Taylor Swift: Converting fans to fanatics

Booft. Thats the sound that spotify servers make – probably – when they go down. When Taylor Swift releases a new album, Spotify crashes. When she announces a new tour, the ticket sellers can’t cope and crash. Youtube has played Swift songs for over 27 billion times! And Taylor Swift holds the record for capturing the top 10 spots of the Billboard top 100 songs simultaneously!

In recent times, no musician even comes close to matching her sales figures! But people who are not her fans just don’t understand her pull. “Why would a country music singer do so well?”

Swift started out as a country singer. It’s improbable but she crossed over to other genres. Multiple times. She has had pop hits and rock hits. And her fans have gone over with her! How has Swift created some of the most rabid fans in the world?

The genesis of young Taylor Swift

Swift wasn’t even a teenager when she decided to become a musician. Inspired by Shania Twain, she would sing country music songs, and perform at local festivals. When she was just 11, she recorded herself singing popular country music songs. And then she travelled to Nashville with her mother – and personally knocked on doors to submit her demo tape.

And that’s when she faced rejection after rejection. Because everyone in Nashville had the same dream! There were so many other young women doing the same thing and submitting their own karaoke demo tapes! 

Swift realized that she needed to become different. More interesting. 

And that’s when she started writing her own lyrics and making her own songs. Some people say Swift writes the best lyrics, because of which she is so popular. But those people have never heard Eminem or John Lennon.

And while Swift’s tunes can be catchy, they are certainly not in the same league as Michael Jackson or even Britney Spears.

But yet, today Swift is in their league. How so? Because she mastered the art of being interesting.

Creating mystique

Taylor Swift was all of 16 when her first album was released. She promoted it like most others would: she went on a 6 month radio tour. And she opened for other country music artists. And she used myspace and social media marketing. And her album did well. One of her songs made it in the top 15 on the Billboard charts as well!

On her album, Swift also did a very mysterious thing. She encoded secret messages in its lyrics. The lyrics booklet that is enclosed in each CD case had all the lyrics written in lowercase. Except a few letters were in uppercase. On decoding them, you would get a hidden message!

This easter egg caught on with her few early fans! They discussed it on various music forums, making Swift more popular and giving her more word-of-mouth momentum!

And so, Swift doubled down on this tactic. Every album of hers has easter eggs in them. Earlier it was in lyrics only. But then it was via videos too. And then she dropped hints on her social media profile.

Swift deepened the impact by being even more mysterious. She started re-inventing herself before a major album release. Her clothing style would change. The colour palette on her social media would change. She dropped a lot of hints and did a lot of foreshadowing about what she would do next. For eg: the paintings on the wall in a specific music video would drop a hint about who she would be collaborating with next.

It became a game for her fans to dissect everything she does to find clues. And that’s how, mere fans became fanatics. Folks became deeply involved. Because their brains would light up with delight when they recognized a hidden surprise or guessed accurately.

Even when Swift moved away from country music, her old fans followed her. Her songs won her the fans’ interest. But her mystique converted that attention into deeper interest.

Whats needed to create your own air of mystery?

Mystery is created not by what you tell. But by what you leave out. You have to withhold information. Keep things hidden. And trust your audience to discover it.

It’s a partnership with your audience. You need to understand your audience and their intelligence. You need to understand that telling them things they know will bore them. That the only way to retain their attention and deepen their interest is by crafting mysteries for them.

How Steve Yegge impresses Jeff Bezos

Bezos is renowned for being a ruthless critic. Amazon had a rule: no powerpoints. People had to present their ideas by writing a 6 page memo. But when Bezos read those memos, he would tear into them and find out all the faults in an idea.

When a programmer: Steve Yegge had to give a presentation to Bezos once, he was nervous. He had seen many people be crushed emotionally by Bezos. You could have written the best memo and Bezos would find the one flaw in it.

Yegge realized something about Bezos however: “Bezos is so goddamned smart that you have to turn it into a game for him or he’ll be bored and annoyed with you.”

So do you know what Yegge did to wow Bezos? He deleted every third paragraph. 

And that worked the magic! The memo retained Bezos’s attention. 

So how do you create a mystery?

You learn the tricks from the best mystery writers. There are 4 things that they do:

  1. Edit ruthlessly. Just hide information and let people fill in the gaps.
  2. Embed easter eggs. Secret messages or features in your product and promotions.
  3. Foreshadow and leave breadcrumbs about your future actions.
  4. End the chapter on a cliffhanger.

Action Summary:

  • If you want your audience to fixate on everything you do, become mysterious. If you fascinate them and wow them, they will always stick with you!
  • We are wired to find answers and solve puzzles. Use this drive to your advantage.