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Spotlight on social triggers: Curiosity

by Molly Flatt on 04 February 2013

Curiosity may or may not have killed the cat, but it sure does play havoc with your credit card. That “strong desire to know or learn something”, to peer over others’ shoulders and get a slice of what they have, often manifests as a desire to buy. Especially when we are presented with “a strange or unusual object” – the second definition of the word. And when it comes to curiosity, modern marketers have a lot to learn from some very old tricks.

What’s all the fuss about that phone? What are those people eating over there? What’s that amazing smell? What would it feel like to be her, just for one day? What on earth is he fiddling with?

These sorts of questions, that come out of what we read, see, smell and touch every day, prompt us to happily, even urgently, part with our cash. And they act on us most powerfully when they are triggered by what we experience in the physical, sensual world.

Mini’s Christmas Boxes campaign is a very simple and very effective example of this truth. YouTube videos of these guerrilla ‘gift boxes’ seeded on the streets of Amsterdam were viewed 100,000 times in six days and featured in leading car blogs, trendwatching blogs and magazines worldwide. Most importantly, Mini achieved a 240% increase in the number of test drives compared to the previous year, and car sales rose by 73%. And although the virality occurred online, the power of the offline curiosity trigger is key.

The internet is a treasure chest of curiosities, but it is much better at satiating curiosity than driving it. The web is great at answering questions we already have; not so great at prompting us to ask new ones. That’s where the real world comes in. Human beings learn through observation. We are sophisticated parsers of our social environment, always on the alert for an unusual threat, a new food source, an object that might signal or difference from or similarity to a particular crowd. If brands are to drive word of mouth, they’re going to have to peel themselves away from Facebook and start to move between on and offline.

One of my favourite examples are the crowds you see outside those dodgy-looking stalls on London’s Oxford Street – or indeed outside dodgy-looking stalls in any city in the world. They’re usually hawking cut-price perfume or knock-off designer tat. You know they’ve paid a few mates to cluster outside, and that they’re spewing nonsense in that ringmaster voice of theirs. But you still can’t stop yourself from pausing, or at least craning your head over your shoulder as you walk past. A primal instinct kicks in – do they know something I don’t? If they’re interested, shouldn’t I be? – and overrides your learnt shopping intelligence.

Another example comes from our CEO Mike Rowe. When he was first setting up 1000heads 13 years ago, Mike couldn’t forget about the time a guy on his street bought a cutting-edge pressure-washing hose for his car. In the following weeks, he saw the hose creep into one driveway after another. No actual words were exchanged, but the influence of word of mouth was as clear as the hub caps along the street. Making your product physically and memorably visible, and planting it in areas of high aspiration and competition, is a WOM bomb.

But with coloured wristbands, twibbons and street stunts becoming increasingly ubiquitous, brands need to get seriously creative if they are to hit the curiosity trigger. Here are five thought-starters to get your juices flowing:

1. Boxes are torture. We want always to know what’s in them. What can you do with a mysterious box?

2. We see a big queue, we want to know where it’s going. How can you create, curate or revolutionise your queue?

3. What looks odd about your product? How can you make it look odder?

4. Cunning signposts. What’s round the corner? Is it you? How can you get us there if we’re wandering by two streets away?

5. We always want what they’re having. Why not get waiters or shop staff to highlight what others are choosing?

As ever when it comes to word of mouth, delving into your own experience is essential. What has got you really curious in the past few weeks? How did that feel? How could you pass that feeling on?

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