The XX big

(Image credit: Bea Gibson, Glastonbury 2013.)

When The XX, the UK indie pop group, scored a word of mouth success with its debut release, XX, it also created a challenge for itself.

The band's follow-up, Coexist, needed at least to match its predecessor's performance, and this time the band could no longer capitalise on its novelty as a new act.

Working with Microsoft's Internet Explorer business, the group's record label, XL Recordings, part of Beggars Group, wanted to transform the word of mouth process into a dramatic experience that people could follow in real time and used data visualisation techniques to bring this to life.

The label agreed to allow the music to be streamed free from a website for a limited period before the official release of the album to sales channels.

The idea was to send the first streaming link to a single, "super-fan" of the group via Facebook and then chart how this link was forwarded on from fan to fan until it brought in listeners in many countries.

At the heart of this process was a visualisation tool (see below) that deployed the graphic style traditionally used to represent airline flight paths to chart in real time the location from which fans were streaming the new XX album. The platform was optimised for use on mobile devices as well as desktop PCs and users could define in exactly which period they wanted to track the viral effect.

 The XX visual (big)

The plan prompted fans to collaborate to ensure that the map of the world "was covered" by people streaming the album.

After a slow initial start - it appeared that the original super-fan wanted to listen to the music first before sharing it - the site was eventually swamped by demand from millions of streaming users. The average listener streamed the music for more than two hours.

Adam Farrell, vice-president of marketing at Beggars Group, was reported as saying: "From a statistical perspective, it's one of the most significant album premieres we've ever done."

Coexist managed to outperform the first album by debuting at number one in the UK album charts, and the band were subsequently nominated for a Brit Award as Best British Group.