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Customer Management Lessons from Taylor Swift's "1989"

Brian Cantor

When next week’s Billboard 200 album sales chart emerges on Wednesday, it will reveal that Taylor Swift’s new album "1989" debuted atop the chart with a first week sales total in excess of one million.

"1989" will be the first million-plus seller since Swift’s own 2012 release "Red." It will be Swift’s third album to cross the million sales threshold; no musician has ever done so with more than two albums.

And if the album continues to outperform early tracking, its first week total could even top the 1.208 million sales garnered by her own "Red" and the 1.319 million achieved by Britney Spears’ "Oops…I Did it Again." The latter is the highest total ever achieved by a female release.

This astonishing level of success comes following several consecutive weeks—and, really, an entire year—of disappointing album sales performances. Thanks to the rise of streaming services like Spotify, increased support for digital music (which makes illegally uploaded copies more appealing) and an overabundance of options for music buyers, album sales are struggling.

Swift, however, continues to buck the trend. She continues to prove that if the right artist delivers the right album, people are willing to buy it – even in 2014.

How has she developed such a special position in the market? How can her success serve as a blueprint for results in your own organization?

Let us take a look:

It’s Not What You Can Do – It’s What You Do

Two things are certain at today’s music awards ceremonies.

1) Awards will be distributed.

2) The cameras will capture Taylor Swift awkwardly dancing to the live performances.

A point of parody for the broader world of entertainment, Swift’s proclivity is a point of condemnation for critics within the music industry. Swift, they argue, is attempting to humanize herself. Swift, they argue, is only dancing to get face time on the broadcast. That it works—Swift has cultivated a modest, dorky, "girl next door" image despite looking like a model, demonstrating an increasingly elegant sense of fashion and possessing an effectively bottomless pool of money—adds fuel to the fire of hostility.

To build buzz for "1989," Swift invited groups of fans to her actual homes, where they would have the chance to take pictures, preview the album and get legitimate face time with the music industry icon. Entitled "Secret Sessions," the events represented an unparalleled level of fan engagement for a celebrity of Swift’s stature.

Critics, however, dismissed the initiative as a publicity stunt. Swift was offering "Secret Sessions" to cultivate a reputation for being fan-friendly; she was not doing so because she actually wanted to meet them.

Neither criticism is without merit. While the intensity and consistency of Swift’s commitment to this humble, fan-friendly persona strongly signals authenticity, there is undoubtedly some calculation on the singer-songwriter’s part. She clearly knows her antics come with benefits.

What ultimately matters, however, is that she does them. She does awkwardly dance at awards shows. She does participate in creative, intimate fan engagement activities. Whether rooted in altruism or greed, Swift’s commitment to the image is demonstrated in reality.

Critics will complain, "Anybody can get on camera by dancing at awards shows." They will cry, "Anyone can invite fans to their homes!"

If that is true, why do they refuse to do so?

Because Swift is a public figure, her success strategies unfold in the public eye. All other entertainers know how Swift builds her brand—and many insist it is easy—yet none actually follow her blueprint. Nobody actually does the work.

The same is often true of customer engagement. People will dismiss Morton’s airport steak delivery as a publicity stunt. They will rip Zappos’ call center structure as "gimmicky." They will say Apple relies more on slick design than product quality.

But if those are the clear shortcuts to success, shouldn’t they partake? Why claim dignity in inertia and indifference when others are claiming results by putting their best feet forward?

Do not ridicule businesses for working to better and more creatively engage customers. Do so yourself.

Be Everywhere

Albums do not simply sell in 2014. Ask Ariana Grande, who emerged as one of 2014’s biggest mainstream radio stars but only sold a modest 169,000 copies of her album "My Everything" after selling. Ask Blake Shelton, whose string of country radio #1s and ample exposure on NBC’s "The Voice" led his new album "Bringing Back the Sunshine" to a soft opening week tally of 101,000.

What does sell in today’s era? Events. If an artist can make his or her release feel momentous, he or she will locate a market of hungry buyers.

With "1989," Swift, once again, achieved the feat. To get there, Swift cultivated an omni-channel, multi-media presence to simultaneously target and bombard her audience.

It began on her social media accounts, when Swift offered teases of a major announcement planned for August. She continued the tease during appearances on NBC’s "The Tonight Show" and "Late Night with Seth Meyers" before finally announcing, via an ABC News broadcast streamed on Yahoo! Screen, that she was debuting the single and video for single "Shake it Off" that very day and releasing new album "1989" on October 27.

