What Taylor Swift Can Teach You About Social Media Marketing

Welcome to your Taylor Swift Master Class in Social Media Marketing!  

Your teacher today will be America’s #1 Online Brand Strategist, Professor Taylor Swift (Cue: Insane, utterly-abandoned shrieking, evolving into wild explosive screaming and rhythmic chants of, ‘Taylor, We Love You!’) Who better to instruct us in social media marketing than this 25-year-old, 7-time Grammy Award-winning “public relations genius” (in the words of the Washington Post)? The Nashville-bred superstar has leveraged every element of her social identity – on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vevo and YouTube – to make "1989" the #1 best-selling album of 2014.


If your CEO or President ever questioned whether there’s proof that social media marketing can provide ROI for a company’s investment, now you can point to Swift’s sales: More than 3.66 million copies of her fifth studio album “1989,” with more than a million units moved in its first certified-Platinum week. The secret behind those astonishing numbers? Taylor uses social media to connect one-on-one with 100 million fans at a time.

The good news? You can do that too, even if your BFFs are not Lorde, Selena Gomez, Justin Timberlake and Karlie Kloss.

Yes, Swift is an infernally catchy pop songwriter with earworm-burrowing hooks. True, she’s an electrifying, blonde mane-twirling, red lipstick-smacking entertainer in concert. And yes, her skill with traditional PR – as the singer dominated the covers of Rolling Stone, Vogue and People, along with broadcast interviews from “Ellen” to “Good Morning America” – plays a part in her volcanic success.

“Taylor Swift is a PR mastermind of the highest order,” confirms writer Chris Ostendorf, in his Daily Dot commentary titled, The PR Genius of Taylor Swift’s Viral Media Empire. “Swift has carefully, methodically and brilliantly crafted a public persona designed to make you love her (or else). In terms of image control, there probably isn’t a single entertainer out there today who’s as good at playing the game. . . it’s her skills in self-promotion and image management that put her a cut above.”

Yet the marketing genius that fueled Taylor Swift’s rise to mad levels of worldwide-stardom goes far beyond her mastery of media relations. More than any other icon of our generation, Taylor Swift amps up social media branding to its fullest potential – fusing her online and real world personas in a way that makes her appear approachably down-to-earth, even as her celebrity profile soars far higher than the mortals who are buying her music.

So what can you learn from Taylor Swift, the Grand Mistress of Social Media Marketing?

Lesson #1 - Embrace The Mass Intimacy of Social Media  

First, there’s no celebrity who understands how to connect en masse – seemingly authentically and intimately with millions of fans – as brilliantly as Swift. What started with a core audience of 13-22 year-old girls during her Nashville-based country ingénue phase, has now blown that up to a level of global domination that even North Korea’s Kim Jong-un would envy. 

What’s remarkable about Swift isn’t just the sheer enormity of her social media numbers, which spans 21.4 million Instagram followers to 561.9 million views for the “Shake It Off” video. Social media isn't all about massive numbers of followers, likes or shares. For Swift, it’s the emotional resonance of her online content – video, images and messages that display a comfort level with intimacy on a mass scale that’s nothing short of uncanny. 

Taylor Swift Social Numbers

Swift has a tremendous marketing staff supporting her – not just the promotional team at her Big Machine Label Group, but also the guidance of Nashville-based publicist Tree Paine, SVP of Publicity for Warner Brothers Nashville. As far as I know, Swift could have a stadium full of publicists and social media specialists frantically tweeting, Tumblring, Instagramming, YouTubing, Facebooking and blogging on her behalf. But all that’s visible to us are her images and videos – often shakily-shot with hand-held cameras, slightly out-of-focus, unprofessionally-lit and filled with the rich behind-the-scenes immediacy of Swift’s love of her cats and appetite for snack food.

Is Taylor really composing every tweet, writing every post and personally popping each image online? The best answer would quote French playwright Jean Giraudoux, “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” When Taylor takes to Twitter to update us on her day (below), only a cad would peek behind the social media curtain to see if her PR team is giving her an invisible hand.    

For a master class in online intimacy that’s a universe beyond the scripted artificiality of most brand videos: Watch how Swift shot this video when surprising one fan, Gena, by showing up unannounced at her bridal shower.

Corporate Video Producers Take Note: See how Swift addresses the camera in a conspiratorial whisper, the lens a foot from her face, as she takes you (yes, just you alone – except for the other 2.4 million viewers) into her confidence. Imagine how far your brand could go with videos that spoke with, rather than at, your customers on YouTube with this level of feeling?

Lesson #2 - Keep Your Brand Name Simple

Taylor’s 2012 album was titled simply, “Red,” a name chosen because Swift said the name captured “all the different emotions that I’ve experienced in the last two years. . . all those emotions are red.” Her current album title, “1989,” is her birthdate. The Taylor Swift song “15?” It’s all about the feeling of being. . . 15.

