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McMarketing: A Case Study of Digital Humanities Applications to the Marketing Industry

Page history last edited by Benjamin Chan 7 years, 6 months ago


            Digital humanities is an area of research and teaching that involves practical scholarly applications of digital computing tools in the disciplines of the humanities. With origins in computing centers of the late 1940s, the academic practice gained popularity in the 1990s alongside the proliferation of the internet until the term “digital humanities” was introduced into academic vocabulary in 2004. Still relatively young, digital humanities or DH is steadily gaining popularity in universities and research institutions. The field is broad in scope; practitioners from traditional humanities areas including literature, linguistics, history, cultural studies, and social sciences utilize a variety of digital tools such as network visualization, data mining, online collection curating, and text analysis among others.

     Adeline Koh of Richard Stockton College writes that, “At its best, the digital humanities is about engaging more critically what the intersections between technology and how we act, think, and learn.” Striving after the discovery of new information should be the chief goal of scholars and researchers. Whether it results in revelations in the realm of analysis or results in discovering superior research methodologies, exploring academia should seek innovation.

     The purpose of course projects assigned in the English 149 course titled “Media and Info Culture,” at the University of California, Santa Barbara was for students to explore new ways of thinking and research through use of DH programs. Students were asked to form teams and create a digital project exploring a piece of literature or subject related to literature. One team’s project was titled “McSwift: Marketing Analysis of Franchise vs Artist. The authors’ shared interest in the field of marketing and advertising led them to wonder how DH tools could be applied in analysis of industry strategies, particularly in the language and trends used in campaigns. To narrow down the scope of the analysis, the project focused on the tactics employed by a franchise versus those of a singular person’s brand. The project parameters revolved around testing this hypothesis: Marketing of an individual relies more heavily on a personal connection with the audience, whereas a large corporation’s marketing success depends largely on their ability to connect with a target audience as a whole.

            The entities selected for analysis and comparison were the McDonald’s Corporation and singer-songwriter Taylor Swift. When considering potential franchises and persons of interest to focus on, the authors contemplated which entities were successful enough to provide significant amounts of data, and which had international appeal in order to provide statistics on brand reach beyond their home country. Both McDonald’s and Swift originated in the United States and are widely considered among the leaders in their industries. The fast food franchise was relevant at the time of the project’s creation because it was a major competitor in its field, regularly producing new products and marketing campaigns. A major factor in choosing Swift over other internationally successful US artists was her recent popularity. Her recent success and media coverage made her an ideal candidate to examine. Close contenders that were not chosen included the Apple Corporation, pop artist Lady Gaga, and singer-songwriter Bruno Mars.

            The project authors segregated research tasks into two realms, one focusing on McDonald’s and the other focusing on Swift. Two members were assigned to cover each.  To maintain focus a set of criteria was established. Elements for comparison were geographical reach of marketing, change in strategies over time, target audiences, language use in campaigns, characteristics of marketers, and product/celebrity endorsements.  For presentational purposes a decision was made to array findings using a digital mapping tool. The team created a standard for geographical regions to investigate for both sides including the US/Canada, United Kingdom, France/Germany to represent Western Europe, Australia/New Zealand, China, Japan, and Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines and Malaysia to represent Southeast Asia. Methodology for exploring each entity differed according to team member’s discretion.

            The members researching Swift found that the most easily accessible and relevant information to the project parameters was her extensive use of social media and numerous product promotions and partnerships. In the realm of social media, many primary sources were readily available from Swift’s personal Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, and website. Posts authored by her provided insight into the content and style of her internet presence.  Posts were generally examined based on the time of publication in relation to the album or tour it was promoting. Initial forays into her social media accounts found that in some way, content encouraged brand sales for either previous or upcoming music, tours, and merchandise.

