In what was described by American Underground's
After taking a year off following a loss of $1.5 million during the 2014 festival in Asheville
, the pressure was on for both festival organizers and Durham to breathe new life into Moogfest.
Durham is an emergent figure in the country’s startup scene, and as such, also had a lot to prove. Among the thousands of attendees and 400 accredited press members at the festival were writers from the New York Times and The Atlantic, alongside international journalists from places like The Guardian.
While headliners like GZA and Grimes were under the spotlights on the main stages, the town and the festival needed to show off to make Moogfest a success.
FACT Magazine summed up the stakes for Durham and Moogfest as well as can be done, saying “New possibilities were the focus of this year’s festival, which this year saw a rebranding of not only what the festival stands for, but how it functions: a new town, a new approach, a new identity.”
Someone needed to step up to show the world what Durham can do, and community and business leaders alongside PR firms worked together to sell Durham and its startup scene.
I had the chance to talk to a few of the key players and ask how they made the sell.
It all started with a group led by the AU's Klein, former Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce President Casey Steinbacher, Taylor Mingos, CEO of Shoeboxed, Chris Heivly of The Startup Factory and Dan Dillon of Automated Insights, who met nearly a year and a half before Moogfest came to town to devise plans for showcasing the business and startup community here.
Steinbacher describes the effort as two-pronged, with both “traditional and non-traditional buckets”, the latter of which she described as “guerilla marketing”.
The three main points they wanted to get across to the press about Durham entrepreneurship, according to Mingos were “No. 1, Durham is a booming tech town, two—Durham is a progressive place and has progressive values, and three—the density and speed at which the community is involved here.”
Both traditional and non-traditional strategy
One of the earliest and probably most traditional moves was working with New York PR firms PKPR
and Magnum PR
to represent the town before and during the event. This agency helped document the festival, brand the town and feed stories to journalists in the lead up to Moogfest. Along with Raleigh agency GBW Strategies, they put together press events in NYC in the weeks before Moogfest where journalists from organizations like Vice
, The Verge
were in attendance.
It's unclear what direct impact these visits had besides drumming up awareness of the festival—besides a Rolling Stone
shout-out as a Must-See Music Festival,
most of the coverage came after the event.
The coalition of business leaders was also involved in the establishment of a press lounge on the second floor of the Carolina Theatre, where there were printed guides to the startup community, the ever so valuable open wifi (when it was empty enough in there to find a connection), refreshments and caffeine along with local business and marketing professionals to help feed and establish stories. It was a work space, a place to rest your feet, a venue for video interviews and it was rarely not jammed with press putting together stories on Durham and the event.
Another drop in the “traditional bucket”, Steinbacher described, was the use of the American Underground @Main space as a venue for panels and events. Klein’s team was largely responsible for most of the traffic coming in and out of the shared workspace for local startups. He estimates there were roughly 1,000 people visiting, touring or attending a panel at the space each day of the event.
Additionally, Klein led several different media tours of Durham businesses and AU@Main over the course of the event. American Underground also hosted early morning press breakfasts on Friday and Saturday. Refreshments were provided complimentarily and copiously by local vendors like Rise Biscuits & Donuts and served alongside Bloody Marys mixed by a few members of the AU staff (whom I’m sure all the press would like to track down and thank).
The tours were fairly free form and conversational, and Klein was knowledgeable and open about the Durham startup scene.
Mingos is largely to thank for the glossy Downtown Durham Startup Walking Tour Guide you might have seen around the festival, displayed at the American Underground lounge and press spot at the Carolina Theatre. The stops on the guide include the AU, the American Tobacco Campus, Five Points on Main Street St. Durham.ID (the Duke University-anchored Durham Innovation District) , the Carolina Theatre and Black Wall Street.
On these tours, it’s likely you’d see window signs around the area showing off stats about the Durham startup scene. Several were plastered on the entry to AU@Main, showing statistics on the successes, diversity and growth of business in the area. The previously mentioned group of local business leaders is to thank for that as well.
A writer from The Atlantic felt “faint echoes of South by Southwest” partially because “The sidewalks of downtown were plastered with somewhat eyeroll-inducing propaganda about the city’s friendliness to startups.” Though not entirely positive, he commented that the festival “fit nicely” with Durham’s positioning as hub of startup activity.
Startup products on display
While tech and business-focused startups and companies worked hard to show off during the festival, many local consumer-product based startups also promoted their products and image.
While visitors rested on Durham startup Nugget Comfort’s
foam couches in the lobby of the AU, transformed into a “Recharge Zone”, they sipped on Mati Energy
drinks and snacked on YAWP!
bars. Both companies gave away products and chatted with interested press members and event attendees.
