Why Taylor Swift can teach us all a thing about content marketing

I haven’t published a blog post in awhile and an idea came to me while reading Content Rules by Ann Handley and C.C. Chapman that happens to incorporate two things I’m passionate about: music and marketing.

Whatever you call her – T Swift, T Swizzle, Swifty, Tay – and whether or not you like her music, the music star is a leader when it comes to promoting her brand. She does it flawlessly, without you knowing she’s self-promoting. She does it by showing she cares about her fans and everyday things (ie. baking, kittens) and comes off as authentic and human while doing so – a rare mix in the world of celebrity, making her stand in a league of her own.

Taylor from video Blank Space

via YouTube – Taylor Swift “Style”

Content marketing is a popular buzzword these days. According to the Content Marketing Institute, it refers to “a marketing technique of creating and distributing valuable, relevant and consistent content to attract and acquire a clearly defined audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”

What that means in contrast to traditional marketing is the focus on “valuable, relevant and consistent content” – information that is interesting to, helps, or is useful to, the end recipient in some way. Kind of like ‘news you can use’… but with marketing material.

Taylor (let’s go on a first-name basis since it’s so easy to feel like BFFs with the star) knows her audience and plays exceptionally well to them. She speaks their language, shares their interests (did I mention baking and kittens?) You don’t see her tweeting “buy my album” or telling the audience “get 20% off my latest single” at The Ellen Show.

via Facebook

“A unique, human-sounding corporate voice is critical if you want to engage, stimulate, or excite your audience – especially now, when your content is increasingly an essential mechanism through which to define, enhance, and clarify who you are. Your tone of voice, in other words, is your greatest ally: It’s the basis for the relationship you hope to create with your customers, along with your products, service, and culture – all the other things that go into a brand.” – Content Rules (page 31)

Instead of push marketing messages, you see the artist engaging with her fans – both online and offline – on a daily basis by sharing recipes, glimpses into her life, thoughtful comments on individuals’ profiles, thanking them and even sending customized letters and gifts.

via YouTube

Taylor’s recent Gift of Giving campaign went viral when she sent personalized holiday gifts to select fans that had reached out to her through social media. Dubbed “Swiftmas,” the video currently has more than 16,300,000 views on YouTube and shows Taylor wrapping packages with hand-written cards and overjoyed, teary-eyed, screaming girls receiving them.

She goes the extra mile for her fans and it shows through. After all, Taylor’s latest record, 1989, was the top-selling album of 2014, having sold 3.66 million copies, and she was named Billboard’s fourth top artist of the year last year.

The star seemingly crafts her own content for social media, as well, as opposed to being written in the third-person. It’s natural, personal and gives off a very genuine impression. This point shouldn’t really be all that novel a concept, but how refreshing it is to read a celebrity’s tweets as if they’re coming from them as opposed to their social media team!

via Facebook

She differentiates herself by having a strong and consistent brand personality – be it online or at awards shows – that creates such amazing fan loyalty.

Most recently, Taylor tracked down a fan of hers who she knew (via Tumblr) would be at The Grammys and arranged to meet her.

Screen shot 2015-02-16 at 2.45.20 PM

via Twitter

I hope we see more and more clever content marketing – from music personalities and corporations, alike. When companies can be the ones to provide relevant insight, help consumers fix a problem, teach them something, provide advice or interesting facts, it creates a relationship so that, hopefully, the next time they require their service or product, they purchase it from that brand.

Taylor, leading the charge, has fans coming back for more. She shares and comments on user-generated content, like this mash-up of Taylor Swift songs by Louisa Wendorff.

via YouTube

These things undoubtedly contributed to 2014 being named “The Year of Taylor Swift” by Rolling Stone.

And even if you don’t agree, she’ll just shake it off.

A getaway not-so-far-away: Touring Niagara-on-the-Lake

Often people think the only way to “get away from it all” is to venture into far-off lands for lengthy periods of time, escape the addiction that is our electronic devices and live like nomads. Turns out – at least for the twentysomething “adventurers” we are – all you need for some downtime is often in your own backyard – of your province.

We all know Niagara Falls. No matter where you’re from, you have some semblance of what this one of the Seven Wonders of the World looks like and how fascinating and impressive it is. And it is!

But drive a mere half hour east, and you’ll get away from (most) fannypack-wearing, camera-slinging, casino-loving tourists and enter a true summer paradise where sun and sand meet and the people are as smiley as they are generous.

And who wouldn’t be happy in Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL)? Residents and visitors alike find themselves surrounded by sun, (tons of) great wine, a vast and beautiful lake, clean atmosphere and, albeit a lack of stoplights at Queen St. intersections, no traffic.

