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Spotify Unwrapped: Inside the Company’s Biggest Marketing Campaign

“It’s the magic of marrying madness with mathematics,” says a top executive at the Swedish streaming giant.

Olivia Rodrigo Spotify Wrapped
Courtesy Spotify

Tis the season to face the music, literally. Are you embarrassed that you’re a full-blown adult with Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License” as your No. 1 song? Maybe you’re a Swiftie that’s proud to be in the top 1% of her listeners. Do you feel superior for having your top artists be composed of indie cohorts that nobody has heard of? Were you pole-dancing down to hell with Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” as your soundtrack? Or did you commiserate with other parents whose children have taken over their Spotify accounts? Hell, maybe it’s both. Who spent the most time listening to music this year anyway?

It doesn’t matter if it’s fresh-faced teens, aging hipsters, hip-hop heads, or even Gen-Xers and Boomers that “don’t care about your Spotify Wrapped,” as December begins the Spotify brand is at the tip of countless music fans’ tongues — or more precisely, all over their social media accounts. What started as a simple data share to reward existing Spotify listeners by showing what they played in the previous year — and how much — is now a full-blown holiday tradition.

“The genesis of this actually goes back to 2013, when a few smart folks at Spotify thought, ‘Hey we have this data, would anyone be interested?,’” says Alex Bodman, vice president and global executive creative director at Spotify. “It was a humble first effort, but it was very clear that people found this compelling.” It was a snapshot of their data which no one had been able to supply before, and Spotify users ate it up. This “humble” first iteration began as “Year in Review” and has grown into visual appealing share cards flooding social media platforms that show an individual’s top songs, artists, genres, minutes spent listening, and more. “In 2015, I think we were thrilled to have 5 million site visitors — that felt huge,” recalls Bodman. “But the real shocker was over 1 million social shares.”

Sharing this data snapshot is what propelled Spotify into an intersection of tech, music and culture. “Suddenly we started to realize that this was an incredible way to get our passionate users to shout from the rooftops around the brand,” Bodman continues.

He isn’t kidding: In 2020, Spotify Wrapped saw over 60 million shares from 90 million users, and that’s just counting what Spotify can measure, as screen shots aren’t something the company can track.

“I’m sure we’d all love to sit down and say it was a marketing stroke of genius, but when it was first built it was a loyalty play,” he says. “I don’t think we had any idea that people would want to share it so much.”

In an era where big tech companies are often criticized for monitoring user habits and data in depth, Spotify has packaged it as a fun feature for listeners to share with their friends. Spotify users expect personalization; for the streaming giant to get to know their taste in music to enhance their experience. The longer leash given by users “could be an extension of that.”

Lazy loaded image
Courtesy Spotify

And that may be the secret ingredient to the overall success of the Spotify Wrapped campaign. In a musical world where media conglomerates and radio stations are going national, Spotify Wrapped, despite being under a global corporation, has found a way to still make it personal. “We weren’t just talking about ourselves,” Bodman says. “We were giving people an interesting way to talk about themselves.”

The Spotify Wrapped team makes it a point to keep the familiar — like minutes spent listening and most-played songs — and then add in new features to keep it fresh and culturally relevant each year. This year, those features included the soundtrack to your life if it was a movie, a two truths and a lie quiz, and your “audio aura,” the latter of which splits your taste into two moods, as opposed to genres, with colors to match. They even brought in a professional aura expert to help execute the idea.

Although Spotify collects data for the Wrapped campaign throughout the year — from January to just a few weeks before the December 1st launch — the idea of the theme and visual creative kicks off about halfway through the year to tap into current cultural moments. Then it’s a matter of connecting what’s culturally relevant and visually appealing to Spotify Wrapped. As Bodman puts it: “It’s the magic of marrying madness with mathematics.”

Sometimes creative leads the way, at others it’s the tech side. “Sometimes the idea’s coming from like a hundred people that have worked on this over the years at Spotify, and sometimes it will be the product team showing us a new functionality they have.” One such functionality this year is the ability to share on TikTok and green screen.

As TikTok’s popularity grew over the course of the pandemic, Spotify kept the platform in mind. It’s hard not to notice the phrases pulled from the TikTok dictionary as you scroll through the Wrapped presentation: “You deserve a playlist as long as your skincare routine”; “you always understood the assignment”; “if 2021 was a movie, you were the main character”; “in a year like 2021, even your music gets a vibe check,” to name a few.

One might assume that a bunch of marketing executives sat around a table and decided to target Gen Z with TikTok verbiage, but that was not the case. “In reality, there were probably two copywriters who worked on the entire experience, and this was just their sensibility; their personality coming through,” explains Bodman. “We try to get different writers to work on it every year so that there’s a sense of personality and it doesn’t feel overly calculated.” He also mentioned that they hire writers that are very culturally attuned, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to find that some of the younger writers live on TikTok.

Music makers also get in on the action with Artist Wrapped. Major acts like H.E.R., BTS and Maroon 5 happily post their Artist Wrapped cards thanking their fans, while some smaller artists, like Mazie, credit Spotify for its role in their growth. “You know, I don’t have access to a large infrastructure within a major label system,” Mazie told Newsweek. “Established artists can use their resources to access various data points and analytics, but I can’t do that. Yet by just putting music out on the Spotify platform I can now get those things. It provides so much more transparency.”

That Wrapped has multiple touch points — connecting music fans to each other, artists to their fanbases, or simply offering the chance to laugh over a shared Harry Styles obsession — is one of its truly unique traits and provides the sort of user engagement platforms pine for, all while letting the algorithm do the work. Someone might call that genius.