Taylor Swift, TikTok, and trend-watching
What higher ed marketers can learn from pop culture:
Maybe you’re a millennial coming to terms with the fact that the butterfly clips and bucket hats from your tween years are back in style once again. Or maybe you’re the parent of a teen who has so very kindly informed you that the 😂 emoji is no longer cool. We get it — it’s brutal out here.
With trends constantly changing and evolving, it can be hard to stay on top of pop culture. But your primary audience, Gen Z, is influenced by what’s trending every single day. And they expect brands — whether they’re musicians, retail stores, or colleges — to know what’s happening and to have a point of view on it.
So for marketers in higher education, trend-watching is essential. By being aware of and learning from music and pop culture, you can help your student-focused content feel more relatable and relevant.
With new viral content popping up daily, trend-watching can feel like chasing a moving target. We’ve been there (more to come on how to stay on top of it all). But even if you discover a trend after it’s already peaked, there’s always something to learn from it. Here are a few of our favorites from the last year or so:
The Trend: T-Swift — Folklore, Evermore, and Easter eggs
The Topic: Taylor Swift knows how to keep fans actively engaged. In July 2020, Taylor Swift released her first surprise album, Folklore. Less than five months later, she dropped a second surprise: a sister album, called Evermore. Since then, she has put out a number of re-recorded albums — the most recent being Red, which includes 11 new tracks that weren’t on the 2012 original. To her most dedicated fans, however, these releases weren’t a complete surprise, because Swift hinted at them through Easter eggs –– something these followers are quite familiar with. This practice keeps her fans extremely engaged, looking for clues anywhere they can find them.
The Takeaway: By placing elusive Easter eggs in her songs, music videos, and social content, Swift shows how creating deliberate “surprise and delight” moments can keep audiences engaged. You may not have a double-hitter-surprise-album-set on deck for your brand, but these moments can come in all shapes and sizes. The key is being intentional: find ways to create special moments with your audiences, keeping them engaged and excited for what may come next.
The Trend: Lil Nas X and his baby registry
The Topic: In the run-up to releasing his album Montero in September 2021, Lil Nas X repeatedly compared the project to having a baby. So to celebrate its launch — or “birth” — he created a baby registry, but with charities instead of onesies and diapers. For every song on the album, he chose a different nonprofit, amplifying causes important to him and his fan base, including LGBTQ+ rights, mental health awareness, health equity, racial and social justice, and more.
The Takeaway: We know that audiences rally around issues they care about, and one of the biggest drivers for Gen Z is being able to inspire and enact change. Lil Nas X’s baby registry tapped into the 70 percent of Gen Z-ers who believe they can be part of a social movement even if they participate only through social media. By using his platform to elevate these causes, Lil Nas X and his fan base raised over $100,000 for the dedicated organizations — all online. Gen Z-ers have a powerful voice, and they’re ready and eager to use it.
The Trend: Fleetwood Mac, “Dreams,” and TikTok virality
The Topic: In September 2020, Nathan Apodaca shared a TikTok video of himself skateboarding, drinking cranberry juice straight from the bottle, and lip-syncing to the ’70s hit “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac. That video exploded, racking up over 50 million views, inspiring a TikTok commercial of fans recreating the trend. Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks and Mick Fleetwood even joined TikTok to put their spin on it. The following month, “Dreams” reached No. 21 on the Billboard top 100 for the first time since its original 1977 run.
The Takeaway: Being relevant doesn’t mean having to hop on every trend. In this case, interest from younger audiences revitalized a classic hit song. Here, Mick Fleetwood and Stevie Nicks are an exceptional example of knowing where they fit. Before the song went viral, their decision to join TikTok might have been seen as odd. Instead, it felt intentional, because they seized an opportunity that was the right fit for their personal brand.
How To Join In:
Audiences demand relevant content from the brands and institutions they follow. This makes trend-watching a necessity, as you determine how and where your institution might fit in and navigate the clutter.
Step 1: Know Where to Look
Many millennials are coming to understand a new reality — they’re not young anymore. This dawning realization is something we’ve all had at some point in our lives, and it helps make an important point.