Looking across beautiful Lake Ontario to the States

Looking across beautiful Lake Ontario to the States

Niagara Falls is a destination, but NOTL is an experience. It’s world-renowned for its natural beauty – the town maps proclaim NOTL as “North America’s Prettiest Town” – its historic sites, and, of course, its wine.

Planning a trip to the region should begin in the many small towns in surrounding areas just outside NOTL. With so much to offer visitors, it’s a good opportunity for one to literally whet their palette with the region’s fine offerings.

We made a point to stop at a handful of vineyards along the Beamsville Bench, in Jordan, Grimsby, Lincoln and Beamsville, Ontario – about 40 minutes from NOTL.

Our first stop was beautiful family-owned Fielding Estates Winery. Fielding has a sprawling property with a new and modern wine tasting and retail building that’s been home to many events on its expansive front lawn overlooking the vineyard. Fielding’s friendly staff, impeccable facilities and great selection of gifts and accessories all complement its fantastic wine selection. While sampling ice wine, estate-bottled Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Chardonnay, we sat on the balcony overlooking its entire property and enjoyed panorama vistas of Lake Ontario. We could not have started off our trip better!

From Fielding, we drove 150 metres down the road to the home of Mike Weir Wine. Weir, the famous Canadian golfer, has been in the wine business since the mid-2000s, with 100 per cent of the company’s profits going toward his childrens’ charity. The facility will be open in spring 2014 –but we got a sneak peek.

Touring Mike Weir Wine facilities - opening this fall

Touring Mike Weir Wine facilities – opening this fall

Mike Weir Wine’s new retail area, projected to open to the public in October 2013, will have a balcony that overlooks its vineyard and the lake in the distance. It will also hold a gallery filled with artifacts and memorabilia from Weir’s PGA Tour wins, including his 2003 Masters victory, and appearance at the 2007 President’s Cup in Montreal. The company’s knowledgeable and outgoing winemaker said it is mostly known for its Riesling, having won the 2011 White Wine of the Year in Canada.

Prior to arriving at Stoney Ridge Estate Winery, we made a point to pop into Upper Canada Cheese, famous for it’s Gold Label cheese and Guernsey cow products. Every one of its delicious cheese varieties is sourced from local dairy is made in its on-site facility. It should be ideally paired with some local wine!

Stoney Ridge, itself, is a gorgeous, small vineyard with the most finely manicured gardens in the region. It offers many areas for patrons to enjoy a glass of wine and a cheese plate amongst the rosebushes, lilies, arbors and vines. The knowledgeable and generous staff at Stoney Ridge made our quick visit one to remember.

From the Beamsville Bench, we travelled east along the QEW and the Escarpment to the lovely Niagara-on-the-Lake, where we would tour around in the perfect 25-degree sun before settling in at a local B&B.

With a population of about 15,400 – a quarter of which is retirees – it was immediately evident that NOTL was a popular destination in the summer months, particularly for those who live right across the border in nearby Buffalo or Rochester. And with so much to do, outside of just grape guzzling, it’s clear why that is.

Horseback riding, eating, golfing, picnicking, sightseeing, shopping, touring Fort George, cycling, and live music are just some of the many activities offered outside the vineyards – many of which we gladly partook in.

Trail riding near the vineyards

Trail riding near the vineyards

For example, the Niagara-on-the-Lake golf course is right in the downtown core, and was a mere five minute drive from our B&B. It’s located along the shores of Lake Ontario, and provides some stunning views. The course is the oldest in North America still in its original location, and was ranked No. 9 in Golf Digest’s ranking of the best nine-hole courses in the world.

Picturesque NOTL golf club

Picturesque NOTL golf club

Not being from the region, it was the diversity, variety and complexity of the region’s wineries was what really grabbed our attention and turned us into the tasting connoisseurs we now proudly claim to be (note: the term ‘connoisseurs’ is used loosely).

From the twilight tour at Trius by Hillebrand where we learned what goes into making a world-famous sparkling wine (‘Brut’), to understanding why rosebushes are planted to save the crops at Pillitteri Estates, to discovering building architecture is influenced by a barn at Jackson-Triggs, and to realizing the gunshot noises were actually just animal deterrents, our biggest takeaway was that winemaking is both an art and a science.

Overlooking the vast vineyard at Jackson-Triggs

Overlooking the vast vineyard at Jackson-Triggs

Getting away from it all doesn’t have to mean boarding a plane for the furthest exotic destination. As we experienced, taking a moment to breathe and relax outside the city and refueling with good food, great wine, friendly hospitality and fun activities is sometimes all you need.

