#3: Lessons from Taylor Swift's 2020 social media strategy

I think all marketers can learn from the way Taylor Swift used social media to promote her surprise albums this year.

My close friends & coworkers (many of whom have recently subscribed to this newsletter - thank you and welcome 👋) will know that I am a big fan of Taylor Swift. When Spotify launched their 2020 Wrapped campaign this year, I surprised even myself by being among the top 0.5% of Taylor Swift's fans. I definitely earned that status thanks to folklore - it's one of my top 3 fave TSwift albums now. So, you can imagine my shock (and elation) when Swift announced a second surprise album two weeks ago.

Not only did Swift write, record, and release two studio albums (in addition to filming a Disney+ documentary and re-recording all of her old masters) during quarantine - she also gave us some great lessons in marketing. Since traditional album promotion methods were cancelled or severely limited this year (touring, talk show performances, music videos), artists really only had one option to promote new albums - the internet. And Swift did it in a way that I think artists and social media marketers can learn from.

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1) Surprise drops > long promotional periods?

When Swift released folklore earlier this year, I wondered about the impact of doing a surprise album drop vs a traditional album promotion. Her strategy was pretty simple: simultaneous posts announcing folklore across her social media accounts, less than 24 hours before the album's release at midnight. So, would album sales/streams be higher due to the added excitement from fan conversations and media stories about how the album was released?

Per stats from Billboard, folklore had the best album debut of 2020. After release, it spent not one, but six weeks in the #1 spot. And it's officially the best-selling album of 2020.

But we also know Swift sits in a category of her own in terms of popularity. So, how did folklore perform compared to her previous albums? Music Business Worldwide did a great analysis and found that folklore's launch surpassed that of Lover, her most recent album:

So, the data seems to show us that the answer is yes - folklore's surprise drop created buzz amongst casual fans, media, and critics who otherwise might not have paid attention to yet another Taylor Swift album. Not only were people talking about her music, but they were also talking about her marketing.

How social media marketers can apply this: Instead of having long, drawn-out promotional periods with launch dates announced ahead of time, try surprising your fans with unexpected launches. This could work particularly well for products with highly-requested features or models, or if your product has regular release cycles. If there is already anticipation for your next release, then you have the opportunity to surprise fans by releasing it early or releasing multiple models at the same time.

Moreover, use social media to do your launch - the shock factor will make your announcement that much more shareable (as social media users love to take part in "breaking news"). Compared to a normal launch, you should expect to see more fans sharing your Instagram post to their Stories and quote-tweeting your announcement tweet.

2) Hidden surprise-and-delight moments for superfans

Taylor Swift is well-known for hiding Easter eggs within lyrics, photoshoots, tweets, videos, etc. She's done this consistently for years, and rewards fans by engaging with their posts - she often likes tweets with fan theories and used to reblog/reply to fan posts on Tumblr. Because she's conditioned her fans, they're willing to pore over every piece of content she puts out - and fortunately for Swift, this takes place on public platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok. These discussions around decoding clues and Easter eggs thus create more social "coverage" for her albums than they would earn for the music alone.

folklore and evermore were no different. When Swift premiered the willow music video, she openly shared Easter eggs in the YouTube live chat. And despite Swift saying that these albums were much less autobiographical than her previous ones, fans still spent hours deciphering every line looking for hidden meanings and connections.

Of course, not all fans will care about decoding the colours of Swift's outfits and finding hidden words within album covers, but that's not the point - Easter eggs are meant to reward your most passionate fans. Once this small group of passionate fans finds the clues and posts about them, the social reach expands a little more. Then, BuzzFeed takes fans' posts and turns them into articles, expanding social reach much more (they've often turned up as "trending topics" for me on Twitter). And that's how the majority of fans who don't care about finding Easter eggs still end up hearing about them.

How social media marketers can apply this: You don't need to spend days concocting elaborate puzzles and hidden wordplay. Rather, find a subtle way to surprise and delight your most dedicated and active customers. Build a "delight" that can be discovered through natural usage of your product or content - Instagram's recent "birthday app icon" comes to mind. You only need one happily surprised customer to talk about their experience for it to spread to others through word-of-mouth - some tech reporters and social media users hunt for unreleased and hidden features. Better for your customers to share something about your brand, as friends & family are more trustworthy than brands themselves.

3) Pre-made shareable assets

In the Disney+ folklore film, Swift mentions that she didn't tell her record label she had an album ready to launch until a week before. However, she went to her label with everything prepared with the help of her team - including 16 lyric videos. The videos gave fans aesthetically-pleasing, easy-to-share visuals on the day of both album launches and contributed to a higher quantity and quality of fan posts about the albums, as visuals tend to help posts perform better.

