5 Things Pop Stars Can Teach Us About Content Marketing
It was 1995, on a balmy summer day in the Illinois suburbs, where nothing of note ever really happened. The air was ripe with possibility and the potential for greatness.
I stood confidently, unabashedly, in my friend Caitlin’s living room. With pink feather boas around our shoulders and hairbrush microphones in hand, we got in our places, lights symbolically dimmed and faux spotlight ready.
With a packed audience of Caitlin’s mom and only Caitlin’s mom, we launched into a riveting performance—a choreographed song-and-dance routine to Ace of Base’s seminal classic, “The Sign.”
You see, for a whole summer in the ‘90s, this is what kids did without high-speed internet, cell phones or iPads, or true digital connectivity. We toiled over counts and moves to a song with a relational subject matter that we five-year-olds could never understand.
We had experienced our first taste of pop music fandom. Now, we could never go back.
From this pivotal age, my love of pop music continued to grow. Whether it was obsessing over which Spice Girl I was in 1995 to convincing my best friend’s mom to buy me the contraband Christina Aguilera debut CD in 1999 when my own mom wouldn’t (thanks, Cathy!), pop music was all-consuming and worthy of my time and attention.
Today, it still is. Pop stars have evolved since the days of the popularity war between *NSYNC and BSB (Team BSB here), but the core identity of pop music and how these beloved singers build their audience bases are very much the same.
This brings us to content marketing. (Hope your seatbelt was on for this bumpy transition!)
Here’s why: Pop stars are the OG content marketers. They grow their audiences; communicate with them in creative, hype-inducing ways; and develop a branded persona that they market through a variety of content channels.
We’ll walk through five crucial lessons pop stars can teach us about content marketing, so we can keep doing what we do best and leave the concerts to the real pros.
1. Give the fans multiple encores.
Taylor Swift is no stranger to using the power of brand marketing to cultivate her persona. In fact, I would even argue she’s best at it. Just look at how she crashed Ticketmaster by creating music that resonates with that many fans.
But first, let’s take a look at how she got her start: At a Philadelphia ‘76ers game in 2011, the undiscovered 11-year-old known as Taylor Swift sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” in front of a crowd of thousands.
She had what it took to be a pop star. So she moved from Pennsylvania to Nashville to nurture her country roots, where she released her first single “Tim McGraw” in 2006.
Yet Taylor didn’t want to be seen only as a country artist. So just two years later, Taylor began to dabble with pop on her release Fearless and has continued to create pop music perfection ever since, developing hit after hit and carrying the momentum from past releases into the present.
Which brings us to Midnights, her latest album which garnered 185 million streams worldwide—in just one day on October 21 (ahem, Kim Kardashian’s birthday; pop conspiracy theorists would say that’s an entirely different story).
Here’s why Taylor is a content marketing genius: When Taylor releases an album to her devoted Swifties, it doesn’t just end there. Album releases become a content-driven experience, with fans gaining Easter egg after Easter egg for continuing to support her:
- Midnights was released at, well, midnight. (Very on-theme.)
- But then, Midnights (3am Edition) was released three hours later, with the surprise of seven additional brand-new tracks.
- The songs on this album are all about the things that keep us up at night or that we dream about. Releasing these tracks after the world has gone to sleep allowed the listeners to be with the music and fully inhabit the experience in a way that Taylor intended.
The distribution of Midnights doesn’t end there. Taylor announced the creation of “music movies”—featuring celebs like the Haim sisters and Laura Dern—to keep the Midnights love strong and help listeners build new connections to these songs.
Taylor goes above and beyond to distribute content and build hype. With her strategy, the benefits for the fans don’t stop with the end-product; instead, she considers creative ways to connect with them and keep the momentum going.
As content marketers, we should take this lesson to heart, too. Distribution of any asset, whether it’s a case study, blog post, or quarterly report, should never be set-and-forget. There’s always an opportunity to ask yourself: How can I repurpose, redistribute, and share this content with audiences in unexpected ways?
- Instead of thinking about how to create content from an existing asset, ask yourself what you can do to extend the customer’s experience. Let’s say you develop a case study with a subject matter expert. On Instagram, you could roll out short videos of the SME expanding on their answers with insights your customers can only find on social.
- Repurpose your content across emails, social media, and channels that your customers like spending their time on. Get innovative and create a campaign around existing content. Instead of reinventing the wheel (or your entire content strategy), work with what you’ve got.
- Develop micro-moments and digital touchpoints that extend the shelf life of your content. If you need inspo, just look to T. Swift.
2. Be real. (No, don’t take out your app.)
More than anything, customers just want to feel seen. When we see our experiences mirrored in another’s, we immediately feel safer and understood.
The best way for brands to do this is by being authentic. How can we help customers see themselves in our words, actions, values, and marketing?
Carly Rae Jepsen gets this idea. (Yes, I’m talking about the same person who wrote “Call Me Maybe” eons ago, which now has 935 million plays on Spotify.) Back in 2012, Carly Rae unleashed sugary-sweet pop songs on the world. Songs that we couldn’t wait to sing in our car on the way to work (and grow deeply annoyed with once they became permanently stuck in our heads).