I’m not certain how many cans of Mati Energy were given away over the course of the event, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was one of the main sources of nutrition and energy for many of the press members (including me).
Durham lifestyle and clothing brand Runaway partnered with Moogfest to produce a collaborative festival tee, which Runaway’s Justin Laidlaw likes to think of as “the local Moogfest shirt.”
I saw dozens and dozens of people wandering downtown wearing the distinctive tee, likely due in large part to the fact that Runaway was one of the official Moogfest merchandise locations.
“Some of the artists performing at Moogfest were even wearing our shirts during the performances” says Laidlaw. All of these factors lead to what he describes as a “record” weekend for the company.
Moogfest also helped to promote the circus themed reverse job fair known as Tech Jobs Under the Big Top
, giving it a key location on the lawn at Bull McCabe's. And American Underground capitalized on the festival's activity to also plan a party celebrating its new entrepreneur-in-resident focused on diversity initiatives.
ExitEvent was invited to produce a program for the festival too—we featured six entrepreneurs in the community reimagining the future of their industries.
Moogfest and Moog Music deserve credit for giving people like the tech committee and Laidlaw’s Runaway attention and responsibility at the festival. All the entrepreneurs I spoke to mentioned the festival’s willingness to help promote small business and startups in Durham.
Startup people were fun and present
But perhaps the best Durham salespeople were the members of our community who were there just having fun.
Past 7 or 8 PM, I wasn’t there in the capacity of press, and the people from companies like Shoeboxed or Automated Insights weren’t there in the capacity of representatives of their companies. We were all just people, and that's important.
For every Durham business employee attending Moogfest as a representative, there were 10 attending for enjoyment or curiosity.
This is valuable for two reasons. Firstly and most obviously, it showcases the crossover of demographics between Moogfest attendees and the movers and shakers in Durham.
Secondly, the best salesman is one who doesn’t care about a sale. While directed movements in advertising local businesses are great, there’s nothing worse than being subjected to a conversation that seems like a sale.
If you went to Motorco and talked to strangers, it’s likely they’d be Durham residents. If you asked about their work, they’d speak frankly about what they did. It just so happens lots of these people had cool jobs working in the startup scene.
Some of the best advertising of the Durham startup scene was done not on stages in front of a podium under the heat of spotlights, but instead on a wet picnic bench over cheap cocktails with strangers who just so happen to drop a business card with the Durham zip on the bottom.
As important as marketing campaigns are, Durhamites selling Durham because Durham is Durham may have been one of the best ways to convince out of towners and press that we’re interesting and growing.
Moogfest 2017 = success
In the end, the efforts of the startup community and Moogfest organizers and half-drunk Durhamites paid off. Moogfest 2017 has already been scheduled in Durham next year. The press paid attention.
Long form profiles of the event and Durham were published by:
While all praised the music and the scene, I think FACT Magazine described the town and the event best and most elegantly.
This weekend welcomed an even distribution of wide-eyed out-of-towners and locals, who were quick to point out that the Durham we saw was, for all intents and purposes, brand new. The hotels, the skyscrapers, the coffee shops and galleries: all have only been in existence for around five years. Signs opposing HB2 could be seen in every window, and bathrooms declaring “we don’t care” – or the wonderfully cheeky “Gender Neutral (Milk Hotel)” – were scattered in venues across the city. Elsewhere, Prince symbols replaced gender logos.
Durham is undergoing an incredible transformation, not only in the eyes of locals, but also to the objective lens of outside press. The new identity is shiny, new and forward thinking.
While Moogfest is about the intersection between technology and human culture, the physical space it inhabits tells its own story and adds to the vibe of the conversation and music.
Dr. Martine Rothblatt, one of the keynote speakers and overall tastemakers of the event, apparently had an interesting time in our town.
Rothblatt has been coming to the Triangle for years, but has mostly skipped over Durham. After tours of shows, events and drinks at the 21c Museum Hotel, Rothblatt told Steinbacher that “she loves durham” and that from now on she will “come here always.”
In terms of business attraction, Klein had several founders and CEOs from across the country approach him with questions and interest in moving their business into the area. Klein says they were impressed with how our business scene expressed itself. While names and numbers can’t be released, it seems plausible the event could lead to more business for the area.
From high level business leader conglomerates to small bike shops with signs reading “Moog yo butt!”, business here put their best foots forward and it was noted. If the main complaint about the event and city was that lines were a bit long, it seems we did well.
We look forward to seeing you next year for Moogfest 2017.
Stay weird, Durham looks forward to having you again.