There is Value in Fun: An observation from SXSW

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There’s a lot to love about South by Southwest, the 10-day music, film, and interactive conference and festival held every year in Austin, TX. The live music, the keynote speakers, the panel discussions, the post-conference parties, and the sheer energy generated by thousands of social networkers converging to celebrate new app launches and long-established social successes alike; it’s all pretty overwhelming, and it can be difficult for any one aspect to really stand out.

SXSW is generally lauded as the conference for launching exciting new social products. After all, it’s where Foursquare debuted in 2009, and though it wasn’t exactly the network’s official launch, Twitter really started gaining attention at SXSW 2007. New apps and services are unveiled in Austin every year, and marketers spend big bucks to make sure their booths and launch parties stand out from all the rest. But the conference can also be a good reminder that marketing promotion doesn’t always have to be expensive or flashy to add value to your product. Sometimes, all you need is a little fun.

It’s extremely difficult to measure the economic value of fun, and because of that, it often gets overlooked as a main tenet of marketing. Instead, we usually focus our efforts on campaigns with measurable results. If you offer a discount code, you can count exactly how many people have used it to purchase your product. If you sent out a tweet, you can see how many people retweet it or reply to it. If you post links to your website on Facebook, Gremln can track exactly how many people ended up at your purchase page after clicking those links. But if you create a marketing strategy dedicated to fun rather than sales, how can you measure the positive impact on your brand?

It’s tough. And by tough, I mean “darn near impossible.” But that doesn’t mean there isn’t value in fun. Even though we can’t always measure it, we know intrinsically that it’s true. Because we, as individuals, value fun. That value, though pretty immeasurable, was nonetheless palpable at SXSW.

One of my favorite examples of sheer fun marketing came from Skype, the oh-so-popular video chatting service, which provided SXSW with its very own town crier. The Skype Town Crier was a gentleman with a British accent who wore a blue and white colonial outfit, complete with white stockings and a tri-corner hat. Wheresoever he went, the crier set up a sign that read “A Town Crier For Your Tweets” and, with the help of a not-so-colonial iPad, shouted out tweets that contained the “#skype” hashtag. Onlookers were more than happy to provide the crier with silly tweets to shout at the top of his colonial lungs. If this doesn’t sound like fun to you, I suggest you head to YouTube and check out a few of the “Skype Town Crier” videos people have posted. Then I dare you not to smile.

So where’s the value in this marketing strategy? There is a measurable aspect of the campaign, which is the number of tweets sent with “#skype.” Skype is able to tell how many people actively participated in their stunt, but that’s about it. They have no way of knowing if the town crier actually inspired people to sign up for their service, so they can’t tell if this strategy resulted in any sort of ROI. But believe me, there was value. It was written on the faces of the people who swarmed the crier every time he set up shop. Watching the crowd was like watching kids at a circus. The silliness of the whole thing visibly delighted everyone within earshot.

The town crier didn’t not have much to do with Skype’s actual product–sure, Skype is a communications platform, and the Town Crier encouraged two-way communication between himself and the members of the audience, but that’s about where the connection ends. But what the crier managed to do was impress a general feeling of levity and happiness on the SXSW crowd under the familiar sky-blue and cloud-white branding. Skype didn’t try to hard sell its product. Instead, it did something much more effective; it gave people the opportunity to view Skype as a delightful company.

I think people want to be reminded that businesses can have fun. As Guy Kawasaki has famously pointed out, we want to be enchanted. In today’s marketplace, there are so many organizations with similar product offerings that it’s not just what your company does, but also how your company does it. What can you do that brightens the spirits of your customers? How can you be enchanting? How might you provide your clients with the immensely valuable commodity of fun?

We’d love to hear about some of your favorite fun social strategies. Share them in the comments below!

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