There’s no arcane metaphors – as in Led Zeppelin’s enigmatic lyric “If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow” – here. Swift’s song and album titles are easy to remember and difficult to forget. Compare that to the camera currently being marketed as: “Nikon D3300 24.2 MPR CMOS Digital SLR with AF-S DX Nikkor VR 11 Zoom Lens.”  If the name of your product sounds like the combination to a Masterlock or the serial number on a dollar bill, take a page from Taylor Swift and keep your brand name simple.

Lesson #3 - Choose Your Partners Wisely (and Boldly)

Taylor’s brand partnerships with Diet Coke and Target (along with earlier affiliations with Walmart, Keds and Walgreens) feel so appropriate they were practically inevitable. But it was Swift’s daring collaboration with last December’s Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show that demonstrated she could make any cross-brand deal work. Surrounded by Victoria’s Secret models whose curves seemed as artificial as Swift’s performance was natural, the singer turned what could have been a mockable moment into a deft demonstration of female empowerment.

Papa John's Taylor Swift My favorite Swiftie partnership was an alliance during the 2012 marketing campaign for "Red." Other artists have sold their albums through Whole Foods and Starbucks – but the promotion of "Red" with pizza chain Papa Johns meant that you could snare a copy of her album with your pepperoni pie (at right). The promotion combined Swift’s theme of surprise with the tomato-spattered color "Red" and her proclivity for delivering pieces of herself to fans at their homes.

Have you thought of where – unexpectedly – your company’s product could be sold that none of your competitors would think of? If Starbucks can sell CDs, why can’t you sell or demo your products in yoga studios, amusement parks, emergency rooms, movie theatre lobbies, elevators, TSA check-points or jazz piano bars? 

(Source: Papa John's)

Lesson #4 - Humbly Ask Your Audience For Help

Fortune 1000 companies market as if being a thought leader means exuding Greek God-level certainty.  Whether marketing software or kitchen appliances, brands tend to display unshakeable confidence in the conceit that no one could possibly know their industry/product better than [insert name of your brand here].

In contrast, Taylor Swift’s messaging revels in endearing humility – most famously, she asked fans to help her master the art of Twitter hashtags. Here’s Taylor herself, asking fans to help her understand Tumblr, the microblogging platform and social network: “Taylor here. I’m locking myself in my room and not leaving until I figure out how to use my Tumblr. Well, might leave for a second to get a snack or something, but that is it. I have lots of questions, help me.” What would happen if rather than pronouncing definitive answers from your company experts, you had the humility to invite answers from the people who may know your products and services best – your customers?

Lesson #5 - Carly Simon’s Not the Only One With Anticipation

While artists from Bob Dylan to Beyoncé have taken to mysteriously unveiling their new albums with virtually no fanfare, Taylor Swift has learned from Hollywood movie marketers the value of heart-stopping anticipation. Swift has transformed the launch of each CD into Super Bowl-level global events by tantalizingly building suspense with multiple layers of online reveals.

For example, to spark online buzz for the release of her single “Shake It Off” last August, Swift teased fans with hints about the tune on Instagram, Twitter and other social channels. And, back in 2012, Swift pre-released her ‘Red’ single, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” via a Google+ hangout with fans and a live Web chat, which launched a full two months before the CD dropped at retail.

How could you create a 60- to 90-day ramp leading toward the launch of your next product or trade show, that will play upon your customers’ all-too-human desire to find out what’s coming next? Be like Taylor (or Alfred Hitchcock) and layer your launch for suspense. . .

Lesson #6 - Transform Your Customers into A Community

Fans of YouTube celebrity Bethany Mota call themselves “Motavators.” Devotees of the “Twilight Saga” films and books call themselves “twihards,” and I don’t want to repeat here what female fans of actor Benedict Cumberbatch refer to themselves as. Taylor Swift’s fan base? Her fans have embraced the collective moniker, “Swifties.” Does your customer base feel so connected to your brand they’d define themselves as a community of fans for your company?

Secret Sessions

Nothing demonstrates Swift’s ability to transform small groups of fans into a multi-million strong community than the triumph of her Secret Sessions event campaign. For a sneak preview of "1989," Swift invited 89 fans to each of her five homes – where fans erupted with shock, surprise and joy as Taylor herself walked into the parties (see above). She hugged and fed them her home-baked chocolate cookies. Inevitably, Swift posted the behind-the-scenes video of these preview parties on YouTube for the tens of millions who couldn’t join her personally, which sparked an avalanche of fan love that rippled across the Web.

Take some advice from Taylor Swift: how could you interact with a handful of your brand’s customers – at a user conference, trade show or client appreciation party – and then equip those customers to talk about you to the thousands of your customers who couldn’t attend?  

Lesson #7 - Have You Ever Been Experienced?

Admit it: How thrilling is the experience of buying your company’s product or service? Is the purchase just a transaction? A dull swipe of a credit card? With a nod to Jimi Hendrix’s first album, Taylor’s marketing is all about the experience. In fact, the very act of buying Swift’s products becomes a ceremony of communion with Taylor Swift herself. According to Billboard magazine, fans “want the full and complete Taylor Swift experience, and that experience includes buying the album.”

