Fidget spinners are a viral trend that’s taken the internet by storm.
What started as a tool positioned to help children channel their nervous energy, fast became a popular toy at schools. Then adults got wind of them and now millions are being sold, countless variations have been manufactured, and these little spinners have achieved true viral status.
The fidget spinner phenomenon has spawned over 5 million YouTube videos with 110,000 searches on Google a month, so it's worth breaking this trend down to see what we can learn from it about virality.
If you're not familiar with them, the idea behind the fidget spinner is simple: a metal or plastic design rotates around a bearing in the middle to achieve a satisfying spin that can go on for minutes on end—like this:
But the reason they blew up in popularity so unexpectedly isn't quite so simple.
Whether you have yet to experience this fad in full or you're one of many who can’t seem to escape it, fidget spinners offer a great case study on how things go viral and how brands can explore viral marketing to reach more people.
Before we get into that, however, it's worth looking at the ways the internet plays a huge role in how things go viral today.
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Understanding The New News Cycle
The news cycle was a lot different in the days when cable television and newspapers were the go-to channels for distributing news. It was called the “24-hour news cycle” because that was the pace we moved at and the media delivered information at.
A story would break and media outlets would compete to be the first to provide initial coverage in the roughly 24 hours before the story went stale.
But with “social” media, the pace of the news cycle has been accelerated, and in some cases prolonged. Tweets can spread news before a blog, and a blog post can be published and distributed faster than a newspaper.
In today’s digital world, we are no longer passive consumers of the media, but active participants in it.
Everything from comments to shares to blogs to parody videos on YouTube now contribute to the news cycle for any given viral event. Established news organizations reference tweets and internet memes start conversations and spread stories at an unprecedented rate.
Traditional media now fuels social media and vice versa.
What ends up happening is, as the media becomes aware of a trend, they cover it and gradually educate the market and shape the conversations people have.
With fidget spinners, you would see all kinds of headlines come up, many of which leverage the hype to create interest in the story:
- Fidget Spinners are the Must-Have Office Toy of 2017
- Meet the Fidget Spinner, a New Toy Craze Entrancing Kids and Grownups Alike
- Fidget Spinners: Who Invented the Wildly Popular Toy?
- A Fidget Spinner App Is Now the Top Free App in the App Store
But headlines aren't enough to sustain a viral trend. It needs to be an idea or a topic that can continue to feed the other half of today's news cycle: the part where we interact with the idea through sharing, commenting, and creating.
Fidget spinners were able to do that too by inspiring content and conversations of all kinds.
Memes such as the one above are an example of memetics in action—a theory that explains how ideas and behaviours spread through imitation and replication. It's a great lens for looking at this and many instances of virality—from the planking craze, to the ice bucket challenge, to the “meme” as most folks on the internet know them and create them.
This interactive part of the news cycle is what creates the viral loop necessary for a trend like this to take off.
How a "Viral Loop" Is Created
Viral growth is only possible through the creation of what's called a "viral loop".
Here's how it works:
- A person is exposed to an idea.
- The idea provokes a reaction in the person (this is key).
- Person (willingly or unwillingly) helps spread the idea.
- More people are exposed to the idea.
- Each new person has the potential to react to the idea and help it spread to others as well.
- The process repeats itself.
It's easy to see how this growth can happen exponentially—and spreads like a virus—but the idea won't continue to spread from person to person unless it's able to entice a reaction from people.
As long as the idea can reliably encourage people to react and act upon it, the idea can continue to spread until it converts enough people to also sway those who were resistant to the idea in the beginning (it's similar to Roger's Adoption Curve, which explains how innovative products and technology penetrate a market by getting early adopters first).
The fidget spinner craze did a great job of this, encouraging all kinds of behavior that focuses on passing the idea on to others:
- Tagging friends in the comments of Facebook posts.
- Sharing their thoughts on social media.
- Enticing creators/publishers to engage in newsjacking (like this post).
- Spreading memes as part of a running joke.
- Polarizing people and encouraging them to share differing opinions.
- Discussing fidget spinners offline and passing the trend on through word of mouth.
The combination of all of these factors contributed to the exponential growth of fidget spinners.
Recognizing Trends Like the Fidget Spinner Early On
Timing is everything when it comes to seizing an existing viral trend.
When you first encounter an idea and want to learn more about it, the first thing many people do is search it up on Google. The more interest there is in a topic, the more searches there are. And that’s a fair reflection of the state and lifespan of a trend.
Take a look at this Google Trends graph that shows a general timeline for the growth of the fidget spinner craze.
Reddit is also where a lot of viral trends pick up steam. If you don't use Reddit, it's highly recommended that you learn the platform as this is where many viral ideas get their start and where you can catch them early.
Keep a close eye on how people and news organizations react to it. The more passion and division there is, the more likely it will be to take off.
How Entrepreneurs Can Tap Into Virality
You can take everything we've discussed so far and try to create your own original, viral idea. Or you can latch onto a developing trend to ride the wave of an opportunity. Here are some ideas and examples you'll find amidst the fidget spinner frenzy.
Start Selling Viral Products
After the initial hype around a trend dies down, it's hard to say whether it will stick around or fade away. But while the trend is hot, there's definitely an intense demand to serve.
But in the case of the fidget spinner, which is often positioned as both a stress-relieving tool and a fun toy, there are already interesting variations arriving on the scene, such as luxury fidget spinners that cost hundreds of dollars, LED spinners, and even ones with bluetooth speakers built-in. The fact that they are a "collectable product" also helps, according to Richard Barry, Chief Merchandising Officer at Toys R Us.
You can open up shop selling fidget spinners or incorporate them into your existing product catalogue in order to be part of the trend, and many online stores are doing just that.
Some entrepreneurs have even used viral events to monetize memes using t-shirts and other merch.
Capture Offline Attention With Online Trends
It's often hard for offline businesses to stand out to the average passerby. Signage is useful for capturing their attention, especially when it references a viral trend.
In the case of the sign below, which I just happened to snap up while walking home, selling fidget spinners is one way to draw in foot traffic that might not have looked twice otherwise.
Get Creative With Content Related to the Trend
Content is probably the easiest, most accessible way for anyone to capitalize on a viral trend or leverage your own viral loop to reach a wide audience.
This video from Nerd Writer, a popular YouTube channel, has amassed over a million views in the span of two weeks by targeting the fidget spinner craze.
Create a Viral Loop for New Customers
Like I said before, fidget spinners caught on because they did such a good job of evoking a reaction out someone's interest and compelling them to engage with the trend or pass it on.
Creating a marketing process that lets you turn every new customer into more customers via a viral loop is a common viral marketing tactic for many companies.
Uber and Dropbox, for example, offer you incentives (credit and extra storage space, respectively) if you refer other customers. Ecommerce companies can likewise use free products and giveaways to create the viral loop necessary for exponential growth to happen.
Chasing the Waves
Just as even the best fidget spinner is bound to slow down eventually, so do viral trends. But they come up pretty frequently, and they hit us hard and intensely.
You can borrow some ideas from the fidget spinner phenomenon to incorporate into a business idea or marketing strategy to create viral loops or align with the news cycle to get more exposure.
Virality may depend on how the world reacts to an idea, but understanding how trends spread online can help you ride the waves or maybe even create them.Photo of Spinning Fidget Toy by Burst