Taylor Swift: A Case Study

Taylor Swift is undoubtedly one of the biggest pop stars in the world right now and I debated whether or not I should write a post centered around her because if felt like click-bait. Peruse any pop-culture site and you’ll find an article, photo, mention, anything really as an excuse to use Taylor’s name because mentioning her generates a boost in traffic. She’s on top of her game and people are responding with their “likes” “shares” and comments. All of this is fine to an extent but being a new, unknown blog, numbers aren’t my main goal and I don’t want to write about her for the sake of a few additional views. I wanted to scrap this post but the reality is that Taylor, or the people on Team Swift, have done an exemplary job using the social web and present a fascinating case study, one that I obviously can’t resist.

Full disclosure here, since the release of her album 1989 I’m what you would call a “Swiftie”, so I’m glad to see her not only succeeding but owning the moment so well. By all accounts, she’s a kind and talented person and her work speaks for itself. I’m not questioning her success or her intentions. Instead, I’d like to unpack the ways in which Taylor and her team have used the social web to accompany her re-branding as a bona fide global superstar and examine the ways in which she uses various channels to share content, focusing specifically on her Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr accounts. While her other profiles share similar content as the three outlets I’ve chosen, I’d like to focus on Twitter which she joined in 2008, Instagram which joined in 2011, and Tumblr which she began using in 2014 because these are the channels that demonstrate the most interaction between Taylor Swift and her audience, with Taylor messaging fans, commenting on their posts, and reblogging their content. There are so many elements of Team Swift’s social media presence to discuss but for the sake of brevity, I’ll focus on what I believe is their greatest strength: tone and targeted messaging.

Considering her level of fame, it feels unnecessary to have to brief anyone on Taylor Swift but just in case, here’s what a cursory search can tell you. Born in 1989 in Reading, Pennsylvania, Taylor Alison Swift moved to Nashville, Tennessee at the age of 14 to pursue a career in music. With the release of her eponymous debut album in 2006 she established herself as a country music superstar, and following her initial success she went on to release Fearless (2008), Speak Now (2010), Red (2012), and 1989 (2014), eventually crossing over from country music to the pop market. In the nearly nine years since her debut, Swift has grown personally and professionally, and her music has undergone a drastic transformation. What’s remarkable is that her fans have grown with her, following her from her country music roots to her current synth-laden 1980s-influenced pop music. A lot of this success has to do with Swift producing good music, pure and simple, but her ability to connect personally with her fan base has also played an important role in navigating her professional changes.

To say that Taylor has a dedicated online following and fan base may be an understatement. As I write this post, a photo showing a scratch on Taylor’s leg given to her by one of her cats and captioned “Thanks Meredith I was just trying to love you and now you owe me 40 million dollars,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to the recent rumour that Swift had her legs insured for 40 million dollars, is making its rounds on the internet. In two hours, the post has been retweeted over 26k times, liked more than 666k times on Instagram, and been favourited a whopping 15k+ times on Tumblr (it’s also been “liked” 250k+ times on Facebook). The numbers are sure to climb. Let me remind you that the photo in question is of a bloody scratch on Taylor’s admittedly very toned, nice-looking leg.

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@Taylorswift13 via Twitter

It’s precisely these seemingly intimate glimpses into Taylor’s daily life and self-referential comments that make her appear accessible and remind us of the slightly goofy, self-aware friend we all have (or perhaps want) – when it comes to tone and messaging she’s right on point with her brand. Her captions demonstrate an understanding of her position in the celebrity ecosystem where rumours fly and she uses her social media to redirect the conversation, turning gossip and speculation on its head. It’s a good, strategic tactic for Team Swift to use social media as a way of transforming the narrative under the guise of humour and community building.

In terms of content, there’s a significant overlap in what is shared between Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr but the way in which Swift interacts with her fans on each of these forums differs slightly from one to the other. Of the three channels, Twitter is the one with the most professional feel and focus on business. Alongside her photos, which can also be found on Instagram and Tumblr, Swift’s tweets consist of sharing links to interviews in magazines and Billboard rankings, retweets from fans and other celebrities, and the occasional posting of original content. While the voice and tone of her Twitter accounts remains consistent with her other accounts, it also appears to be the one focused more on business.

Swift’s Instagram offers a more intimate approach and offers a look into her day-to-day experience, all from a wonderfully curated perspective. Photos of her at award shows, both behind the scenes and on the red carpet, join pictures of Swift with her family, her growing circle of (celebrity) friends, and of course with fans. Even though the photos of Swift at award shows remind us of her celebrity status, there’s a feeling that we’re looking into a world that is not ours, yes, but we’re doing so alongside our best friend Swift. Compared to her Twitter presence, the world created through her Instagram feed is one that offers a taste of her glamourous lifestyle and feels very insular.

However, in my opinion, the most interesting use of social media by Team Swift is her Tumblr account. Again, the content shared is very similar to that of her other accounts but the clarity of her voice/tone, coupled with an exceptionally high level of interaction is fascinating to behold. It is obvious that Swift spends a lot of time on Tumblr, responding to fans and reblogging their messages of support. I don’t want to give the wrong impression, painting a portrait of Taylor as anything other than altruistic because I believe (perhaps naively, but probably not) that Swift genuinely cares about her fans and their well-being, so she makes a concerted effort to participate in their world and thus creates a sense of community. This community is where we see her influence on full display. Fans are loyal to Taylor because Taylor is loyal to them. She makes them feel like they belong, that they’re important. The more she engages with them, the more they respond, and the more vocal her community becomes in sharing the gospel of Taylor. So much of the press that follows Taylor Swift relates to how well she treats her fans, whether it’s surprising them with gifts or finding them during an award show, and in many ways they (the fans) are her greatest endorsement. Yes, she’s a mega star but more importantly she’s your very best, very wonderful friend. In the end that gives them more of a reason to stay with her than just a catchy single or slick music video. They want to stay because they have feel they know her and want to follow along on her journey.

I’m not certain what motivates Taylor/Team Swift to use Tumblr so frequently – perhaps it’s that her fan base skews younger and many of them can be found in this forum or perhaps it’s just what she likes best – whatever the reason, it’s clear that the time she spends on Tumblr is instrumental in helping her build her community and by extension her brand. There’s an acute awareness of who her fan base is, and her interactions with her followers create a relationship that make her fans very loyal to her personally, so that when she changes professionally, the fans change with her as well. She will, of course have to continue making good music, but the importance of her relationship with her fans in navigating significant transformations cannot be overlooked. While she’s had no major missteps, developing a strong community now prepares her to weather any scenarios that may arise in the future. It’s clear that Taylor’s influence will continue to grow, and when you’re as successful as she is there are sure to be bumps, however minor, along the way.

So what does this mean from a public relations standpoint? (You didn’t think I was going to spend the whole post writing a love letter to Ms. Swift without bringing it back to public relations, did you?) It demonstrates the importance of understanding your brand and audience while crafting your social media/public relations strategy so that you can build loyalty and community. A strong sense of community helps organizations extend their reach in positive ways. It’s not just in the number of shares or “likes”, though that helps, but it’s also personal endorsements that secure and enhance reputation. You saying that you’re the best doesn’t carry the same weight as someone else saying, and truly believing that message. Furthermore, the case of Taylor Swift demonstrates that using the correct voice, tone, and messaging is critical to success, and while cohesion through multiple channels is necessary, each of these components need to be adapted. It seems like such a simple lesson, yet it’s rare that we see examples as well laid out and executed as the one by Taylor Swift.

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