How social media marketers can apply this: I'd consider this most applicable for fan-based brands like musicians & artists, sports teams, books, and movies/TV shows. When launching something that you want fans to be excited about, give them assets that are highly shareable (visually attractive, not overly branded) and easy to share (can be reposted/retweeted, or easy to save/screenshot) - Spotify Wrapped is a textbook example. By enabling fans to amplify your marketing efforts, you'll get increased and more valuable reach, as fans' posts will be seen by their friends & family who are more likely to engage with the post than with a brand post.

4) Expanding your audience through collaborators & influencers

Obviously, artist collaborations make for great tracks. folklore and evermore were born out of Swift's desire to work with The National, after all. However, collaborators can also really boost the reach of a campaign. Posts from Jack Antonoff, The National, HAIM, and Bon Iver have all helped Swift reach new audiences that she wouldn't normally reach on her own channels.

This same benefit applies to influencers - and Swift did her own version of influencer marketing by sending out custom cardigans to celebs to promote "cardigan". Naturally (or maybe Swift requested it 🤷‍♀️), the recipients shared photos of the cardigans to their social media accounts.

Like with collaborators, these posts helped Swift reach new audiences - even if there is overlap, it would never be 100%. Moreover, it was an effective way for these celebrities to promote Swift's album, as people are much more likely to pay attention to their fave celeb receiving a gift from another celeb rather than the celeb simply posting about an album.

How social media marketers can apply this: Whenever you do a brand partnership or collaboration, make sure both partners post about the partnership AND use each other's hashtags and usernames. Proper tagging is key for your collaborator's audience to follow you if they're interested. When working with influencers, give them something they can talk authentically about. Put the influencer first, not your brand - what do they normally post about, and how can your produce or service fit naturally into that content? If that's difficult to identify, you should change your influencer selection.

5) Maintaining launch momentum with creative refreshes

Every marketer loves a brand launch - you see a spike in mentions, you hit #1 on the charts, sales are great, etc. But inevitably the hype wears off and sales decrease, often when the next big thing is launched. So, how can you keep up that momentum?

For artists, releasing new singles and music videos is the (usual) way, but since folklore and evermore weren't destined to be radio- or single-friendly albums, Swift had to find other ways. Instead of simply talking about the same album tracks over and over again, she:

  • Released folklore bonus track "The Lakes" 4 weeks after launch

  • Released folklore thematic chapter albums on Spotify 5 weeks after launch

  • Directed + produced Disney+ Long Pond Sessions documentary and released it 2 weeks before evermore (also as a surprise announcement)

  • Timed evermore's release to be right before her birthday

  • Released multiple remixes of willow 1 week after launch

All of these tactics allowed Swift (and her fans) to keep talking about the albums on social, using their hashtags, and driving sales weeks after their releases.

The Disney+ documentary was particularly well-timed because as soon as fans had watched it and gained a deeper appreciation for folklore, bam! evermore dropped. So, all the insights that viewers took away from the film likely made them more excited to get another dose of Aaron Dessner's instrumentals, Justin Vernon's vocals, and Jack Antonoff's songwriting and production.

One more note about timing: Swift released evermore just before her 31st birthday, which fans knew would be special as it was the reverse of her favourite number (13). So, fans likely anticipated something happening that weekend - which no doubt propelled social conversations and the success of the album once it dropped.

How social media marketers can apply this: Plan creative refreshes as part of your campaign's total life cycle. Anticipate that your audience will get tired of your initial launch assets, and think of ways to repurpose them or evolve them into something slightly different. Look at posts from past campaigns, and see if you can pinpoint when their performance started to decrease. Then, you can decide how often to refresh your creative. Think of Starbucks - their winter campaign stays constant (red holiday cups), but each year they change the designs & how they are announced. You don't have to scroll too far back on Instagram to compare how their visual style has changed from last year to this year.

Now, I'm not out here to proclaim that Taylor Swift is the best artist on social media (though I would like to do a future issue on the ones who are 🤔). My point is this: In 2020, Swift dropped two surprise albums and did a good job using social media to promote them. Although most of us aren't lucky enough to manage brands with fan bases as engaged as hers, it doesn't mean we can't learn from her. Now, excuse me as I’m off to go stream some more TS (gotta make it to the top 0.05% next year!).

Special thanks to this issue’s editors: my friend Mike Wong (who is a fellow TS superfan and has done two public talks about Swift’s career and marketing) and my partner Anthony Derrick (fun fact: when we first met, we talked about Taylor Swift and I requested the DJ to play a TS song for Anthony as my ~move~)