And Niagara-on-the-Lake was the perfect place to do it.

For more photos from our trip, please click here.

Recipe for the perfect summer night: Chad Brownlee and Fielding Estate Winery

“Let us celebrate the occasion with wine and sweet words.”
–        Plautus   

School is done, the sun is out and the grapes are flowering – it’s clear summer is in the air. And while that may be reason enough to celebrate, how about pairing live outdoor music with stunning scenery, luscious wine, fresh food and great friends?

Award-winning Canadian singer-songwriter Chad Brownlee is helping do just that by bringing his heartfelt vocals and high energy to Fielding Estate Winery in Niagara’s Beamsville Bench on July 6 for Live in the Vinesan outdoor country music concert like you’ve never experienced before.

Set in the vineyard of one of the region’s most coveted wineries overlooking Lake Ontario, Live in the Vines will give fans the opportunity to get up-close-and-personal with the star while enjoying fresh bites from local food trucks and sipping on Fielding favourites.

You may have heard his new hit single Crash on country music radio or stumbled upon the song’s YouTube video (counting about 65,000 views so far). Perhaps you saw the 28-year-old Kelowna-native on CMT or watched him perform during his Boys of Fall tour with Dallas Smith last year. Or, maybe you recognize his name from the hockey roster where his career as a defenceman made him a draft pick for the Vancouver Canucks in 2003.

Any which way, Chad Brownlee has risen to the top of Canadian country music charts since his debut hit single in 2009, The Best That I Can Do, and continues to shine on the concert stage and awards stage. He won five BCCMA Awards in 2011, including Album of the Year and Entertainer of the Year, and was the recipient of the Rising Star Award at the CCMA’s that same year. In 2012, Brownlee was nominated for the CCMA’s Male Artist of the Year award and most recently, received a Juno Award nomination for his album, Love Me or Leave Me.

Hockey player-turned-country music star Chad Brownlee | Photo by Stephanie Brooks

And while evidently highly praised, the artist maintains a modest outlook and stays true to his roots – and fans. Brownlee brings this down-to-earth vibe to Fielding where his Live in the Vines performance will kick-off the vineyard’s live concert series for 2013 – a great way to start the summer in a venue far from city lights and traffic signs.

But not that far.

The grape vines that line the Fielding estate lie a mere 20 minutes from St. Catharines and Niagara Falls, 10 minutes away from Grimsby and an hour’s drive from Toronto, making the setting a convenient site for show-goers across the GTA and around the province.

Fielding Estate Winery's lodge through grape vines

Fielding Estate Winery’s lodge through grape vines (Source: Fielding Winery)

Whether you favour the berry and oak notes of Pinot Noir or savour the nutty and tropical flavours of Chardonnay, the winery produces your favourites in its 20-acre vineyard. Fielding has made a name for itself as a local, family-run business with a national presence and reputation for high quality. President Curtis Fielding was named Grape Grower of the Year for 2012/2013, reflecting the team’s passion and commitment to stellar winemaking in its state-of-the-art facility.

So don’t miss out as fans, wine lovers, families and friends come together to enjoy live music, fresh air and great wine to kickstart the season: the recipe for the perfect summer night.

Get your tickets now for the premiere vineyard concert in the region: Live in the Vines. Tickets are going fast, so click here to purchase today before they sell out.

Country in the city: A review of the CMAO’s Ottawa seminar

Seventy-five budding artists, one music room, 10 country music industry professionals, seven hours, innumerable takeaways.

The University of Ottawa’s music department saw more than 75 budding country songwriters, singers and musicians gather on November 25 to hear from Canadian professionals in the country music industry – everyone from music directors to recording artists to booking agents to producers – on everything from radio to publicity and marketing to lyrics, style and business.

Below is a recap of the day, including the most prevalent discussions, topics and information. Let me tell you, I could’ve written a book from all the insider advice and knowledge the insightful panelists provided. But out of interest to keep my readership and abide by one of the facts I learned in this seminar (you have a short timeframe to make your point and an impression), I’ve summarized the most dynamic elements of the production below.

Panel one: How to get your songs to radio


Brian Allen, producer, Amplus Productions
KT Timmermans, music director, The Island
Joel Lamoureux, music director, Y101
Anya Wilson, Anya Wilson Publicity
Steve Parker, Canadian Country Spotlight

The CMAO put on the day-long seminar to 75 budding artists

The CMAO put on the day-long seminar to 75 budding artists

Key takeaways from panel one:

  • Focus on: song, image, story
  • It’s the music BUSINESS
  • Talent is a very small part of the whole business. Like anything, it’s who you know, what you know, and what you do with it.
  • Radio is looking for the song that’s going to catch directors’ attention in seven seconds.

