Jermaine Dupri: "I have created my own social space"

Producer creates new empire in social media to engage with fans

Jermaine Dupri has already built one empire. The producer of records for Destiny’s Child and Mariah Carey, he discovered rap acts Kris Kross and Da Brat and made a fortune from his So So Def Recordings label. He had hit rap records of his own and dated Janet Jackson for many years. It’s a profile that has ensured there are thousands of people around the world who look to Dupri as an example of how to be successful in the entertainment business. Now he is trying to capitalise on that by building a new empire in social media.

Membership of his Global 14 website has quickly grown to 36,000, fuelled by Dupri driving traffic across from a following of nearly 500,000 on Twitter. He wants them where he can enjoy a deeper relationship, he says. “I had a lot of followers on Twitter and (I thought) if I could get half of those people to Global 14 then basically I have created my own social space.”

Dupri, 39, was in London last week addressing a conference of digital marketers and his message was an important one for anyone interested in monetising brands which have built large audiences on Twitter and Facebook but are not enjoying direct financial benefits from them. He claimed his fans listen so closely to what he has to say that he can be an effective advocate for brands that might wish to partner with him on Global 14. “It’s like a cult, these kids really pay attention to what I have done over the years.”

It’s not just about commercial exploitation, he says. The impression he gives is that he wants to inspire his (mainly) young followers with lessons in entrepreneurship and information about national and international current affairs. He is proud of the way he raised the profile of the Trayvon Martin racial shooting in Florida by posting details on Global 14 when the case was little known.

But Dupri’s motivation is also financial and he claims sponsorship is the key model for monetising social media. He calls his approach “personalised/monetised”. He points to the bottled mineral water beside him on the stage. “If I want to tell them Highland Spring water is the new shit you should be drinking, they will listen for at least the first couple of minutes. They trust me that I’m not going to let them down.”

The attraction of Global 14, he claims, is that he personally spends upwards of ten hours a day on the site, posting film of his life (including his visit to London), linking to news and sports stories and directly conversing with his members. The attraction of Global 14 to its members is that at any moment Jermaine Dupri himself may show up in a thread and join a conversation.

He is even prepared to align his personal icon with a commercial sponsor. “Every time you see JD’s name on it, it will be sponsored. For 11 or 12 hours a day you will see that corporate sponsor over and over again,” he said. “I don’t have a problem putting companies’ names besides my name. But I won’t put a company’s name that doesn’t fit with the site.”

After his session he expands on his plans for Global 14 while sitting in a meeting room, demolishing a bag of Haribo sweets. He keeps his sunglasses on while he talks. Global 14 is an homage to himself (the 14 is a reference to the tenth letter J and the fourth letter D). The site includes a feature called JD’s World, where he blogs about his life and notes that many of his fans assumed he was coming to London to play records in a club, rather than talk business.

Global 14 also includes a music platform, G Jams, which Dupri says is his answer to iTunes and where he hopes to promote the work of his own artists.

But he says his principle intention is to grow the site by triggering “conversations” among members.

His approach has led to a partnership with the digital marketing organisation iCrossing which is in turn promoting his hands-on approach to other marketers, saying a sense of community in social media is more important than sheer scale. “We are very careful to ensure that Jermaine remains highly engaged with his followers,” said David Deal of iCrossing. “This has created the most engaged (site) and that’s a huge lesson for any marketer.”

Asked to name a favourite sponsor that he has already worked with on Global 14, Dupri chooses the Canadian whisky brand Crown Royal. “I knew that kids in my community don’t drink Crown Royal, the majority drink champagne,” he says. “They’re not drinking brown liquor in the club, never. But I had kids come to my events and more and more started drinking this liquor. I made it where this old granddaddy liquor is cool now to young people.”

It was not quite the enlightened partnership I had been hoping Dupri would cite as evidence of his relationship with an audience which apparently hangs on his every word. But from a marketing point of view it seemed to work. Many old British brands are desperate to know how they could attract a similar cool status.