            Investigations made into the success of her albums and tours throughout her career revealed a possible correlation between product promotions and her popularity. The team gathered statistics on album and singles sales from national music industry organizations such as the Recording Industry Association of America, Australian Recording Industry Association, and British Phonographic Industry. Data was gathered regarding chart positions, total sales, and certifications. Numbers on tour attendance and sales figures were gathered from primary sources such as the Nielsen Media Group ratings and her official website. Details of her product promotions and corporate sponsorships were gathered principally from news articles from publication such as The New York Times, Huffington Post, Newsweek, Time, and Bloomberg Businessweek. The only Digital Humanities tool utilized for Swift was the Storymap JS program as a medium to present research findings.

            Team members researching the McDonald’s Corporation began by researching and summarizing the history of the franchise, focusing on different iterations of adverting campaigns. A significant difference between Swift and the fast food chain is its seniority over the young singer whose career began in 2006. The daunting history of McDonald’s 59 year existence was considered too large a feat to analyze, so members decided to summarize the majority and focus on interpreting the success of the two most recent marketing campaigns. Facts were acquired from the company website and historical collection websites. 

            Information on recent campaign’s practices and sales statistics were found on news articles from publications such as Businessinsider, Time, National Public Radio, and Businessweek. International statistics were primarily found on English language websites from the US and UK. Additionally, team members watched many foreign advertisements on Youtube as a primary source that had not been translated or reported on by a nonnative speaker.

            DH tools utilized in this entity’s research were social media analysis programs. A tool called Netlytic was used to harvest and analyze data from Twitter. Search criteria refined the extraction process to include three main datasets for the account @mcdonalds and key phrases “I’m loving it,” and “McCafe.” Each three day long harvesting period drew data from user accounts posting tweets including one of the phrases. The program then reported post content, location of origin, date of posting, and results of sentiment analysis. A similar program Umigon was also used to mine Twitter data and analyze post sentiment. The rudimentary system was used sparingly in comparison to Netlytic, although it did provide some useful results about people’s reactions and opinions of McDonald’s campaigns. Like with the Swift section, the assigned team members used Storymap JS to display findings although they had to greatly summarize relevant data given the technical limitations of the mapping program.

            Findings from both spheres of investigation seemed to support the project’s original hypothesis. The pair focusing on Swift found that her most effective form of marketing was through her social media presence. Her overarching strategy was to directly engage her audience with the intent of building loyalty and support of her fans. Youtube videos of her experiences while on tour, and during recording sessions appealed to fans looking to discover more about her professional life. Her Tumblr and Twitter content provided insight into personal life, intriguing dedicated fans who desired to know her in extreme detail. The two platforms in particular were avenues heavily used by Swift to interact with and engage her fans. She created the hashtag #taylurking, categorizing pictures of fans with Taylor Swift paraphernalia as an inventive way to encourage fans to continue buying her products and connect with her. Her creation of new social media content and trends such as memes of herself exemplifies her ingenuity in inventing channels designed to please her fans.

     Another massively successful practice that Swift engages in is direct communication with her audience. Research found that Swift would often directly reply to fan’s social media comments and posts, sometimes replying with witty one-liners or writing paragraph long replies. Her regular highlighting of favorite “taylurking” posts and other community content conveys her interest in relating to fans. Her ability to remain present and available on multiple platforms at a time shows her dedication in investing in a key target demographic. Her comments, reblogs, and creations shows her understanding of the millennial generation’s interests and online habits.

      A similarly prosperous practice was designing content so that fans could use it as a means to connect with each other. The social aspect of social media is very evident in the rapid expansion of Swift created content and trends, which can be attributed not only to her skillful composition but also the ardor of her fans. Swift’s social media history indicates her capitalization on building personal connections with fans. Providing unifying material for her fan base to socialize over creates an additional incentive for them to remain invested in her as a source of entertainment. Whether or not her words and actions are genuine remains to be seen, however her recent rate of success is undisputable. Research found that her most recent album 1989 sold over 1.2 million copies in the first week, breaking multiple records. The album made the highest musical sales week since 2002, and made Swift the first artist to have three albums sell one million or more copies within a week of its release. Sales rates continue to rise and her upcoming tour for the album is predicted to draw larger audiences and more revenue than past ones. A strong correlation appears to exist between her musical and merchandise sales and fan loyalty. The strong community devotion that Swift is able to establish results in more positive opinions of her, thus resulting in higher sales rates.