Taylor Swift Time

At a time when the Recording Industry Association of America has reported that CD sales have plummeted by 19 percent and fans are migrating to streaming services like Spotify and Pandora where they can listen “for free” rather than buying the album, Taylor made sure that the experience of buying a hard copy of "1989" surpassed that of online downloads. Famously, Swift pulled her song catalog last November from Spotify, making a bold statement about the tangible value of her music. What can you do to transform the act of a customer buying your product into an experience that’s deeper, richer and more emotionally resonant than the ring of a cash register or the ping of a credit card reader?    

One part of Taylor Swift’s social media skill is to balance the impression of exclusivity with images, content and promotions that have massive reach. For example, Swift forged a deal with Minnesota’s own Target that offered an exclusive deluxe edition of "1989" with three extra songs and private voice memos about her songwriting process, along with early demos of the songs. Best of all, the Target-exclusive provided a dozen Polaroid photos that acknowledged her lyrics, “You took a Polaroid of us, then discovered, the rest of the world was black and white, but we were in screaming color.”

(Source: Time)

Which begs the question: How are you treating your existing customer base with special love – providing them with discounts, exclusive products, beta test sneak previews and first looks? Are you taking your target audience behind-the-scenes with a podcast, infographic, video, event or webinar that they, and only they, can access for a limited time?

Lessons #8 - Let Others Celebrate Your Brand

Most of today’s marketing involves brands telling the world how great they are – where’s the magic in that? Taylor Swift, though, gets other people – very famous people such as Girls TV actress Lena Dunham—to say how great she is. So BFF singer Lorde effused on Twitter, “OMG 1989 Is Out, What a Day, so proud of my sista.” Ask yourself - what could your dealers, retailers, value-added resellers, wholesalers, distributors (heck, even your banker, lawyer and accountants) say about you on their social media channels?

Lesson #9 - Have The Humility to Really Listen And Respond

Perhaps the most powerful lesson taught by Taylor Swift is that she truly makes her fans feel listened to and appreciated – and she uses social media as a two-way medium of conversation with that audience. The tragedy of today’s social media marketing is that too many corporations still treat Facebook, Twitter and other channels merely as additional pipes through which to push their commercial messages – and then walk away before they can hear what their customers want to say in return.

Swift’s online communication truly feels like a dialogue with fans. Witness how Swift responded to a fan who had been troubled by bullies at school with a touching Instagram message and then how Taylor retweeted a video of a Houston-area woman singing along to “1989” in her car. Best of all, Taylor Swift re-posts images of her fans buying her CD in-store and holding up their own Polaroids – her customers transform themselves into Swift’s content collaborators. 

Not everyone can post an elevator selfie, as Taylor did (below), featuring friends Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé and Jay Z or a birthday party pic with model Karlie Kloss and Selen Gomez goofing off. But it does beg the question: When was the last time you took your customers, dealers, distributors behind-the-scenes into your R&D lab, over to your ad agency during the development of your next campaign, into your factory to look behind the lathes, printing presses and scanners? When did you last ask customers to send you images of your product in use? Have you enabled comments on your company blog and YouTube channel? Have you transformed your social media channels from one-way push at customers into back-and-forth engagement with them? 

CEOs are learning the revenue value of Taylor Swift-level listening to customers. AdWeek recently praised several companies as savvy social listeners, including:

  • General Motors, which altered the cooling ventilation systems in its Cadillac Escalades at the factory upon hearing social media complaints from owners,
  • Five Guys Burger and Fries, which is testing frozen desserts after hearing from customers via Twitter and Facebook, and
  • Dick’s Sporting Goods, which ramped up staff when social posts from customers highlighted weak in-store customer service just before closing hours.

But, just a few weeks ago, Swift took “listening” to an absurdly glorious level. Her team Tay-lurked a select group of fans – heading to Facebook to study their jobs, friends, family, hobbies and likes – and then Swift delivered personalized Christmas and Chanukah gifts to them, climaxing with a surprise “Swift-mas” visit to one fan in Connecticut who was handed gifts by Taylor herself. Some 16.3 million YouTube views of Swift’s gift giving suggest how her micro-connection with this handful of fans, amplified a million times over through social channels, provided Swift with macro benefits.

Here’s her final piece of advice for marketers: “Fans are my favorite thing in the world,” says Swift. “I’ve never been the type of artist who has that line drawn between their friends and their fans. The line’s always been blurred for me. I’ll hang out with them after the show. I’ll hang out with them before the show. If I see them in the mall, I’ll stand there and talk to them for 10 minutes.”

As marketers, we must ask ourselves: When was the last time a brand, any brand, made you feel that you were their favorite thing in the world? If you hesitate to become a company that forges Swiftian-levels of loyalty, then you may have to accept that your customers, in Taylor Swift’s words, “are never ever getting back together” with you. So is it time to "Shake It Off”?

Image Sources: Maccabee PR, Billboard, E!

About the Author

Paul Maccabee

Paul Maccabee is president at Minneapolis-based Maccabee, a strategic public relations and online marketing agency.

Topics:  Social Media Marketing

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