Would you believe it if I told you the first social influencer I knew was my childhood ice cream truck man? How can that be? you might ask, when that was in the mid-20th century, long before “social influencing” –or even social media–was even a term?
Stay with me. But first, a bit of background.
The Annual Excitement
Jack-The-Ice-Cream-Man lived in Florida during the chillier parts of the year, but every summer he’d come back up north and drive his truck around our Flushing, NY neighborhood. Much like the swallows of San Capistrano, the first Jack sighting of the season was a huge deal; when Jack came back to town the word spread faster than SnapChat and kids would literally come running out to greet him.
Jack would show up twice a day, usually. We lived in apartment buildings and we’d rush in to get change. Kids who lived on one of the higher stories would yell up to their moms, who would wrap the coins in paper and toss the little package out the window. If the kids were lucky, the money pack wouldn’t land in the bushes, forcing them to hunt for it and—horrors—possibly miss the little window of time that Jack gave us before toodling off to his next stop, jingle jingle.
He sold the “it” toy of summer. He knew his tiny niche. And he created the buzz.
It Wasn’t Just About the Ice Cream
Jack didn’t have the best quality ice cream. It was ok, but ordinary — I think it was called Snowcrest. He was also not the only ice cream truck coming around. Good Humor and Mister Softee, arguably better ice cream, also came around, but never with the same regularity, never got to know us, indeed never “connected” with us, and they lacked that “special something.” (Also Good Humor was a bit pricier than Jack, and in our strictly-on-a-budget-so-we-could-move-to-the-burbs household it was usually limited on rare occasions to my parents who got “fancy” things like Strawberry Shortcake or Toasted Almond.)
So what was that “special something” about Jack that not only earned him the devotion of the neighborhood kids but also allowed him a lifestyle with two homes? What set Jack apart?
Jack’s X-Factor: The “It” Toy of Summer
He didn’t sell just ice cream. He sold the “it” toy of summer. He knew his tiny niche. And he created the buzz.
One year it was wooden tops. Another year it was yoyos. I remember the year when it was cap rockets. These were tiny “bombs” that made loud noises when you smashed them on the ground after threading tapes of blister dots filled with gunpowder through the weighted end. Regardless of views at the time about toys and genders, everyone wanted the “it” toy of summer.
Was it the toys that made Jack special? And was he really an influencer in an age when there was no social media?
Sprout Social defines an influencer as “someone in your niche or industry with sway over your target audience. Influencers have specialized knowledge, authority or insight into a specific subject.” He may not have represented a brand, or used social media, but I’d say he did know his niche, local and focused though it was, and held sway.
There were plenty of other fads at the time, and plenty of tv marketing aimed at kids. But that was not as personable, or as fast.
How Jack Did It
Here are some of the techniques Jack used as influencer:
- Uniqueness. No one else did what Jack did, even if their ice cream was better.
- Fandom. Even if we’d bought the toy once that season (you only need one, right?), we’d feel a certain amount of loyalty. We’d keep going back to Jack for our ice cream despite the other choices, and not only because he was cheaper. Jack was cool. He knew what kids wanted.
- Price point. Jack wasn’t selling anything fancy, mechanized or pricey like we saw on TV. His toys were simple, classically popular and priced for lower-income demographic.
- Availability: It was so much easier to buy a top or yoyo when it was right there, and one didn’t have to bother ones parents to go to the store for the item.
- Unexpectedness. We never knew what the toy of summer was going to be. I assume Jack probably found some supplier of something good and cheap and he made it work. But with the excitement of Jack’s arrival, once the first couple of kids snagged the new special thing, soon everyone found out what the new item was and wanted one.
- FOMO/FORO. And then, everyone had to have it. And while there was usually a decent supply, we knew that it would run out before the height of summer. Besides, we’d want to get the special toy while everyone was still in the throes of its newness. So in addition to Fear of Missing Out, there was what I’m going to call Fear of Running Out.
- Seasonal. Like with seasonal marketing, and related to FOMO,, the buzz only happened in the first half of summer, and we knew if we waited, we might miss out.
Certainly there were plenty of other fads at the time, and plenty of tv marketing aimed at kids. But that was not as personable, or as fast.
Now, how about you… are you using any of these techniques in your marketing?
I think Jack was brilliant. He created buzz — and a fan base who continued to be loyal customers—within a very specific, targeted demographic. I’d say that’s an influencer.