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Free Love: The Influence of Swag + Surprise on Social Engagement

free love makes people happy Be advised: Today I am going to share an opinion that may ruffle your feathers a bit.

If you are looking to increase conversation about and brand loyalty…give people free stuff.

Now that I have your attention…I’ll admit, it’s a little more complex than that.

From what I have observed, there tend to be two schools of thought when it comes to the role of free stuff in marketing. On one side you have the swag-crazy “buy your love” types willing to throw t-shirts and koozies at anyone with a Twitter following. At the other end of the spectrum you have high-and-mighty marketers who believe clever content is all it takes to earn a follow or inspire a love connection. The types who unapologetically snub their noses at the notion that “surprise and delight” might include free swag (and God help you if you dare to utter the phrase “klout score” in their presence…)

Both of these camps are in the wrong. You can’t buy love, and content is simply not enough anymore. Attention spans are short and expectations are high in this vastly over-connected, ever-evolving, socially-saturated landscape. As the power dynamic has shifted and consumers have taken the wheel, their needs and wants have changed. People aren’t just connecting with brands because they value their industry or product (let’s be honest, toilet paper, butter and laundry soap aren’t all that interesting.) They want to establish a one-on-one relationship with a brand and they want the brand to establish a relationship with them. Social engagement between brands and fans has become a lot like dating, but we’ll get to that soon enough.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I plan to make a case for the valid and valuable role “free stuff” plays in a sound marketing strategy. I have no intention of advocating on behalf of freebies, rather I intend to explore the way “surprise and delight” is resonating with consumers and elevating brands. I plan to share some tangible examples of surprise and delight from my own experiences, as well as a few case studies from brands I believe are doing it right. More on that to come.

In the meantime, let’s take a look at some of the research that validates the role of “free love” in the minds of marketers vs. the minds of consumers.

A BRIEF SYNOPSIS CMOs like to think social engagement is a direct result of quality content. They focus their energy on creating content, and see little reason to incentivize loyalty. The overwhelming majority of consumers surveyed, however, say that incentives (free stuff, special offers) are the number one thing that lead them to engage with a brand in the social space.

THE LONGER STORY According to a global study67% of people surveyed expressed an expectation that liking or following a brand would result in exclusive offers. When the same question was posed to a group of CMOs, the results were vastly different.

“The CMOs surveyed believed that social engagement is more of a by-product of quality content, and are less concerned with incentivizing loyalty among their followers. According to [the CMOs], customers interact with brands because they want to be heard (41%) or are looking for news or information about products (40%). Only 33% believe their fans are looking for incentives or rewards, and only 27% believe customers are seeking special savings or experiences exclusive for followers.

Fluke findings, perhaps? Not so much. The results have been reaffirmed by several other studies.

Similar findings were uncovered by ExactTarget, which explored what prompted consumers to engage with an email, like a brand on Facebook or follow on Twitter.

“‘Stuff’ remained the main driver for engagement, with the top two motivators being discount promotions (52%) and receiving ‘free stuff or giveaways’ (44%). For Facebook, it’s the same.”

At the end of the day, 67% of consumers are motivated to socially engage by a behavior that only 27% of marketers are willing to recognize. Sounds like a conundrum. It also begs the question are we, as marketers, seeing reality? Or are we choosing to interpret reality as we would like it to be?

FOOD FOR THOUGHT (we want to hear your thoughts in the comments below!)

1) What motivates you to connect and engage with a brand?

2) Have you ever been the recipient of a “surprise and delight”? How did that experience change your relationship with a brand?

3) What is your general sentiment toward brands that make “free stuff” part of their marketing strategy?

4) What are your favorite examples of surprise and delight?

UP NEXT WEEK: Swag vs. Surprise + Delight