In October, Johnny Cloherty, co-founder of the digital marketing company Songfluencer, dashed off an email to several labels: Christmas was nearly three months away, but Cloherty advised his partners to act like the holiday was imminent. Christmas music owns the charts every December, and if labels wanted to enjoy a piece of the annual streaming bonanza, Cloherty wrote, “you should start your campaigns November 1.”
The Christmas canon is rigid: The ten most popular holiday singles on the RS 100 this week, for example, were mainly released in the 1950s and 1960s, the youngest entry of course being Mariah Carey’s irrepressible “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” from 1994. But some marketers are aiming to crash the party this year through savvy use of TikTok, with its ballooning global audience and knack for viral eruptions. “The TikTok generation will inspire a new ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You,'” Coherty says. “A new holiday smash hit is gonna come through all this.”
Labels are willing to shell out to ensure that happens. Songfluencer is currently paying influencers to promote at least nine different holiday tracks on TikTok, from Shaggy’s “Holiday in Jamaica,” released this year, to “Linus and Lucy,” from 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas. For the listeners who only want to stick to the classics, Songfluencer is also working on a campaign for a mash-up of Carey’s Christmas single, Andy Williams’ “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” Wham!’s “Last Christmas,” and Bing Crosby’s “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.”
But marketing Christmas music on TikTok is proving to be a unique challenge, thanks to tight timelines, the absurd volume of holiday songs that are all vying to soundtrack your tree-decorating video, and the fact that the platform’s user-base is youthful while many Christmas songs are comparatively ancient.
Many of the most successful TikTok campaigns are happy accidents: After a user creates a kinetic dance or a goofy prank, labels and marketing companies use their reach and resources to incentivize thousands — ideally millions — of other TikTok-ers to replicate it on their own. This often takes time, which is the one thing marketers don’t have when promoting Christmas music.
“A lot of times a TikTok campaign will grow for two months and then the label will double down on it,” explains Harry Gordon Tidswell, music partnerships manager at Fanbytes, a U.K.-based digital marketing company that is working on Christmas music campaigns for Leona Lewis and the Pogues, among others. But with Christmas songs, Tidswell continues, “there’s no testing time, no growth time — it’s just balls to the wall for a week or two.” And once Christmas hits, any viral momentum will immediately vanish, leaving marketers to wait for months before they start to push the boulder up the mountain again.
Another challenge has to do with the fact that Christmas songs are usually only applied to a narrow range of holiday activities. “If you’re working on a normal song like Surf Mesa’s ‘ily (i love you baby),’ it can go in all content, it’s open and loose,” Tidswell says. (Surf Mesa’s track performed well in pet videos and daydreaming clips, for example.) Users tend to put Christmas songs only in videos related to the holiday itself, wrapping presents maybe, or sitting down to Christmas dinner, meaning labels and marketers are aiming at a smaller target.
In addition, there’s a large gap between the average age of some of the Christmas songs labels are pushing and the average age of TikTok users. “Some of these kids don’t know who Charlie Brown is,” Cloherty explains. To combat that, Songfluencer has tried to start some campaigns using influencers who are older than 30. “But you’ll fall short if you just use people that age and above — how many 30 year olds have five million followers on TikTok?” Cloherty adds. “Not that many. If you really want viral momentum, you need some of the younger kids to swing it.”
But all these obstacles haven’t stopped Sia’s “Snowman,” a crisp, swaying ballad that is looking like 2020’s viral Christmas hit. The track was originally released in 2017; in December 2019, it was earning 350,000 to 400,000 plays a day, according to Gaby Fainsilber, head of digital marketing for Crush Music, the management company that has Sia on its roster. That’s a respectable number, but hardly the stuff of a holiday smash. 2020 offers a very different story: “Snowman” debuted on Spotify’s global chart on December 9th and rocketed into the Top 15 this week, earning more than 2.7 million streams on that platform alone on Sunday, outshining long-favored holiday oldies from Dean Martin and the Ronettes. “It’s going absolutely bonkers,” Fainsilber says.
Ironically, “Snowman” seems to be succeeding by ducking the Christmas label completely. Defying conventional marketing wisdom, a slowed-down version of the track was originally embraced by TikTok users in the summer of 2019, then again in April of this year, and a third time in August, long before there was any snow on the ground. The trend that began in August was focused around a transition moment in the song, and had absolutely nothing to do with the holidays. Users started another holiday-agnostic trend in October that involved zooming in on faces as the song swelled, while the Snowman Challenge, which started this month and has now racked up more than 150 million views, is actually about a competition based around breathing technique, not building gravity-defying snowmen.
I can’t even do it in one breathe #SnowmanChallenge
Fainsilber estimates that various versions of “Snowman” have now been used in more than a million TikTok videos, and Sia’s team has been working to heighten this odd but not unwelcome eruption of interest in myriad ways: releasing a remix of the single similar to the slower version that some TikTok users like, putting out a new Claymation video on YouTube, hiring Songfluencer to help push the song into previously untouched corners of TikTok, and having the singer post her own entry in the Snowman Challenge just a few days ago. Even though Sia’s track is not part of a holiday-themed trend, it recently got added to Spotify’s biggest holiday playlist, Christmas Hits, which has over four million followers.
Next year Fainsilber says Crush will probably push “Snowman” to holiday radio and look for seasonal sync opportunities in TV to continue to raise the song’s profile. “It’ll keep getting bigger and bigger,” she promises. “I think it has a shot at becoming a staple in the Christmas world.”