Are the Sliding Doors Closing on Serendipity?

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In our post-truth, algorithm-laden and filter bubble-rich world, we bandy the terms of serendipity, surprise and delight around. At the same time, we are chased around the internet by products we may have idly browsed a week ago. We are swamped by the irrelevant, the repetitive and the inane.

It amazes me that no-one has bothered to ask how important serendipity is to the modern consumer.

In a recent Lightbox study, we found that two in three Brits love when they stumble across something useful or interesting. The same proportion feels that learning about something new makes life more exciting, yet only one in 10 believes there is more chance and serendipity in the modern world.

The key to doing serendipity well is in remembering that, by its very definition, it must benefit the subject. Indeed, the term even translates to “happy accident” in Dutch.

For example, whilst a giant Ghostbusters character in the middle of Waterloo Station at rush hour is unexpected, it may irritate and inconvenience more people than it delights. However, Icelandair showcased the smart use of serendipity in marketing with #MyStopOver, surprising lucky travellers with an unforeseen stopover in Iceland, highlighting the possibilities beyond the planned.

Following suit, Sheraton’s “Delight my Delay” campaign offered rewards to travellers facing delays. The greater their delay, the more chance they had of winning a prize. And retailers are in on it too: Lidl has centred its communications on the concept of the unexpected with #lidlsurprises – the results speak for themselves with double digit business growth each year.

There is a consumer appetite for this, although it is by no means universal. What works for one brand will not necessarily work for another. The younger generations are those most open to this discovery – 55% of under 35s said that they would rather be surprised by something new, than satisfied by what they already know.

YPlan is an app for Londoners which negates the need to make plans, offering a curated list of last minute experiences at a heavy discount. Finally, a reward for being late to the party, so to speak. This is a nod to the future. Curation and recommendation working together to give consumers the right amount of surprise and delight when they need it.

Advances in AI and health wearables will be key to driving these personalised, accurate recommendations. Virtual personal assistants will be programmed to create these moments at times of physical or mental stress, or even boredom. Consumers will to some degree, hold the reins of their own discovery. Risk will be managed, but control loosened. It will become less about serendipity, and more about what’s right for right now.

Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, set out the ambition: “One day we hope to get so good at suggestions that we’re able to show you exactly the right film or TV show for your mood when you turn on Netflix.”

Until then, how do you encourage serendipitous discovery of your brand, content or products?

It could simply be about playing in territories they don’t expect you to be in. Whether that’s by changing your channel or title mix; pushing for stockists that sit outside your comfort zone, or product formats that are innovative or unexpected. You could explore clever media partnerships that associate you with a trend, consumer behaviour or cultural phenomenon with a twist, or plan reactive communications to social posts by customers, followers or friends on social which brighten their day, and alert them to your presence.

Mood marketing is an area barely explored but rich with opportunity. Try it, you might be pleasantly surprised.

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