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Stop Asking People To Pre-Save Your Song

December 2, 2020

You really need to stop asking people to pre-save your song on Spotify.

Now, we're not here to judge. We completely understand why the concept of a pre-save campaign seems appealing on paper. And we've ran our fair share of these campaigns in the past.

This article comes from a place of love, not a place of condescension. We're not talking down to you, the humble musician/manager/marketer/label/distributor just trying to do everything you can to make your release successful. We are you. Well not literally, but you get the point. 

This is not a scolding for asking fans to "Pre-save my new single on Spotify!" The truth is, it's not your fault. Based on the way we see folks talk about Spotify pre-save campaigns, you would seem almost irresponsible not to run one. 

Irresponsible not to run one if — and this is the crux of the issue, here — the supposed benefits of a pre-save campaign were all they're cracked up to be. But there's a lot of misinformation out there. There's also a lot of incomplete information. And at the very least, there's some serious misunderstanding about the supposed benefits of a pre-save campaign — and what you might be leaving on the table by putting most of your eggs in the pre-save basket.

So in this article, we explain what a Spotify pre-save technically is (and isn't), why the supposed benefits range from half-baked to completely unproven, how focusing on pre-save campaigns could potentially hurt your release, and what you might want to focus on instead.

If you're a marketer/distributor etc. who uses pre-save campaigns as part of your offering, we hope that this article at least gives you some food for thought. And some ideas on how to possibly shift some attention and budget away from pre-save campaigns towards other initiatives.

 Again, this is a no judgment zone. We've done our fair share of pre-save campaigns and contests in the past. We're writing this because we care about you.

But seriously. It's time to ditch pre-saves. 

What Isn't A Pre-Save

First and foremost, a "pre-save" is not a real thing in Spotify's ecosystem. There is no separate statistical category for a pre-save. You will never find Spotify data on pre-saves. Spotify gives artists a fair amount of data (it could always be more...wink), but Spotify itself does not have a "pre-save" statistic. It only recognizes saves. 

Pre-saving is not an officially supported function of Spotify. When a fan pre-saves a song, Spotify doesn't know about it (more on this in the next section).

You won't find the word "pre-save" in Spotify's official materials or on Spotify for Artists. And you'd be hard pressed to find Spotify brass discussing the function in any official capacity. In our conversations with Spotify personnel (current and former), "pre-save campaigns" have never come up as a best practice

(This is entirely speculation on our part, but we imagine there are some internal guidelines on avoiding talking about pre-saves when representing the company. And if we're right about that, we wouldn't blame Spotify for setting that expectation).

That's because the only role Spotify actually plays in the pre-save process is granting a third party (i.e. a different company like Feature FM or ToneDen or Metablocks or Presave.io or literally dozens of others) access to their API. Which, in layman's terms, means that Spotify will allow this company to access certain levels of a Spotify user's account (with the user's permission). 

This API is the same thing that allows other apps to incorporate access to your Spotify library,  share what you're listening to with your friends, analyze certain musical components of songs, and so on and so forth. Any developer can request access to the API, and though there are rules about what you can and can't do, just about anybody could create their own form of a pre-save service.

How A Company Allows You To "Pre-Save" And What It Actually Is

So this is how it works. Let's pretend there's a website called PreSave4U. You're releasing a new single in 6 weeks. You've got it all set up through your distributor. Spotify has accepted the track and has generated the song's unique URL (or URI), which your distributor gives you. This URL doesn't actually link to anything now, but when your song releases, it will take anybody with it to your song on Spotify.

So you head over to PreSave4U. You pay for an account and give them your upcoming single's URL, which you got from your distributor. You fill in some other info. PreSave4U gives you a link to share with your fans. This link is a landing page that PreSave4U hosts on their own website.

When your fan clicks the link, they're taken to the landing page. They see your single/album artwork and a big button to pre-save on Spotify. When they actually click that button, they're asked to sign in to Spotify (if they aren't already) and grant PreSave4U permissions or access to their Spotify account. This is where the API thing comes into play.

You see, a little while back PreSave4U applied for Spotify API access. Spotify checked them out and they agreed to play by the rules, so Spotify said, "Sure — if a user grants you permission, you may do certain things to their account."

So when the user clicks the big pre-save button and that official Spotify-looking sign-in and permission prompt pop up, all the user is really doing is letting PreSave4U access their account.

Based on this process, it's easy to see why it feels like a pre-save is an official Spotify protocol. But it's not. All your fan is doing is granting a third party company access to do certain things to their account. The same box that pops up when they click "pre-save" would pop up even if the button said "Click here for free ice cream." That little pop-up box has never heard the term "pre-save" in its life.

