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The Taylor Swift Brand of Community Engagement

Ask me what I think about Taylor Swift, and you’ll hear my stock response: No matter one’s opinion on her artistry or authenticity—this is a musician who knows how to build and maintain a dedicated community supporting her every artistic move. When three other artists and I started Front Porch Arts Collective in our hometown of Greenville, South Carolina last year, we dreamed of having a relationship with our community built on authenticity, reciprocity, and dialogue. Moving that dream into reality isn’t easy. Money and time are always limiting factors, and it can be difficult to build lasting relationships with community members on an organizational level. I was considering new ways to engage with our audience when inspiration struck from an unlikely source: a Taylor Swift video.

For the 2014 holiday season, Taylor Swift sent dozens of large boxes filled with personalized gifts and notes to fans—Swifties—across the country, based on interests she deduced from their social media profiles. She then released a video documenting her (and her cats) as she carefully selects and wraps gifts for each recipient, followed by short clips of her fans’ emotional reactions. This “Swiftmas” video soon went viral, shared countless times on social media, often prefaced with “I didn’t really like Taylor, but now...

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Intrigued, I began looking for more examples of Swift’s relational practices, and it didn’t take me long to realize that her relationship with Swifties is brilliantly constructed (whether by Swift or a marketing agency), founded on the ideas of equity and reciprocity. It’s no secret that a majority of Swift’s fans are in the “youth” bracket of marketing, from ages five to twenty-five. This is a portion of the community that is, quite frankly, nearly impossible to get into the theatre; even as a member of that generation, I frequently recognize and experience the disinterest that many of my peers have. Can theatre organizations tap into Swift’s ideas around community engagement that increase and strengthen her fan base?

Participating in the Swift model requires that we answer three questions: What is the story of my organization or my work? What are the stories of others that resonate or connect with my story? And finally, how does or how can that story create positive impact within the story of my community?

At its core, Swift’s strategies draw upon a skill that theatre artists have in abundance: storytelling. Participating in the Swift model requires that we answer three questions: What is the story of my organization or my work? What are the stories of others that resonate or connect with my story? And finally, how does or how can that story create positive impact within the story of my community? The answers to those questions can open the door to authentic exchange with our communities.

Be Real
Taylor Swift’s brand of engagement wouldn’t work without her perceived authenticity. She lets people into her everyday life, and instead of portraying the exceptional, Swift displays symbols of culture that are universally relatable: cats, baking, friendships. This is where our storytelling craft becomes necessary. How can we tell our story in a manner that focuses on the recognizable rather than the remarkable? For example, when Front Porch tells the story of our first meeting, we start with the setting: a local cafe on the day after Christmas. In Greenville, that setting carries a lot of meaning. The city is sparkling during the holiday season, and the cafe’s cake alone carries a reputation of mythical proportions; these are symbols of our city’s culture that allow others to engage in the excitement of that first meeting. Through that story, we drop the hierarchy that can be inherent in talking about theory or artistic motivations or community development. We’re talking about cake and community, and everyone can join that conversation.

Move the Spotlight
Swift listens to her fans’ stories and finds ways for her story to intersect with theirs. In a recent interview, she said,

I’m getting to know them on a person-by-person basis. When I pick people to send packages to, I go on their social media sites for the last six months and I figure out what they like or what they’re going through. [...] When you actually get to know them on a person-by-person basis, you realize what you’re doing is special and sacred and it matters.

This idea isn’t about buying gifts. It’s about asking how our audience is making meaning and how we can be a part of that. Eventually, we can move to an even deeper level of engagement: What matters to them, and how can our story matter to them? For that to work, their stories have to matter to us first.

Give Back
Reciprocity is critical for Swift’s particular brand of community engagement. Talking about her fans, Swift said, “I want to make the most of this cultural relevance or success or whatever you want to call it, because it’s not going to last. [...] I have to do everything I can to make their day better while I still can.” If we think about this on a larger institutional scale, how can we use our story to support and impact our communities? The benefits of reciprocal, genuine exchange will be felt on both sides.

Long-term, lasting connection revolves around story and relationship. How can your story become something that is loved by both your organization and your community? This week, join Front Porch in a trial run of the Taylor Swift brand of community engagement. Think through these three questions about your story, and, in the meantime, try some little things: Write a note to the coffee shop you frequent with your artistic team. Ask a stranger at the bank to tell you what they love about their neighborhood, then give them some tickets to the next performance (and tell them to invite their neighbors). Take a selfie with the person who faithfully delivers boxes full of strange props to your door everyday. Resist the urge to make it about marketing. Make it about relationships. Move the spotlight, be real, and give back. Oh, and have fun while you do it.

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This is great. Really powerful. An article I'll want to read again and again. Thank you for so eloquently parsing the importance of relationship and story in genuine community building. Psyched to support y'all down in Greenville!

Relationships. Thanks for interpreting the magic of Taylor Swift into an article that makes me want to act.