This year, Carly Rae released The Loneliest Time, her fifth studio album. And instead of the saccharine sweetness, fans received something more surprising: clever, 2020-era realness.
For example, on “Beach House,” she laments the guy who says, “I've got a beach house in Malibu / And I'm probably gonna hurt your feelings.” (Relatable content.) Instead of the rose-colored-glasses view of life, we’re getting a dose of authenticity from someone who empathizes with our collective dating horror stories.
But more than that, Carly connects with her fans in fun ways, offering exclusive behind-the-scenes looks into her songs. On TikTok, Carly adds more nuanced context to her songs, providing alternate song versions for fans and showing up as a real person instead of a constructed pop star image.
As content marketers, it’s easy to fall into the trap of robotic, formal tone or boring content. While it’s critical to develop your brand narrative and stick to it, look for opportunities when you can take off the shiny brand mask and instead be a genuine person.
Start by putting all of your communications through a “human-first” filter. Ask yourself, is this how a real human being would talk? At the end of the day, we’re all just people looking to connect with something greater than ourselves. Our struggles and joys help to unite us. So be real, and create lasting customer connections.
- Review your content marketing strategy, and every quarter, plan out where you can add more behind-the-scenes/human-first elements into your content.
- Assess your Customer Success motion. Is your team sending out robotic auto-replies, or are they taking the time to create personalized communications that surprise and delight customers?
- Make an emotional connection. By writing like a human, for a human, you can nurture that special bond with your customers by helping them to feel something in a sea of bland messaging.
- Audit the final product. AI writing tools are popping up in ads and conversations everywhere right now. If you’re using them to create content, consider what tweaks you can make to ensure it sounds natural and on-brand.
3. Give the people what they want.
The last three years were, well, rough. But we don’t need to go through it again here; you lived it. Some of the best music that emerged during this period landed squarely on the emotional nuances we all felt—and some gave us what we didn’t know we needed.
Enter Renaissance by Beyoncé, a seminal album that critics from Pitchfork to Billboard herald as her finest work yet. By immersing her sound in house music history, she gave us a transcendent dance album that encompasses themes of joy, movement, self-love, self-acceptance, inclusion, identity, and celebration.
Beyoncé wrote fans a note before releasing the album, citing Renaissance as “a place to dream and to find escape during a scary time for the world.” In this album, Beyoncé provides a special haven for the Black and queer communities. It encompasses samples from legends, like “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer and “Mystery of Love” by house artist Mr. Fingers, and an ever-coursing current of pure joy.
This album might not have been what the audience was necessarily expecting at this moment in time—yet it was exactly what they needed. Beyoncé knew this, and delivered. Pitchfork noted that fans missed gathering together when the pandemic hit, so Beyoncé gave them an album that would turn any setting into a dance floor.
So, what lessons does Renaissance share for a content marketer? Brands need to look at what their customers actually need—not what they want them to need. Just take SEO. Today, it’s less about making sure we add in those primary keywords, and more important that we create content for the customer. We need to match their intent, providing information that’s actually useful.
- Put the keywords aside for a second. Instead, do an exercise where you get into your customer’s mind. Based on their situation, what questions would they have for you? Then, brainstorm how you could answer them creatively through content.
- Shift your focus away from search and into brand and content marketing. Just take it from Airbnb, who saw their most profitable quarter yet from doing just that. Help your audience really get to know you, so they can trust that you have their back.
- Where can you provide delight to your customers? By building this into your content marketing strategy, you’ll give them just what they need before they ever ask you. For example, spend time where your customers actually hang out. If they’re posting on Reddit about your product, get a sense of their pain points or any features or enhancements they wish they could see. Then introduce those new features or enhancements or address the pain points in an email, with an exclusive benefit waiting just for them.
4. Do a costume change.
Ranking among the top 20 pop stars worldwide, Ed Sheeran was always determined to become a pop star. When he moved to London to prove himself, he decided to play 300 shows in 365 days. This involved cold-emailing countless music promoters. He even experienced homelessness as he tried to bring his dreams to fruition.
Pop stardom felt out of reach. As an acoustic singer-songwriter trying to break into the business, he knew needed to stand out from the noise. While traditional social channels had their appeal to similar artists in his genre, Ed Sheeran landed a performance on SBTV, a British online media channel dedicated to spotlighting up-and-coming artists, with more than 1.25 million subscribers today.
Ed Sheeran’s 2010 acoustic performance of “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You” is beyond viral today, with 11 million views. By choosing SBTV, an untapped channel typically known for promoting hip-hop artists, Ed Sheeran moved away from traditional channels and disrupted pop music, reaching a new fan base on his way to amassing a global audience.
The story doesn’t end there: Because of this one video, U.K.-based rapper Example asked him to join him on tour, bringing Ed to thousands of new fans.
Next, Ed made the move to Los Angeles, still with a dream but without a recording contract. On Jamie Foxx’s radio show, Ed was asked to perform, and Foxx was so moved that he let him use his recording studio for his first EP. When he released the music, it charted on iTunes—despite the fact that Ed hadn’t even been signed by a record label yet. Atlantic Records took note, and released his endlessly successful albums from then on.
