Is There a Cooler Future for Giving Gifts?
Gifting is something we see as a typical norm but an area that has rarely been innovated. What's next for us?
I’ve been thinking a lot over the past two months, watching the flurry of Black Friday campaigns, virtual holiday exchanges, and frazzled crowds of Union Square storefronts, about the many ways in which humans explore gifting.
No matter who you are, you likely have an opinion on gifts.
You might be the person who has some sort of evidence board for every person in your life with a proverbial yarn in your brain connecting them to every interest and anecdote of theirs that could yield an interesting gift.
You might be more inclined to be the utilitarian gift giver. Who doesn’t love a foot massager or coconut floss?
You might also not be inclined to give a gift at all. Maybe your beneficiaries are hyper-efficient Amazon shoppers who rarely have an inventory of needs or perhaps have too high hopes.
Gift-giving may not always be challenging, but we obsess over the idea of it. Regardless of what we want it to be, it’s not always as simple as the object you get, but the symbolic meaning behind it.
It could be an attempt to make peace, buy love, or combat a negative stereotype - a gesture dripped with anxiety and quelled only by a happy end recipient. It’s an emotional hot potato.
All of this makes human gifting especially lucrative for retailers and marketers.
A couple months back, a friend on Twitter asked me what I thought was the most underrated marketing channel and I mentioned gifting to some surprise.
“Gifting is a marketing channel?”
Let’s face it: You’re assigning symbolic meaning to something just by virtue of giving it. You’re giving something a window of benefit just by the fact that it’s coming from you. Products that would never see a second look from a brand email are now on the clean part of someone’s desk. Because of you.
Even if you want to be exempt from the world of marketing, just like Andy Sachs wanted to escape the world of high fashion with her cerulean sweater, you can’t. You are a marketing team’s free evangelist. Their golden goose.
But gifting is not necessarily a new human phenomenon or a particularly intriguing psychological one (TLDR; we give to reaffirm relationships and establish reciprocity) - what I do find fascinating is exploring all the unique ways gifting is changing in the virtual world.
Here are four things I think all marketers should be excited about when it comes to the future of gifting.
It’s hard to imagine a world where sales and marketing could benefit from gifts but it’s exactly the world that Postal.io imagines. What exactly is experience marketing? Imagine if you could automate and send a potential lead customized experiences throughout a marketing cycle, gifts from their local bakery or florist, virtual wine tours, and everything in between. Postal is one of many companies (Alyce, Bluebird) focusing on a more unique approach to offline marketing, where it’s not extra emails but mini moments that matter. I have now worked in tech for over five years and can tell you, on one hand, the number of companies that have actually sent me something special or memorable vs. simply just a killer email (or, let’s face it, a boring one). It takes everything I find profound about the psychology of gifts and spins the sales playbook.
Social Layer of Peer Gifting
I was in a dinner break between an evening class at Berkeley, waiting in line at Taco Sinolia, when I noticed a blue logo out of the corner of my eye promoting a mobile app. Bored and curious, I downloaded the app to pass the waiting time and was quickly impressed by what I saw. Snackpass, a restaurant ordering app on its surface, was much more under the surface. While it did have standard restaurant-focused features (rewards, pickup, and delivery), what I found most fascinating was the social feed. In the bottom right you can glimpse it - as you send gifts to friends, it populates in a larger feed where you can see who is sending what. What Venmo did to payments, Snackpass is doing it for gifts. The psychology of redemption is here too - while you want the fun of having your gift show up in the feed, it’s a gift that has to be redeemed in person. Better than a restaurant gift card or recommendation.
Sure, I’m guessing not everyone needs to blast their gift but it does introduce an interesting obligation to both sides of the party - does Matthew eat the ramen Kiarra sent? Does Carlotta have a strong opinion on the coffee? It’s all in good fun, of course - but it does make me wonder what a Snackpass could look like for gifting beyond college snacks. Perhaps Facebook is not the place but could other platforms exist to support all sorts of gifting with a social layer? Would it scale beyond the college-focused audience of Snackpass? I’d be curious to see.
Value Accrual Gifts
One of the new developments I think we’ll see over the next few years is gifts focused on value accrual. We’re seeing this in some shape or form with companies like StockPile offering gift cards for stock and Public having previously allowed gifting stock, but I think this phenomenon takes a new and interesting turn with new developments, like NFTs and virtual plots. Now I know some people might cringe at the idea of getting an NFT as a gift depending on the context (please don’t get this for Valentine’s Day and blame this newsletter for it) but the idea of getting something that doesn’t have permanent or expiring value is an interesting twist to traditional gifting. It’s something that people don’t easily let go of and especially if it’s something you’re also invested in, it’s a free way to get someone co-invested with you. I also see value accrual extending beyond just financial value - if you can get something that would help with skill-building or add new relationships, all of those can make someone buy-in for a long-time.
Gift Concierge Solutions
When I was first thinking about the biggest pain point in gifting, I decided to throw out a Twitter poll to see what came up for others:
The biggest pain point that came up wasn’t so much the channel or reciprocity but simply that people were unsure what other people needed. In my quest to find out what anyone was doing about this, I ultimately decided to look for a solid gift concierge. A former YC company, Spoil came close to what I imagined this space could look like - someone choosing a category and price, someone else fulfilling the gift. Replacing uncertainty with its own mystery.
But I think a gift concierge could also go beyond that - lots of room to take the intricacies of people we love (things like MBTI scores they’re afraid to put in their Twitter bio and youtube videos they binge) to create mini gift-focused personas. You have the agency to choose with a whole new layer of decision support tools for neat gifts. While this is helpful for the consumer, it’s also interesting for marketers - it basically depends on how well you silo your product category to get noticed as a concierge gets more and more personalized.
The arrival of the web gave us our first big innovation in gifting - once we could google search, it was easy to find things out of the run-of-the-mill holiday markets. Rapid e-commerce came second, with Amazon introducing us to an unprecedented rise in quick gifts.
But, now we’re at an inflection point.
We’ve largely solved search and delivery - how to find things and how to get things quick.
But what I’m really curious about next is how people come into the equation.
What are people motivated by? Moreso, how are people motivated to receive?
Part of what makes simple gift cards an enigma for marketers is that they’ve previously just been sold as a last resort. But even gift cards, if their timing and their delivery are right, bring a new promise for gifting.
I think we’ve only touched the surface in terms of new ways people around us can experience our power in gifting - and even if gifts come not from the store and from the heart, as an over-optimistic wooden plaque in Cracker Barrel might tell you, it’s always easier to over-deliver.
P.s. If you missed out on an esoteric holiday gift and want to make it up to your friends, my friends at SparkToro put together an amazing guide that I’ve already gotten plenty from. Treat yourself this holiday season!