When a user grants PreSave4U permission to access their Spotify account, one of the critical things they do is allow PreSave4U to access their library. This means the company can see what songs the user has saved in the past and — here's the big part — add more songs to their library. 

What's another term for adding a song to your user library? Ding ding ding. A "save." 

Ok, so behind the scenes, PreSave4U now has access to add songs (aka save them) to your fan's library. PreSave4U also has the link to your song. This link will ONLY work once the song is publicly available. 

So here's what PreSave4U is doing behind the scenes. They have a big ol' database (you know, like...spreadsheets and stuff). In that database, they have all the information they can get from the fan via the Spotify API. They have your song's link. They have a date and a time that this song comes out. And they have permission to save songs to a user's library.

So now, midnight on your release day rolls around (or whatever time you set in PreSave4U's dashboard, if they allow that customization). Suddenly, PreSave4U automatically opens the door to your user's profile, grabs your song's newly activated link, navigates to the song in Spotify, and adds that song to the user's library. It does that for every one of your fans who gave it permission when they clicked that big pre-save button on your landing page. (This is a technical simplification of the process, but you get the idea).

Voila. Your new song has now been saved to the user's Spotify library. 

So, to go back to our point earlier, you can see how Spotify only recognizes saves and not pre-saves. You can see why there's no such thing as a pre-save as far as Spotify is concerned. Spotify has absolutely no idea what PreSave4U is doing prior to that song coming out. All Spotify knows is that your fans are granting PreSave4U permission to access their library. Everything else is happening on PreSave4U's own website servers etc., which Spotify doesn't have access to. 

Every single company and distributor offering a pre-save uses this basic core principle. Sure, some of them are very fancy and have many other options. But they all rely on two basic components:

1) Having access to a user's Spotify profile
2) Storing necessary information in their own databases and performing actions based on that information

How Pre-Saves Became Popular

So now that we've covered how pre-saves aren't actually a real thing as far as Spotify is concerned, let's talk about why this third-party hack has become so prevalent.

Back in 2016, when David Emery was the VP of Global Marketing Strategy at Kobalt Label Services, he and his team orchestrated the first widely discussed pre-save campaign for their artist Laura Marling. The concept was simple: replicate the process of "pre-ordering" something in a digital medium where the product is now essentially free. 

This re-envisioned form of pre-ordering meant the Kobalt team could still have a familiar marketing driver, use pre-save numbers to prove the product is in high demand, and, in theory, secure a certain level of early consumption expectations for release day.

When the Laura Marling release was a success and several articles and blog pieces on the strategy gained traction, it wasn't long before companies looked to scale that pre-save experiment by offering the service to, well, anybody willing to pay.

It's important to note that neither Emery nor Kobalt explicitly claimed their pre-save campaign was directly responsible for any specifically quantifiable unit of success on the Marling release. How could they? They weren't running a scientific study and measuring variables and using a control or anything like that. They were just trying to think outside the box to come up with something they thought might give the release an edge, based on how they thought Spotify reacted to user engagement.

But the release went well, the strategy gained a lot of buzz, and it seemed like for the first time, just maybe, somebody figured out how to "hack the algorithm" (barf) and create a potentially standardized process for pre-release success on Spotify. Still, don't blame Emery (who is now at Apple Music UK) or Kobalt for how pre-saves got out of hand.

Because they really did get out of hand. Soon, multiple companies started popping up in the space. Music fans were inundated with requests to "pre-save" songs. There was (and still is) a lot of confusion about what that process actually is. But that hasn't stopped dozens of companies and distributors from making Spotify pre-save campaigns a core component of new release rollout. 

Why People Think Pre-Saves Are Good

On paper, a lot of the logic behind pre-save campaigns seem to make sense. And like we promised way back when — if we're talking about it, it comes from a place of experience. We ran multiple types of pre-save campaigns in the past for multiple types of artists and releases, both paid and unpaid. 

So, let's look at those primary on-paper benefits just so we're on the same page. In the next section we'll address what elements of these on-paper benefits are actually real/provable.

  1. Having a bunch of saves on release day means the song is more likely to get noticed by Spotify curators who will place the song on editorial playlists.
  2. Having a bunch of saves on release day means the song is more likely to "trigger the algorithm" and end up on Discover Weekly, subsequent Release Radars, and other Spotify algorithmic playlists.
  3. Most companies also give you the option to collect a fan's email address to build your email list.
  4. Most companies allow you to collect *some* additional data points, like geographic location (if available). Some also offer integration of marketing pixels and building audience intent based on which services they click etc.
  5. Pre-save campaigns can also feature things like adding your song to playlists and getting users to follow your playlists. Some services also allow you to wrap in other features, like contests, asking users to subscribe to your YouTube channel or follow you on other social media etc. 
  6. Pre-save campaigns can also incorporate other services like Deezer, Apple Music, and digital download pre-orders.
  7. Pre-save campaigns allow you to continually push awareness towards your new music.

