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Swag vs. Surprise: 3 Lessons

lucy surprise A couple weeks ago I wrote about the role swag and surprise play in social engagement. Turns out…this is kind of a hot topic. When it comes to swag and marketing, just about everyone has an opinion.

I posed a question on my facebook page (hoping to get some gut reactions from friends outside the marketing industry.)

Are you more likely to engage with brands through social because you want a relationship with them or because you want access to perks, discounts, free stuff?

Carmen O. I want a relationship with brands I identify with on a personal level in some way (e.g., Seventh Generation (social responsibility) or Enjoy Life (access to allergy-free food.) I don’t pay attention to whether there is a freebie, I already feel I’m in a relationship with these brands. Engaging through social no doubt strengthens that.

Laura S. I do not seek any sort of relationship with a brand. My loyalty to a brand is based strictly on the functionality of their product and the social/environmental impact of their company. For large national brands, I equate any social interaction with them to advertising, so unless there is some sort of perk or reward for interacting with the brand, I’m not interested.

For example, Facebook keeps suggesting I follow Bounty paper towels. I buy Bounty because they work, not because they have an interactive Facebook page. I would only tolerate their content in my newsfeed if I got something out of it.

Local brands are different to me, kind of like cheering for the hometown hero. I enjoy knowing how they are growing, what they are learning, and how they are changing. I want local brands to succeed because their success reflects well on my city, which is a reward in itself.

Monica J. I just experienced swag love yesterday. I ordered some products recommended by a friend from MooGoo. They came all the way from Australia. In the box, they had included a note thanking me for ordering from so far away. They also included free gifts and samples of other products I hadn’t ordered. They didn’t have to do any of that, but it was so very awesome that they did. It spawned immediate social media action from me as I was motivated to go like their FB page, gush on their wall about my experience, and thank my friend for recommending MooGoo. They earned me as a customer for life just by being thoughtful.

The swag post received a couple comments from great minds in the industry, as well. Their comments drive home a few points I wanted to make about swag and surprise. You’ll find them below…


Let’s be honest. We all love free stuff. But if you’re anything like me, you’ve pitched more than a few branded tumblers, keychains and koozies in your time.

Let’s get a couple things straight, shall we?

You can surprise without giving out swag. (Good.) You can give out swag without surprising and delighting. (Less good.) You can surprise and delight with the help of swag. (Hooray!)

Swag is stuff. Surprise is a sentiment.

Swag is about creating a one-off. Surprise is about creating a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Swag is evidence that your brand has a promotional item budget. Surprise is evidence that your brand is paying attention to your customers.

Swag is one-night stand. Surprise is an LTR.



Got it?

2. TIMING IS EVERYTHING. When you employ the use of swag and surprise may be just as important (if not more than) as what you give someone. Remember: surprise and delight isn’t intended to “buy,” “coerce,” “convince” or “sway.” It’s meant to show the people who love your brand that you love them back…and you’re tuned in and paying attention.

Mack Collier@MackCollier I think an important clarification needs to be made in the discussion of giving customers free stuff. WHEN they receive the free stuff can be the most important consideration.

In general, if the gift comes BEFORE the purchase, it’s an incentive to change behavior. If the gift comes AFTER the purchase, then it is viewed by the customer as a REWARD. A reward helps build loyalty, which can turn customers into fans. In researching my book I discovered that this is probably the biggest marketing disconnect between brands and rock stars. Brands, for the most part, target getting business from NEW customers, via incentives, offers and free stuff. Rock stars also offer free stuff, but they target their biggest fans via secret shows, autograph signings, etc. The idea is to target your fans, create something amazing for them, then let them become your marketing channel via word of mouth.

3. THIS IS ABOUT MORE THAN GOODS. IT’S ABOUT BEING GOOD.  Surprise and swag can work together to create a truly remarkable experience, but at the end of the day surprise isn’t about stuff, it’s about sentiment.

In the same way the coolest swag loses impact when there is no thought behind it, a simple, handwritten note has the power to overwhelm and delight. Why? Because it shows someone—a real human—cares. And in a world of tweets, text and automation, a real connection with a real human goes a heck of a long way.

Geno Church, @GenoChurch I love hand written notes. I keep every one I get. I often buy from Frank & Oak, an online men’s clothing club. With every purchase I get a little hand written note along with a random nugget. It’s not the typical thank you, and it speaks to the folks at F&O. I find that a meaningful treasure.

BRINGING IT ALL HOME… So am I proposing that you swear of swag? Definitely not. What I am challenging you to do is get to know your customers. Get in there and pay attention. Find out what they need and what they want. Really listen. Find out what makes them tick and what makes them smile. Then challenge yourself to blindside them with something remarkable.

UP NEXT WEEK: 7 Awesome Examples of Surprise and Delight that will Blow your Mind.

YOUR TURN: In the meantime, step up to the mic and share your thoughts with us. Are you more likely to engage with brands through social because you want a relationship with them or because you want access to perks, discounts and free stuff?

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