Pretty amazing journey, isn’t it? Let’s look at some takeaways that we content marketers can put in our back pocket for later.
- This one is for all you content marketers who also dabble in partnerships. Maybe you cold email 100 companies, but it’s the one that responds to you that opens up so many new doors. Focus on the one.
- If you do what everyone else is doing, you could get swept up in a sea of noise. Think about innovative partnerships that can bring you into new industries or surprising collaborations: like Snoop Dogg and Skimms, Snoop Dogg and Corona, or Snoop Dogg anything. How can you do something completely different when creating or distributing your content?
- Understand your value, and don’t forget it as you continue to share it with your audience. When you know the value of your product and company, it will come through in your content organically, and your audience will take note.
5. Put the spotlight on the lead singer.
Ah, Harry Styles. The entire world seems to await his every musical move—and for good reason. With the release of his latest album Harry’s House, Harry departed from the pop of albums past to create some funky, inventive pop stylings. (See: “Music for a Sushi Restaurant.”)
The week of its release was the most successful of the entire year to date, with Harry’s House debuting simultaneously as the #1 Album and the #1 Track on Billboard charts with “As It Was.” The album gained momentum and continued to break records across the U.S. and the U.K.
Instead of announcing this album on social media or a more traditional forum for musicians, Styles chose Better Homes & Gardens this time, donning Gucci pajamas and holding a stacked tray meant for a bed-and-breakfast. A surprising choice for a pop artist, but not when we consider the meaning of Harry’s House and its symbolism of home and hygge.
Just ask the Stylers—the legion of Harry Styles fans who have supported him since his 1D days. There’s power in being the lead singer.
At some point, people become such loyal fans of a lead singer, that they’ll follow them anywhere on their journey. As content marketers, we can connect this back to many of our favorite commercials.
Who among us have felt truly close to a person or character based on how they present themselves to the world? The witty banter from the GEICO Gecko®, who is both adorably charming and intellectually unstoppable, the friend-next-door vibes from Progressive’s Flo, or the Duolingo owl who pulls the most amazing stunts.
[Fun music history fact: It all started with the Apple Scruffs, who followed the Beatles around on tour and were their most devoted fans. Without the internet, cell phones, or any ways of concretely knowing the bands’ whereabouts, these fans-turned-sleuths would await the Beatles outside their Abbey Road recording studio and shows, becoming a constant presence and appreciators of the music. They felt close to the foursome, a collective group of frontmen.]
Once musicians curate this pop star persona and help their audience feel close to them, they can take calculated risks—ones that align with their brand and bring them to new audiences or help their existing fan base see them in a new way.
So, how can you leverage the power of the lead singer in your content marketing efforts? Customer research is key. Once you know your audience, you can develop an authentic, relatable brand persona .
- Make your brand known. We’re not talking about getting content marketing exposure; we’re talking about allowing your audience to know your brand and the people behind it. Invest in thought leadership. Instead of having your CEO lurk behind a mystical curtain like the Wizard of Oz, help your audience get to know them. Tell the living, breathing stories behind your brand. Does the CEO have amazing wisdom to share? Write some LinkedIn posts. Have an incredible insight from a customer advocate? Write a Substack interview and share it via email. (If you want to find a partner for thought leadership content, we know someone who can help. 😉)
- Turn your brand into the lead singer. With a strong brand identity, your customers can feel close to you. That’s how the GEICO Gecko® and Flo both make us feel a sense of warmth and comfort, even when we’re talking about insurance, which can be a more confusing subject. Be consistent, stick to your brand narrative, and create interesting, impactful content that matters to your fans.
- Invite your employees to join the band. With social media becoming the place to be for company advocates, you can provide employees with a set list for sharing information about your company on social. By creating conversations on platforms like LinkedIn and TikTok, you’ll reach new audiences where they authentically consume content.
Time to sell out the show.
To connect with the ancient wisdom of pop stars, you don’t need to grab your hairbrush microphone and bust out a rendition of “Anti-Hero.” (Although…it’s me. Hi. I’m the problem, it’s me.)
As a content marketer, you can channel pop stars throughout your work when you just remember these key lessons:
- Get creative with your distribution strategy. When an asset is shared and then sent immediately to the content graveyard, it’s a missed opportunity to continue the conversation with the people who benefit from it the most—your customers.
- Be authentic, with genuine emotions. We want to feel like the brands we support understand us. Be a real person with a beating heart, and speak to your customers accordingly.
- Always consider customer intent. You might have an epic idea for a content marketing campaign or case study. But if the data or insights don’t show that your customers actually want or need it…it shouldn’t land on that content calendar. Consider what your customers want and need, then deliver.
- Be surprising. Consider creating an unexpected partnership with another brand. What collaboration are your loyal fans looking for? How can you be innovative in a world with so much marketing noise?
- Have BLSE (Big Lead Singer Energy). Help your customers actually get to know your brand—not just that game-changing solution you sell, but your values, what you care about, and who you are.
With this, you’re ready to feel like the Spice Girls after they sold out an arena in 1995.