That's the bulk of the benefits that most companies will tout when courting your cash. Most of the simple and free services (like those available from DistroKid etc.) don't go too far beyond the core functionality of collecting pre-saves and emails.

Addressing Whether These Benefits Are Actually Real (And Beneficial)

Alright, so let's take these supposed benefits one by one. 

1. Currying Favor With Editorial. Let's address this in two parts. First, the only pre-release way to gain access to editorial consideration is to submit your track via Spotify for Artists at least one week before it comes out. Spotify swears by this up and down. Even though distributors are allowed to submit "priority release" information for songs internally, the only way to guarantee the song gets heard for consideration is by using Spotify for Artists. Spotify also says editors are not allowed to take considerations via email and personal relationships. There are plenty of managers etc. who will roll their eyes at this and anecdotally tell you the ONLY way they get support for their releases is after they message a personal contact at Spotify — but regardless, Spotify's official policy is to use Spotify for Artists. And personal relationships are hardly reliable, much less scalable. 

The point of mentioning this is to remind that you that Spotify doesn't know how many people pre-save your song. The only way an editor would know is if you or your manager/label etc. tried to reach out and tell them beforehand, which is against Spotify policy. And given Spotify doesn't use the word pre-save in an official capacity, that's a whole heck of a lot of winkin' and noddin' for this potential benefit to be considered reliable. So the idea that pre-saves will give you a pre-release awareness boost at Spotify is basically bogus. 

But what about getting a boat-load of day-of saves when you hit midnight and PreSave4U triggers all those automatic saves? Everything we know about Spotify suggests that the platform requires multiple points of engagement in order to alert editors about an over-indexing (i.e. popular) song. Simply triggering hundreds or thousands of saves all at once won't matter at all if users aren't also listening, playlisting, and sharing the track in substantial numbers. In other words, you're up against a *lot* of songs fighting for editorial attention on release day and you need sustained points of multiple types of engagement over longer periods of time to get another look if editors passed over your track the first time. Things like a steadily increasing listener-to-save-to-stream ratio week over week is almost certainly more reliable than a big day one dump of saves.

2. Triggering The Algorithm/Discover Weekly. This starts to piggyback off the previous point. Meaning getting a bunch of saves all at once really doesn't matter to Spotify if you aren't getting other levels of engagement. A lot of this comes down to a fundamental misunderstanding of the Spotify Recommendation Engine.

Spotify has changed quite a bit since 2016, when Emery and company ran their pre-save experiment. How, and why, Spotify recommends music to a user is an intensely complicated machine learning process. Here is a 30-minute presentation from Spotify's Oskar Stål on how it works. Seriously, it's just free and available on the Internet. Also, here is a very helpful podcast episode from the Indepreneur team explaining the whole thing in slightly more digestible terms.

But the gist of it is that Spotify recommends songs based off actual consumption and behavioral habits. It also favors sustained periods of time and diverse data, which is why Discover Weekly etc. usually take at least a few weeks to trigger. 

All that is to say, there is absolutely no proof that getting a bunch of saves all on one day helps Spotify actually algorithmically recommend your song. And as we'll discuss a bit later, it might actually *hurt* your algorithmic performance in certain instances. 

3. You Can Collect Emails. This one is a legit benefit. Emails and email lists are super important. But, there is a caveat. For one, depending on the type of pre-save, the user might not have the ability to choose which email they give. Meaning it will pull the email address they used to create their Spotify account, which could be different from the email address they actually check, depending on when and how they created their account. So you might end up with an unused email. Second, you really want to make sure people are explicitly giving you their email address because they want to hear from you. If you collect an email address without permission, that's a big no-no. And if the user just casually opts in to give you their email when they pre-save, the email might be an after-thought. All of this begs the question: if email capture is currently the only REAL benefit of a pre-save campaign, why not just run a better email capture campaign instead?

