(This article originally appeared on Huffington Post.)
By now, nearly everyone has heard about “Swiftmas”, Taylor Swift’s gift-giving extravaganza in which she and her team spent hours getting to know 32 of her fans, and then even more time buying gifts and surprising them with personal Christmas presents on their doorsteps.
On the other hand, the brands we work and interact with every day, the ones that spend millions and millions of dollars on TV spots, sweepstakes, radio spots, full-page magazine ads, email marketing — they’re absolutely lost. If these brands ditched that impersonal, mass advertising in favor of Taylor Swift’s methods, not only would these brands make loyal customers for life, but the world might actually be a better place. Brands should follow Taylor Swift’s brand of marketing for five main reasons:
Most multimillion-dollar brands spend lots of money and precious time to analyze their customers. However, they do it in a very broad way. Spreadsheets, surveys, focus groups, social media engagement… and for what? To launch traditional media campaigns that, for the most part, nobody wants to see.
Taylor Swift, on the other hand, studied her fans deeply. Taylor and her team already knew that her fans spend a lot of time learning everything they can about her. With Swiftmas, Taylor returned the favor.
Not only did Swift’s team leverage social media and digital analytics, but they got to know her fans on a personal level, in what became known as “tay-lurking.” And their analyses, unlike so many brand research studies, were not focused on her product. They focused on each individual person — what she likes, what she does with her friends, and the gifts she might want. The details that Taylor mentions in her video and in the handwritten notes are personal and emotional. They show that she actually cares about her fans as people, not just consumers.
Because Taylor’s dedicated crew spends so much time lurking on social media — for Swiftmas and in general — they’ve developed an intimate understanding of how her fans use social media. So many large brands still (still!) treat social media as a one way street, responding to customer service inquiries and little else. This makes no sense.
Social media is a communication tool; just like email, a phone call, or even person-to-person interaction. If you owned a store, would you tell your employees to only pay attention to the customers who pitch a fit? Never. In fact, in stores you tell your employees to reach out first, not wait for the customer to ask for help.
Obviously you can’t constantly ask all your brand’s fans if they need assistance. But we see far too few brands engaging positively with their followers. Social media is a valuable customer service tool, but it can also build relationships between brands and individuals. Not every social media interaction has to be directly related to a product.
Think about the last time you developed a contest for your brand or client. What was the prize: Money? A gift certificate? Taylor Swift realized that her fans, while they would be excited to win money or a cruise, would find her personal involvement so much more valuable.
Taylor Swift didn’t just give her fans a box of cool presents. In the video, it’s obvious that the handwritten note meant the most to recipients. The idea that their role model, this person they so admire and respect, spent her own personal time and resources to get to know them, buy specific gifts for them and write them a card was worth much more than any contest giveaway.
The best part about Swiftmas, from a marketing standpoint at least, is that it’s actually touching to watch. How many times have you fought back tears watching someone win a brand’s social media contest? Not only did Taylor make those 32 fans cry, we’re willing to bet that fans across Tumblr, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter were also in tears as they watched. Swiftmas wasn’t just something a celebrity did for a fan; it’s something one friend would do for another.
Taylor Swift has built her brand around doing personal things for her fans. She engages with them on a variety of social networks. She gives them the freedom to create their own content about her (she even admitted to doing weird things on purpose so her fans can make GIFs). She trusts that every personal engagement, every real connection and every bit of goodwill she shares will make sure that her shows sell out in 15 minutes for years to come.
Most big brands restrict access to their brand in the interest of making money. They cut back on initiatives that don’t directly lead to a sale. They spend their time trying to figure out ways to sell more product, not to make their fans love them. It’s a balance, obviously. Taylor Swift made the very public decision to cut ties with Spotify because she values her product, and wants revenue from her music. She struck the balance of giving access to her brand, but being focused about how people purchase her music products. She gambled (correctly) that removing her music from Spotify wouldn’t harm her brand. She, like many luxury products, separated brand value from product exclusivity.
Maybe brands should be more like Taylor Swift — give freely of our brands, our content and our money when it means we can foster a lasting, personal relationship with our customers. Maybe we should think about what our customers find truly rewarding, instead of throwing together a sweepstakes. Maybe we should ask what it really means to “surprise and delight” our customers, instead of assuming that a 25-percent-off coupon will cut it.
As an agency, we see it every day. “Why are we doing LinkedIn advertising?” “Do we really need community management?” It can be hard for brands rooted in the traditional world to see this, but Taylor Swift gets it: Online, the little things add up.
Every interaction, every customer service issue solved, every fan recognition, every article posted, are all in service of the overall strategy. It’s the boon and the curse of digital marketing. There are lots of little things to do, but it takes a lot of time and energy for all of it to come together and make a great digital brand.
Instead of questioning digital ROI, remember that digital media is a direct connection to your audience. It may look like a lot of work, and it may feel like you don’t immediately get the results you’re looking for. I mean, we can’t all be as instantly dazzling (or as wealthy) as Taylor. But we can be persistent, continuing with tactics we know will work.
We’ve all been saying this for years now, but digital media is changing the way brands relate to their customers. There’s no doubt that Taylor Swift is leading this change. Maybe we should all do some “tay-lurking” of our own, and recognize that our brand wouldn’t exist without thousands and thousands of real people. Then take what you find about those people, and build your brand around them.