Through radio airplay and continued social engagement, Swift continued building anticipation for the October 27 release. As it drew nearer, she and her team launched co-promotional campaigns with Subway, Coca-Cola and Target. She released instant gratification singles to iTunes buyers. She scored cover shoots with various high-profile magazines.

When the album finally arrived, Swift embarked on a total media blitz. She participated in promotional events with iHeartMedia (which has been playing tracks from her album on its local affiliates all week) and SiriusXM Radio. She appeared on every ABC talk show and two CBS talk shows. There is simply no escaping Taylor Swift. And so whether one is only reachable in certain media or cognizant of the entire pop culture sphere, he is aware of the album. He recognizes it as an event.

The average business will doubtfully be able to blitz the media the way a global celebrity did. It can, however, take advantage of the principle that enabled Swift to develop such widespread and meaningful engagement.

It must, for instance, think about how to add value to each experience. What can it do to make its customer service interactions—and product engagements—feel special? How can it assure that its brand—not simply its transactional offerings—carves a place in each customer’s memory?

It must also assure its operations are omni-channel. Whether to connect with customers in their channels of choice or to create the perception of breadth, becoming omni-channel is one of the most productive ways to assure relevance.

Know Yourself, Know Your Audience

When Taylor Swift claimed that "1989" was going to be her first "pop" album, she made what was superficially deemed the boldest declaration of her career. She was formally departing the country genre that had supported her since her 2006 debut, contained millions of her fans (and hundreds of thousands of her album buyers) and possessed one of the largest and most influential radio communities in existence.

That move, some argued, would cost her a sizable chunk of album sales. Pop might be a surer ticket to mainstream relevance, but it represents a far weaker market for albums. Country stars with fractions of the overall celebrity of names like Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande routinely sell impressive quantities of records.

Swift, however, recognized that her sound never fit into a singular box. Her fanbase, therefore, was never latching onto hits within a given genre but always to a singer-songwriter they valued as an individual. It was Swift’s overall persona, unique sense of melody, frank lyrical tone and recognizable voice—not adherence to trends in pop or country—that drove lasting interest in her music.

Formally committing to pop—and adopting an unabashedly pop musical tone—assured that her music would gain a higher-profile at the massive pop radio format that had only viewed a few of her songs as legitimate hits. It thus put her in position to expand on her already deep profile with the young, mainstream listeners that best represent her target audience.

It did not, however, require her to abandon her unique musical personality. Sure, she had to limit the "country" flavor of lyrical storytelling in favor of broader pop sentiment (to an even greater degree than on pop-leaning 2012 release "Red"), but as long as the music felt like it was true to her voice and reflective of legitimate, gossipy happenings in her life, it would appeal to everyone who liked her before the formal pop transition.

The media wanted to portray her audience as disparately segmented across the pop and country genres. Swift knew her audience was into her particular presence and approach to music. If she offered something consistent—but better—on "1989," she could keep her fanbase engaged.

The same is true of businesses. Do not rely on superficial assumptions about how customers perceive your brand, how customers interact with your brand or why they interact in certain channels. Learn exactly how your image and service platform resonates with those of customers.

Essential for connecting with customers in the present, that knowledge is also pivotal to the development of future strategies and initiatives. As your business chases trends and seeks improvement, it must maintain a complete alignment between its actions, its corporate culture and the voices of its customers.

Before implementing any "best practice," filter that practice through the lenses of your brand and your loyal customers.

Deliver Value

At the end of the day, an ingenious, aggressive marketing strategy can only take an artist so far. Without a high-quality, high-value product at the center of that effort, customers will face little motivation to act.

Luckily, Swift consistently delivers in that regard. Every album has produced catchy radio hits. Every album has garnered favorable—if not very strong—critical reviews. Every album but her 2006 debut has been nominated for key Grammys.

Thanks to that consistency, the strength of single "Shake it Off" and instant gratification release "Out of the Woods" and glowing reviews from the majority of critics, "1989" came with assurance that it would be good. Knowing that, potential buyers were able to get lost in the magic of the "event." They knew that they would not regret parting with their money.

At the end of the day, great service cannot make up for a poor product. Gimmicky customer experience "stunts," meanwhile, cannot make up for reliably great customer care.

Before focusing on what you can do to stand out from the crowd from an image standpoint, focus on what you can do to make the core of your experience better. It is only when you have something great to market that the marketing will resonate in a lasting, meaningful fashion.

Succeeding at the basics will also give you something to market.