If you’re reading this article, there’s a strong chance that you’re not the target audience for the viral content we’re talking about. To stay on top of what’s trending among Gen Z audiences, you have to be intentional about where and how you seek out inspiration.
Here’s where you can get started:
- Newsletters: There are tons of great newsletters focused on Gen Z and pop culture — sign up for a few daily roundups and commit to reading them. A few of our favorites are After School, Garbage Day, Internet Brunch, and DoSomething.Org’s WYD (What You’re Doing).
- TikTok: If you’re not already one of the 130 million active TikTok users in the U.S., it’s time to join in on the fun. The TikTok algorithm shows users content based on the types of content they choose to engage with. Just remember to put yourself in the shoes of the audience you seek to reach. Exploring top sounds and hashtags is a great way to get started.
- Google Trends: Google Trends analyzes real-time and historical search data from Google. There a few ways to use it — you can explore recent trending searches, or you can search a specific topic to see how interest in that topic has evolved over time. Remember our Fleetwood Mac example? You can see a clear peak in searches for “Fleetwood Mac” in October 2020 — and relevant search terms show the connection to TikTok and Ocean Spray cranberry juice, which the original viral video featured.
- Social Listening: If you have access to a social listening tool, like Brandwatch or Infegy, this can be a great way to discover what’s trending across the web and social media. Create queries to explore and better understand the drivers and themes of conversation around popular topics.
- YouTube Re:View: Re:View is a weekly summary of top trending videos. Given the popularity of this medium among Gen Z, this recap is a great way to discover and explore long-form content.
Step 2: Know Where You Fit
Once you’re in step with and aware of the week’s topics, you can then begin to define where your brand best fits in among them. But before you dive into this new content journey, it’s important to set a firm foundation with a thoughtful content strategy. By determining your overall themes, key audiences, objectives, and goals, you can better identify the best-fit trends for you, and create relevant, engaging content for your audiences. You can’t (and shouldn’t) capitalize on every trend that crosses your screen, but with a strong content strategy, you’ll be able to identify when it feels right, and jump in accordingly.
Playbill is a great example here. Last winter, TikTok users began to crowdsource a musical version of the Disney/Pixar animated film Ratatouille. They wrote songs, designed sets and props, and made costumes — all for a fictitious musical. Playbill recognized this as a place where they could jump in. In December of 2020, Playbill announced that it would be streaming a virtual production of Ratatouille, where fans could purchase tickets, and that all money raised would go to support the Actors Fund. By tying its actions to a larger cause, Playbill effectively translated a trending topic into a way to give back, something that’s important to Gen Z. And the effort became the most successful fundraiser in Actors Fund history to date, raising $2 million.
Still not confident that you can discern between “trending” and “cringey?” Don’t be afraid to ask your current students for help. Student ambassadors are a great resource, not only for finding content, but for ensuring that your audiences will see your efforts as authentic and fitting for your brand.
Step 3: Move Quickly
Once you know where to look and have a sense of what content fits your brand best, you’re better equipped to jump on a trend when the time comes. Because (be prepared) they come and go in the blink of an eye.
In September 2021, Drake dropped his new album, Certified Lover Boy, and its cover art got quite a bit of attention. In fact, in the days following the launch, several brands and artists put their own spin on it. The reason it worked? They acted fast.
With too much red tape, an idea that might have given your brand a boost with Gen Z will be irrelevant before you get to share it.
To succeed, you must be capable of acting at the peak of a trend. And the best approach is empowering your social media teams to make decisions and take action. Your social team has so much power in how your institution is perceived, and they are experts in their craft. They’re perfectly situated at the intersection of knowing your brand and knowing the viral topics of the week. And they can see where the overlap exists.
When your institution’s staff is aligned with your content strategy, you can give social teams the agency they need to execute in the day-to-day. With too much red tape, however, an idea that might have given your brand a boost with Gen Z will be irrelevant before you get to share it.
Bringing It Together
Trend-watching is a must when it comes to making content that engages Gen Z and fits with your brand. And with numerous tools and resources available to you, keeping up doesn’t have to take a lot of time. It does, however, require thoughtful planning to ensure that you can act quickly.
If you want to wait for the good vibes of a “bones day” to get started with trend-watching, we completely support that. The important thing is that you find what works for your brand and give it a try.