As moderator for this panel, Allen did a stellar job bringing the topic of conversation back to the importance of the business aspect of putting music on the radio. He stressed, with necessary emphasis, that it is a money-making industry in the first place, and to get airplay it requires much more than just talent.

Some other important ideas to keep in mind:

  • Bring an audience with you
  • Be ready by the time you get there
  • Build a relationship with the stations
  • Pitch small-town radio

Panelists outlined that country musicians are in a unique position as artists, as a result of the size of audience the genre captures, the connection listeners have with on-air personalities, the loyal characteristics of the audience, and the large demographic. As Timmermans so fittingly put it, it’s the “music of the people.” Lamoureux added, “the country music audience is the most passionate, and you need the songs to connect with them.”

Lamoureux said country music listeners are 60 per cent female, 40 per cent male, and it’s a genre based on a relationship format. By bringing a built-in audience to the game, he notes, you’ll be more likely to be considered for airplay. Therefore, a new artist has to know the audience, know the advertisers, and please both.

What goes into a radio station music meeting? Radio station music directors Timmermans and Lamoureux said:

  • Music directors get a stack of CDs almost daily, hear a few seconds of the demo and either say “yay” or “nay”
  • A song will normally get 18 plays a week
A new artist has to know the audience, know the advertisers, and please both

A new artist has to know the audience, know the advertisers, and please both

Parker, whose show, Canadian Country Spotlight, showcases emerging artists, discussed the value of time on radio, and all panelists conceded the importance of having a business plan. “You need to have a footprint, or the beginnings of a national profile,” noted Parker. “We look at the business model and if there isn’t one, we have to say ‘no.’”

Wilson, a seasoned industry publicist, takes certain artists on as projects and lobbies radio to get them airplay. She consults on songs before they’re radio-ready, including ensuring it matches the sound of other acts on the radio at the time. Once radio adds something to its airplay, the song is played for at least 14 weeks, meaning it commits to those artists. Wilson makes it her job to ensure they’re capable of reaching that point. “I don’t want a one-hit wonder,” she said.

But, years in the industry have taught Wilson it’s not all about the song. “Radio is a blind medium,” she said. This means a song can’t be five minutes long. It also means there has to be more to an artist than just a hit.

An artist’s newsworthiness is critical to their ability to grow in popularity. Have a good story, Wilson adds, and the development and execution of that story is crucial in an artist’s success.

Timmermans, who views artist biographies daily on the digital music courier service DMDS, echoed the importance of having a good story. “Don’t make light of what your story might be,” she said. “That’s what helps market you.”

Panel two: Making it in the ‘biz

Wendell Ferguson, musician
Charlie Major, country star
Robert Wilson, manager/booking agent
Heather Ostertag, Ostertag & Associates

Key takeaways from panel two:

  • Again, it takes a lot more than just talent
  • Funding is a daunting process and you have to be in “it to win it”
  • Be your own team, but have a team to back you up
Panelists get ready for critiquing

Panelists get ready for critiquing

The second and final panel was much broader in scope, touching on subjects from funding to fans to failing to fulfillment. Broken down by panelist below, read the industry insights on how the specialists got to where they are, where they would go differently, and when they knew they made it.

Charlie Major

When asked by moderator Wendell Ferguson what his biggest piece of advice would be for aspiring country artists, Major responds with a deep and quiet, “follow your bliss.” Seemingly simple words of wisdom from a chart-topping star from Aylmer, Quebec, who’s recorded six studio albums and released more than 20 singles.

After traveling around the world with his guitar, Major decided making music was what he wanted to do. “Know what you’re good at, and do it,” he suggested.

Throughout his career, he’s committed not only himself to follow through with “doing what he’s good at,” but also his team. “I go out there every night and give it my 150 per cent because I’m not just representing myself, but my booker, manager, record company, and so on. It’s a collaboration, and you have to be ready to take on that responsibility.”

Country star Charlie Major

Country star Charlie Major

And amidst the doom-and-gloom perspective of entering the industry prevalent throughout the panel, Major made sure to provide the audience of hopefuls with some optimism.

“Every week I listen to the Top 40,” he said. “And every week there are 40 songs. Somebody is writing those songs. Somebody is playing those songs. Every week, every year, there are new people coming out. It can be done if you want it badly. It’s not insurmountable.”

And while not insurmountable, it’s also not easy. Major said when he sat down to write music and play songs, he’d be at it for 15 to 16 hours a day. “That’s sacrifice,” he added. 

Brian Allen

King of the session’s most quotable lines, Allen, as founder of a production company, focused predominantly on the business aspect of the industry.

