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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

What Taylor Swift taught this non-millennial about engagement

January 25, 2016 | By Jarrod Walpert, SVP, Creative Director—Havas Formula

I am not a millennial. But, I can’t escape them as a marketer.

The lion’s share of my co-workers are millennials, and every brand I touch wants to figure out how to “engage millennials.” So, irrespective of the hundreds of articles, surveys, polls and white papers I’ve collected and read on how to engage with millennials, you can imagine my shock when I begrudgingly shook it off at the Taylor Swift concert this summer and unexpectedly found my “aha.”

I went into Taylor Swift’s concert kicking and screaming. I knew one song, and even that wasn’t on my playlist. Yet from the moment I walked through the turnstiles, Taylor offered up a truly engaging experience.

We talk a lot about driving fanaticism with our clients and how fanaticism is the ultimate form of engagement. But it can only happen when the right storytelling tactics are put into play to make the listener (aka your target consumer) want to continue the conversation.

What Taylor Swift taught me is that there are really three simple rules of engagement:

1. Make them ask, “What’s next?” – A glow-in-the-dark bracelet was slapped on my wrist when my ticket was scanned—ooh, mystery; I was intrigued! I took my seat and was surrounded by screaming fans (of all ages, surprisingly) that were talking about whom Taylor’s surprise guests would be that night. Boom—I was even more intrigued (turned out to be Nick Jonas and her “squad” of Super Models). Then the stadium went dark, the crowd erupted, and suddenly there were twinkly lights as far as the eye could see. It was magical. I quickly realized they were coming from the bracelets, and I couldn’t help it…I started cheering, too. I couldn’t wait to see what happened next. And that’s when it hit me—I was truly engaged.

How can this translate to your media property? Look at your programming calendar and figure out how you can create suspense around upcoming content, a series launch or new digital initiative. For example, if you plan to unveil a new content strategy this year, figure out a way to tease the theme and involve your audience via social conversations, tweets, use of hashtags, etc. In the past we’ve launched new season offerings using a “look book” strategy that hints at what is to come—sparking speculation and fan-driven conversation This tactic builds a groundswell of buzz and helps generate interest pre-launch.

2. Let go – While Taylor’s set may have been the same night after night across her world tour, you can tell from her Instagram (62 million followers strong) just how different each concert was. Crowd interaction, audience response and the volume of cheers led to how she revealed and brought her special guest stars to the stage. Surprise and delight layers fueled real-time social sharing; I saw fans posting feverishly to Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook in the moment. Taylor framed the narrative, but then let the story unfold in a participatory, two-way format. It was living proof that if you allow your target to contribute to the story versus just asking them to listen, you end up with a much richer, more generative story.

How can this translate to your media property? If your brand isn’t currently leveraging user-generated content, figure out ways to involve your audience through contests and rewards-based initiatives that are more than simply offering free product. Reward your audience with experiences, like access to upfronts or sneak previews, at which your brand sits in the center.

3. Be a part of their life, not just a brand –Taylor’s diatribes between sets were a bit much for this GenXer; however, I watched in amazement as she waxed philosophical about owning independence and self-validation. As many around me were crying and laughing or screaming, “I love you, Taylor!” I thought, “Wow, how can a brand harness this power?” Then I realized that she commanded this reaction because most of the audience felt like they knew Taylor on a personal level—that she was truly a part of their lives because of the media and her social footprint.

How can this translate to your media property? Craft your property narrative and then support that story with content and social posts that reinforce the role you play in your audience’s lifestyle. For example, in our work for Bugaboo strollers, all of our key messages ladder back to the emotional pull between a mother and wanting to do what is best for her baby. We tug at her heartstrings by positioning Bugaboo not just as a stroller, but as a baby’s first set of wheels.

Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought Taylor Swift could impact my thinking around engagement. Where I netted out is that it’s not something you can dictate or force. You can strategize and plan and put a smart offering in place that has all the makings to stir engagement.  But real engagement happens where the head meets the heart.

I should have known, as soon as those lights dimmed, that girl was trouble when she walked in.


A senior-level strategist with over 20 years of experience, Jarrod Walpert has overseen strategic communications, brand planning and creative ideation for some of today’s most influential brands including Kashi, Newcastle/Heineken, SodaStream, Honest Tea, Pottery Barn, 16 Handles and Black & Decker.

In addition to developing multichannel strategies that merge digital, PR, content and experiential programming, he helps brands develop their master narrative and build engaging marketing/comms plans.

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