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Pop-Ups Are Better Than Ads: How To Get “A Happening” Happening Around Your Startup

Is your startup stuck in the rut between a seed series and a Series A? Have you hit a wall with your social media engagement and are now struggling to find a way to provide fresh content and experiences for your customers? Or, do people love your product but fail to recognize and remember your brand?

The Beatles Double Decker Pop-up Bus

These are all common problems for early-stage startups. The truth is, you will not produce effective marketing until you really know your customer. What are their needs, wants, and interests? There is only so much you can learn by tracking metrics, running A/B tests on your homepage, and answering emails. Startups, as well as established businesses that are struggling, often fail because they never figure out how to bridge the gap between online and offline interactions with their customers.

Author and entrepreneur Melissa Gonzalez has a solution that combines art, design, and business savvy: the pop-up shop as a marketing tool. Borrowed an idea from the fashion and lifestyle brand retail industries, the pop-up shop is a limited engagement retail outlet that pops up in a great location somewhere in your city, makes a splash by doing something fun and unexpected, and then vanishes without a trace after a month or so. In her new book, The Pop-Up Paradigm, Gonzalez outlines exactly what you can do to see the kind of engagement that brands such as Marc Jacobs, Belvita, and even Denny’s enjoy.

By opening a pop-up location, not only will you gather valuable customer development information that will impact production, pricing, merchandising, web design, and email marketing – Gonzalez explains that you will have now entered the business of “delivering experiences,” which is priceless in the mind of the customer.

“Win mindshare, not market share” is the way Ron Johnson, head of Apple Retail Stores, once famously put it. Opening a physical location, or a new, unique location if you already have one, will grant you the magic ability to take your customer “behind-the-scenes” of your startup brand and personally show them what your startup is truly all about.

One of the biggest lessons learned by the retail community since e-commerce went mainstream is that customers crave human interaction. You will not be successful if you treat the customer like a row in a database table.

Instead, why not invite the customer over to your startup’s clubhouse? You can make a space that embraces living in the moment and delighting them. You will set your customer’s expectations for every encounter they have with your brand and engage them in a fun, exciting way.

Can a pop-up store help your startup? First, you need to set specific goals for what you want to learn or accomplish by opening a pop-up. Gonzalez suggests setting a goal like: testing new markets, experimenting with design tweaks to your product, educating customers, immersing them in your brand, launching a new collaboration, liquidating inventory, or maximizing revenue from a seasonal industry.

In one of the cleverer, “why didn’t I think of that” case studies from the book, Gonzalez describes a pop-up store run by the brand Belvita. Belvita started a marketing campaign called the “morning win” program. The brand invited people to post status updates using hashtag #morningwin.

Some people posted about eating their favorite cereal, others about taking the kids to school, and others about nailing their big presentation. Belvita looked at all the morning triumphs that the participants posted, and then sent messages to them saying that Belvita is proud of their triumph and is making them a trophy! The recipients were invited to pick up the trophy at a pop-up Belvita location later that day – just for doing something that they do anyway – sharing their morning routine on Facebook and Twitter. The brand took something simple and made it into something fun, special, and rewarding. Now those people will tell others about Belvita, and perhaps think of Belvita as they get ready each day.

You too can come up with a delightful experience for your customers to take part in, but it must appeal to something that they really want to participate in. That way, they are actually motivated to take the action you wish them to take. It is a mistake to expect people to already know your company’s story or to express themselves about your brand without a reason. You must give your customers a reason to talk about you. Think about, “what can’t my customer get everyday?”

The pop-up store can spark a conversation because it gets the customer to experience your brand on a larger, more human scale and it also makes them feel like they are involved and have input into it.

The experience of physically being present and participating in something forms stronger associations in the brain than if that person had participated in a similar activity online. By inviting your customer into a physical place, you can engage all of their senses, rather than just two.

Another case study in the book about the Aruba Tourism & Visitors Bureau is a great example of a brand closing what Gonzalez calls the “touch/feel” gap. In Times Square, in the middle of February, Aruba Tourism set up a pop-up paradise inside a plastic bubble that looked like a snow globe, except it had palm trees and sand inside. There was island music playing, and a beautiful Aruban backdrop that was perfect for Instagram.

This pop-up got an instant reaction because it allowed people to see themselves enjoying a vacation in Aruba. Now whenever they think about a tropical island vacation, chances are they’ll think of Aruba instead of Jamaica or the Bahamas. By placing it in February, right around Valentine’s Day, it got people to associate Aruba with a romantic getaway.

The most important message to be gleaned from the book is just how powerful aspirational marketing is, and how brands can tap into their customers’ aspirations through a pop-up event.

You can form connections between your product and what is important to your customer by playing to their dreams and aspirations. All you need to do is show them how your product is going to improve their lives. Sure, your product will not allow them to achieve their dreams tomorrow, but it can help them along the way. Helping someone towards achieving a goal, or realizing a dream, forms a very powerful bond. People who were positively affected by your product in a major way become brand ambassadors, and they will amplify your marketing.

In order to appeal to aspiration, you need to really know your customer. Once you find out who your customer is, you can evoke key emotions and imagery that they identify with, which will encourage them to identify that emotion with your brand, and ultimately, themselves with your brand.

Then, when they (in turn) share their feelings and aspirations with their friends (as they inevitably will), they will remember how they were inspired by your brand and that will inspire them to have conversations about your brand with other people!

Pop-up stores can have a huge local impact that spreads worldwide because of the Internet. When done right, a pop-up can be a solid stepping stone for wherever your startup wants to go next.

Image credit: The Beatles Double Decker Pop-up Bus by Vacant

Akira is the Founder & CEO of Cayenne Consulting. He has over 30 years of experience both as an entrepreneur and helping other entrepreneurs succeed. Akira earned his BA in Engineering Sciences from Harvard University. View details.

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