Steal from digital: How to harness viral marketing in the real world

Retail has never been easy — but these days, it’s harder than ever to stand out. In an interview last month, Marks & Spencer’s chairman Archie Norman noted that unless the company changes and develops, “in decades to come there will be no M&S”.

The question then is: change and develop into what? Without saying as much, Norman was referring to market warping effects of online. Not just online shopping (although Jeff Bezos and his Amazonian army are a consideration), but how online has changed our culture and how we consume.

In our ‘Steal from Digital’ article series, Fizz analyses how brands can use online and digital techniques in the real world, to create a real sales uplift in these challenging times. And in this edition, we’ll take a look at ‘going viral’.

By definition, viral, in a digital context, comes from the word “virus”. The implication is that a piece of content can spread like a virus if people become “infected” when they see it. It’s the emotions the content evokes, spurring the consumer to share it.

Going viral isn’t just for online, though. And Fizz has a few ideas on how to use this powerful effect in the real world.

Encouraging the ‘viral coefficient’

Okay, the term viral coefficient up there probably made you wince, but stick with us. It sounds complicated, but what the phrase denotes couldn’t be any more simple.

Viral coefficient describes the ability of a business to get its user base to tell other people about it. For example, if a site has a viral coefficient of 10%, and has 1,000 users, then it will gain another 100 users through viral channels after one month.

You hear ‘viral’ and normally you’d either think of illness or the manic world of online memes. Interestingly, memes now seem trivial and silly, flooding our timelines, but they have a basis in science. The word ‘meme’, in fact, was coined by the famous evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins in his landmark book The Selfish Gene.

Dawkins’ neologism describes an element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means. And it derives from the Greek word ‘to imitate’. And, indeed, memetics is an established, serious scientific endeavour.

So when we use a phrase like viral coefficient, it’s important to understand that this isn’t just baloney. It’s a widely researched and understood phenomenon that details how cultural items and signifiers transmit from person to person.

The full package

Consider what gets shared most often online: images. Buzzing online communities like 9gag and Imgur illustrate the virality of images. Instagram is built on visual appeal, solely because it has a powerful, replicable (or meme-able) power.

Visual power isn’t the sole province of online, however. Packaging is an easily overlooked aspect of the viral coefficient. Beautiful packaging helps create brand equity and makes your product stand out. But it’s also a canvas that can be used to catch people’s eyes in the moment.

Fizz’s in-store promotion with Ferrero Rocher, for instance, involved accentuating the glamorous, luxurious aspects of the brand’s aesthetics.

We combined high-profile, on-brand visually striking in-store presentation with a limited period special offer to drive excitement and sales for the brand. It was timely as well, seizing on the Christmas spirit, with the chocolates often ending up as gifts for other people rather than a product just for one person. It delivered an average sales uplift so successful it picked up a silver award.

Think about the items you send visitors to your demo stand or experiential event away with. Are they eye-catching? Will they cause other shoppers to stop and stare? Will they wonder where they got them from and explore further? One of the reasons retail brands have eye-catching carrier bags is for that very reason – consumers become walking adverts for the brand.

But packaging is about more than aesthetics. Millennials – who are now the largest consumer segment – are more environmentally conscious than preceding generations. Sustainability is a shopping priority, and they buy products they believe are eco-friendly. Sustainable packaging and practices capitalise on a broader, topical conversation, slotting in with the zeitgeist.  

The wisdom of the crowd

In his 2004 book The Wisdom of Crowds, the American journalist James Surowiecki details how crowds influence our culture, economics and even societies. Crowds, Surowiecki shows, are important cultural vehicles and powerful decision-making aides.

We see crowd effect online, too: The formation of “a social nervous system”, as O’Reilly Media’s Josh-Michele Ross calls it. Social media is essentially a crowd and a vector for all sorts of social behaviours, ranging from parties to political protests.

Humans feel at home in crowds. As the entrepreneur Derek Sivers explains, as more people jump in, something becomes less risky. If they were on the fence before, there’s no reason not to join now. They won’t be ridiculed, they won’t stand out, and they will be part of the in-crowd.

Your in-store experience can easily mimic the power of crowds. A well positioned, visually arresting in-store experience is key.

Place and position is the more straightforward element of creating a crowd. The store you’re operating in will know where the dead spots and the liveliest spots are, and these areas will vary depending on which branch you’re in. The best way to know where people stop and shop is to ask the people who work there.

In terms of visuals, brands have found enormous success by creating pop-ups that lend themselves to “online aesthetics and I.R.L. (in real life) consumption”. In other words, exhibitions that are shareable on social media networks, specifically Instagram. The ‘crowd’ can be virtual, too.

An experience that follows people home

But don’t confine an in-store experience to the store. Aftercare is critically important and shouldn’t be an afterthought. Short-term success is fantastic but experiential marketing offers the opportunity to create something longer-lasting, blending the in-store with the online.

Follow up with the people who interact with the experience. If you manage to get their email or social media handles, a timely, thoughtful follow up can squeeze extra viral value from your in-store pop-up. Your experiential campaign can be a tool to encourage online activity.

Aftercare exemplifies how to blend offline and online to create truly memorable experiences. It’s tempting to chase after fleeting social media renown, but your brand can’t ignore the real world. Herd effects and viral culture predate the internet, so it’s not about emulating ‘going viral’. It’s about returning it to its roots.

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