4. Potentially Collecting Additional Data Points. This one is kind of a stretch. It's usually a more expensive feature in platforms, and it's also potentially incomplete data. Like, it's fine? But you can typically get this data more reliably via your email list provider and previous sales etc. Or, ultimately, by just...you know...asking your fans. When it comes to measuring intent via pixels and multistore click tracking, this is something you're better off doing when the song is already out, anyways. Plus, we know that multistore links tend to be inefficient, as more options and points of friction reduce conversions. In reality, it probably makes more sense to create targeted ads for each individual service, as opposed to asking a fan to make a choice.

5. Getting Additional Points Of Engagement, Playlist Adds, Subscribers Etc. In most cases, every additional "friction" point or "ask" is another chance to lose a customer. You want to create as few clicks necessary to get the job done. So while in theory the idea of "get them while they're there" seems like it would play out, it's much more likely to simply cause a user to leave the page without doing anything, especially if they have to keep signing in and accepting APIs just to do a little pre-save. The point about email capture applies here, too. You want people to follow and engage with you on the platform. Somebody who watches a video and then subscribes to your YouTube channel is so much more likely to explore more of your content than somebody who subscribes to your YouTube channel via a pre-save landing page. You just really have to think about the "consumer" here and try to make this an enjoyable experience for them, as opposed to squeezing them for every potential stat.

6. Incorporating Multiple ServicesSee above. More services = more points of friction = less likelihood a user will do anything. We will say this, though. Apple Music does officially support a "pre-add" function, and Deezer supports a pre-save function. We also have absolutely no idea on how much that affects your song's potential performance, because Apple Music is notoriously tight-lipped about how they recommend music etc. and Deezer's artist-facing analytics aren't great. That being said, the fact that Apple Music at least officially supports the pre-add function (in platform, no less) means it could potentially have value. Same for Deezer. But that doesn't change the fact that much about the process of pre-saving isn't an enjoyable experience (more on that in the next section).

7. Continually Pushing Awareness. Maybe, but people get really tired of seeing the same message. We argue there are more compelling ways to remind people about an upcoming release than constantly asking them to pre-save your song — even if it's tied to a contest or additional media. Why? Because ultimately pre-saves just aren't that interesting to fans (more on this in a second).

Here's the crux of the matter: companies advocating for the efficacy of pre-saves can't prove that pre-save campaigns actually help your song get noticed more by Spotify, whether it's algorithmically or with editorial.

Sure, you may feel like a pre-save campaign was a success, but how do you know? The efficacy of pre-save campaigns are essentially entirely anecdotal.That's because in order to truly prove it, you'd need to run some pretty intricate studies and have access to data Spotify doesn't historically give out. You don't even get day-one save statistics from Spotify until a few days after the release, meaning you can't even technically confirm the pre-saves that the third party is reporting all went through.

So these companies have started tacking on a bunch of secondary and tertiary "benefits." But these benefits could ultimately be done better without being tied in to a pre-save campaign. 

Pre-Save Campaigns Are Inefficient

Alright. So the benefits of running a pre-save campaign range from decent but achievable in better ways to flat-out unproven. And then you start considering how inefficient they actually are to run. Things like:

1. Conversion Rates Are Notoriously Low. Everybody knows how low organic engagement rates are when it comes to social media. Take those engagement rates and then cut them down by like, 1/10th. That's what you can expect of an organic pre-save campaign. So we're talking like, tens of thousands of social media followers equating to a few dozen organic pre-saves. And remember, if a fan is engaged enough to organically pre-save your song, there's a REALLY good chance they were going to just listen to and save the song the day it comes out, anyway.

2. They're Expensive. Trying to get people to convert with pre-saves is expensive. Like, using digital ads to run a contest-based pre-save to people who probably already know about you still typically results in costs of anywhere from $1-4 per pre-save. And that's to convert people who are probably already your fans. That's a waste of money when you consider the other ways you could be spending that budget.

3. They're A Bad Fan Experience. There is literally no reason for a fan to pre-save your song. It does nothing for them. It's clunky. You're asking fans to trust a third party app with their data. It is an entirely one-sided experience, so you have to sell the idea that their pre-save helps you get more popular (which, again, highly debatable). Or, you create an incentive/contest. And now, all of a sudden, the motivation has shifted. Because if they don't win the contest, there might not be a follow-through to even listen to the song. 

4. They Dominate Release Strategy. You can't only "kinda" commit to a pre-save campaign and have it go anywhere. Because they're so difficult to convert, you have to go all out with the pre-save messaging. And this, in turn, usually leads to fan fatigue. If you've made it this far in the article, chances are you've done a pre-save campaign in the past. Be honest: did you enjoy constantly asking fans to pre-save your new song?