Budding artists have to be willing to put in the legwork behind their music and BE the team before they HAVE a team, he said. “First, you have to have a brain,” he noted. “Nobody’s going to be interested in you if you don’t bring something to the table or have an interest in learning how to do some of the work that goes alongside just singing, like promoting yourself and booking yourself.” No one is going to come along and say ‘I believe in you and I want to lose a million dollars,’ he said. “You have to be strong enough to attract a team.”

And attracting a team is different than seeking out a team. “Some managers and agents will show up when they smell talent,” said Allen. “The best managers and agents will show up when they smell money.”

Play live to determine whether or not you should record a song

Play live to determine whether or not you should record a song

Allen made mention of the innumerable times he comes across someone wanting to make a recording to start their career. But, he advises, artists should be making a recording to further their career. “People want to be rescued by a recording and think it’ll pull them out of their dreary day job,” he noted. “I think that’s just wrong, unrealistic thinking. To figure out if you have a song worth recording, play live! If they don’t clap, don’t record that song.”

He added there are logical, tested, strategic steps to go through when coming up with your music business plan in the beginning, which he dubbed the “career equivalent of diapers.”

But how does one know when and if this is the right thing to pursue?

Allen said an artist will know once they evaluate the opportunity cost of making music for the rest of their life. “You know when it’s time to commit to music when you know that the value of what you are leaving behind is worth less than if you had not committed to it,” he said.

Top three Brian Allen quotes of the day:

  1. “Failing to plan is planning to fail.”
  2. “A fan is a stranger who will give you money twice.”
  3. “Loose lips sink ships in this business.”

Heather Ostertag 

As former president and CEO of FACTOR, Ostertag knows the ins-and-outs of funding for musicians. While an option for some, funding programs are serious business and not for the faint of heart. “Funding is not an entitlement,” Ostertag said. “You may be lucky to get it, but you have a better chance of winning the lottery than getting the funding.”

All funding agencies (like the CMT video artists program, Canada Council for the Arts, FACTOR, and the Toronto Arts Council, for example) provide forums for competition for the money, complete with a jury to determine the successful applicant. “To have a successful application, you really need to think beyond just production,” she adds. “You can’t just have the talent. You have to have the knowledge, the expertise, the ability to take it into the marketplace and exploit it in moving your career forward.”


Put bluntly, none of the agencies are interested in giving you money just because you have talent.

The realist of the group, Ostertag added the industry is based on a lot of “no’s” and if you do so happen to get the funding, it comes with accountability.

Finally, she emphasized the importance of knowing what is being done on your behalf. “Know what’s been put on funding forms, especially if it’s done by a third party,” she said. “You are accountable for what’s down there.” While you require a team, it behooves you to know what’s happening. “I’ve seen artists who’ve been taken to the cleaners by their team and lose everything. It’s incumbent upon you to know the business in music. I’ve seen so many people have their dreams sold back to them because they didn’t do their homework.”

And my favourite Ostertag line of the day: “It’s evident by some of the people who came to FACTOR that they had been getting advice from friends or family or deaf people. Your friends and family don’t know. It’s a business.”

Wendell Ferguson

This panel’s moderator and accomplished guitar player, Ferguson brought intelligent and careful thought to the session, making sure to add a few jokes throughout.

Aside from his remarks like, “think like your audience,” and “your talent may be big, but you’re not,” what stood out for me was his recommendation on staying committed. “In Nashville, they say your first thousand songs don’t count,” he said. “Come to me when you’ve written 1,010, and they’ll probably be really good by then.”

Vince Gill said if you're getting into the biz, learn to love every aspect of it

Vince Gill said if you’re getting into the biz, learn to love every aspect of it

Clearly an esteemed musician, Ferguson recounted an exchange he had with Vince Gill. “He told me, if you’re getting into this business, you have to learn to love every aspect of it. If there’s something that drives you crazy, it’s going to keep driving you crazy until you can’t handle it.”

Seems like some of these lessons are not only those helpful in the music industry, but life lessons, as well.

The down low on CanCon

Being a Canadian seminar with Canadian industry professionals, it wouldn’t be truly patriotic without the mention of “CanCon” – Canadian Content. Love it or hate it, the CRTC-regulated policy is a reality that today’s Canadian radio stations must abide by. The CMAO panelists shed some light on what makes up music that fits these strict guidelines.

The MAPL system defines that to be Canadian Content, or CanCon, at least two of these letters have to be true:

  • Music written by a Canadian
  • Artist a Canadian citizen
  • Place of production is in Canada
  • Lyrics written by a Canadian

Further resources