     In the other segment of research, the overwhelmingly approving disposition that Swift is able to garner from her audience was not found from surveys taken of McDonald’s customers. The Netlytic and Umigon results showed mixed dispositions of people tweeting about the franchise. Some praised its food, commenting on the taste of certain menu items. Others were less kind with their words, one user said about the McCafe line of beverages: @ajarncom my mother loves McCafe Lattes. Starbucks is not good coffee… but it is there and it doesn't have fake milk with palm oil in…" Despite technical restraints of the two programs limiting Tweet harvesting to the previous three days before it began, the sentiments analyzed do not appear as favorable when compared to community opinion of Swift.

     Further studying of McDonald’s social media presence found little to no direct communication between the corporation and consumers. The immense size of the group seems to contribute to the wall that has been built between itself and the people it is serving. Online components of advertising campaigns are worded to appeal to a general audience. The only interactions found on social media was between customers, critiquing, commenting, and praising the fast food chain.

     The team members looked into the two significant recent campaigns “McCafe” and “I’m Loving It,” as well as previously successful ones and found that many of them had been tailored to appeal towards certain demographic groups. In the US, advertisements appealed to varying people groups such as Asian Americans, lower-class urban city dwellers, and middle class, white suburban families. These crafted appeals towards subgroups of people was not as commonly found in foreign McDonald’s marketing however, which was more generalized towards an entire country, rather than to groups within a nation.

     Although one can argue that these domestic and international marketing campaigns have been successful as evident by McDonald’s sales figures and numerous locations throughout the world, one could also posit that this form of success is based in an effective product, fast food, and not on customer loyalty. From a different perspective, Swift earned the respect and adoration of her fans, which in turn cemented their loyalty to her music and ultimately her brand. These findings are ultimately consistent with the project’s hypothesis. An amended version of the statement made in consideration of the undertaking’s findings would be: “The marketing strategy of an individual person’s brand focuses on appealing to fans’ interest in the person, in hopes of winning their loyalty to the brand. A company’s marketing tactics revolve around appealing to consumers on a broad scale, in hopes of building a larger, but not necessarily more devoted following.

     When taken as a very brief demonstration conducted over a period of several weeks, the project serves as a proof-of-concept for further research and comparison endeavors into the trends of marketing strategies and their effectiveness. Given the time and technical limitations of this project, further forays into the subject could provide enlightening information. There were a number of elements not touched upon or explored briefly. Although sentiment analysis was done on some social media posts, thorough consideration of the language authored by Swift and McDonald’s could provide useful insight. Scrutiny of word choice and rhetorical strategies employed by both entities should be made. Use of slang and internet decorum should be taken into consideration, as both parties would act informally online. More investigation needs to be done into the opinions and attitudes of Swift fans and McDonald’s consumers in response to marketing strategies. This could potentially be achieved through use of more DH programs and tools or through interviews or surveys with primary sources. Crucial points of improvement would be a larger sample size and stricter comparison criteria. Time constraints only allowed for the comparison of one individual to one company, however in order to make educated conclusions of correlations or lack thereof, more people and organizations need to be examined. A suggestion that would tie field of study closer to the humanities would be to investigate the methods literary authors use to promote their works. Publishing companies and print publications could be interesting organizations to examine.

     Although successful to some degree in testing a hypothesis, the project leaves many stones unturned, and raises more questions than answers. Further research will tell how the fields of business and humanities collide, and whether or not the digital humanities can serve as useful tool for interpreting how that intersection affects how we act, think, and learn. 


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