5. The Messaging Is Limited. Believe it or not, there are still a lot of people who don't use Spotify. They might use a different service, or they might (gasp) still like to download or buy physical versions. When you go all-in on a pre-save campaign, you run the risk of really narrowing your scope too much. As silly as it sounds, there is a very real risk of alienating your non-Spotify using fans. So then you try to catch them by allowing other services etc. — but again, it's not a particularly enjoyable experience and the conversion rates are still low. Again, if you've ran one of these campaigns, you know how terrible the conversion rates are on secondary and tertiary services that you just kinda, "throw in there" for good measure.

6. The Bandwidth-To-Bang Ratio Sucks. Seriously. If you believe in things like fan bandwidth (which you should), you know that you should try to be giving fans content without an ask four to five times as much as you ask them to do something. And when you ask them to do something, it should have a lot of value for them, too. You know, like, "Please buy this dope shirt you'll love." But pre-saves are a high-bandwidth ask with a very poor bang at the end — both for them and you.

7. These Services Could Screw Up. It happens often. Maybe they accidentally tried to fire off the pre-save before the song was available (darn you, time zones!) or maybe they had another malfunction. But we've seen more than one platform have its share of issues. 

How Pre-Save Campaigns Might Potentially Limit Your Spotify Performance

There is a very real scenario in which pre-saves actually limit your song's performance. If you did a deeper dive into how Spotify recommends music to people, you probably realize that actual repeat consumption is far and away the most important factor to a song's success. 

So, in a world where you get hundreds or even thousands of people to pre-save your song but they don't listen to it (either immediately or ever), you're not really doing Spotify any favors. There's also the chance that a user does listen to the song and just doesn't really like it, so they don't even finish the song. Or that they only did the pre-save for the contest. Or that they just forgot about the song coming out, so they don't get a chance to listen to it for awhile.

So Spotify might see day one have more saves than listeners (yikes) followed by a huge drop-off in saves on every day afterwards. When you think about, it's not crazy to assume pre-saves have the potential to do the opposite of what you want them to do.

Of course, this is just a theory based on how we know Spotify recommends music to new people. We can't steadfastly prove it with hard data...any more than anybody can prove pre-saves work, at least. 

If Pre-Saves Really Mattered, Wouldn't Spotify Support Them?

There is an entire cottage industry around pre-save campaigns and third-party pre-save services. Spotify could easily create their own version of a pre-save and potentially monetize the service. We know they're constantly looking to expand their two-sided marketplace and make money from artists and marketers as well as regular users. 

Spotify acquired companies like SoundBetter. They've launched in-app ad services. They're doing a lot of things to make money from more than just subscriptions. They could easily do something with pre-saves — if there were any actual value to them. Right now, Spotify is even testing a feature where they actually let artists promote their songs in certain algorithmic listening environments (like artist and song stations) for a reduced royalty rate.

If there's legitimate money to be found (or saved), Spotify is in the business of finding or saving it. Meanwhile, it's been four years since the first pre-save experiment. If Spotify itself hasn't ever supported the feature in that amount of time (for money or otherwise), what does that say about the feature itself?

Alright, So What Do I Do Instead? 

Well first of all, you politely tell whoever is suggesting you do a pre-save campaign that you value your fans, your sanity, and your budget more than that. And then you start considering ways to support your release on streaming services.

If you're fortunate enough to have a budget, you should consider an ad spend on social media platforms like Instagram stories directly leading people to the song once it's available. If you've got a good video to go along with the song, you should also consider running YouTube ads (not in-stream, though). 

In the lead-up to putting out the single, consider an email capture campaign based around some exclusive footage and information that gets people excited to hear the song when it comes out. People who sign up for email lists because that's the actual call to action are much more likely to open those emails.

Above all, save your "ask" for when the song is actually available. You should spend the weeks leading up to the release by giving fans interesting content and experiences and reminding them when it's coming out, as opposed to asking them to do something about it right then and there. And when the music is actually out, *then* you ask them to listen to it. 

At this point, we're all competing with so many entertainment options. If your goal is to get new fans or convert casual fans to hardcore fans, you're not going to do it by asking them to commit to something that isn't available right now — especially when they have so many other ways to spend their time.

It's completely reasonable for you to ask your fans to save the song to their library when it's out. This will be a much more satisfying (and seamless) experience for them anyway, plus you can actually measure the results in Spotify for Artists (to a degree). We'll have more suggestions for these types of things in future articles.

Just please, whatever you do, seriously reconsider putting budget or bandwidth towards a pre-save campaign. (And oh, by the way, we're building the analytics section in CODa to show engagement points like saves etc., too. We'll be rolling out the new features soon, but until then, hop in and check out what we've got so far!). 

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