bake, but you best grab a stake, because
In sweep the vampires, in creep the vampires, knee deep in vampires,
Filling you with doubt, insecurity, ‘bout what your art should be
In sweep the vampires
Die vampire die!

At its best, social media provides a channel for self-expression in all its forms: text, image, audio, video, image. But the advent of the Internet doesn’t make the challenges of artistic expression go away; online authors can be as scared, as blocked, and as neurotic as any offline artist. Killing the vampires that keep you from expressing online — the vampires that say, as the show puts it, “you cannot sing good enough to be in a musical. Or they might say: Ooh, your song’s derivative, to keep that song from you.

Don’t let fears about the quality or originality of your work keep you from finding your voice online, whether its expressed through a Flickr photo collection, a real-time blogging memoir, or a group of Sims singing someone else’s song:

social-media-tonyWe’ll be rooting for Hunter and the rest of the TOS team during tonight’s Tony webcast (sadly, the Best Book award has been cut from the CBS broadcast). Whether or not [title of show] wins, the mere fact of its nomination speaks volumes not only about the brilliance of the show, but the power of its web-enabled audience engagement. Meanwhile, we’re unilaterally awarding TOS one more well-deserved Tony: for social media that reminds us what creativity is all about.