business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

Just one look, that’s all it took, for a 16-year-old Texas Target bagger to topple Justin Bieber as America’s teen heart throb and out-trend Ebola and the midterm elections.

Actually, it was just one tweet … but I couldn’t resist borrowing the lyric from the R&B song to sum up the viral phenomenon that is #AlexFromTarget.

In the span of 48 hours, Alex LaBeouf went from a cute guy working the checkout lane in Target’s Frisco, Texas, store to an internet sensation and guest on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. His Twitter following skyrocketed from 114 (total) to 733,000 (and counting).

It’s further proof that even the most random meme can spread like wildfire on the internet, and no there’s no demographic that can fan the flames quite like teenage girls with a major crush on a boy with Bieber-like bangs.

For Target, still seeking to regain consumer confidence after last December’s massive credit breach, it was an unexpected shot of positive P.R. just before the holiday shopping season.

Which begs the question – what’s next for the boy and the Minneapolis-based big box retailer?

So far, I think Target has handled Alex-mania well. A store manager first alerted Alex that two enamored girls had posted a photo of him in Twitter with his nametag, and the 800,000-plus retweets began. When a marketing start-up called Breakr attempted to take credit for Alex’ “overnight” stardom – prompting a full round of “Alex is a hoax” headlines – Target quickly responded, saying, “We value Alex as a team member and from the first moment we saw this photo beginning to circulate, we shared that the Target team was as surprised as anyone. That remains the truth today. Let us be completely clear, we had absolutely nothing to do with the creation, listing or distribution of the photo.”

My guess is the Target social media team was wishing there was a playbook for this -- run with it or ignore it? I think their next move was the smartest – a short tweet with just the right tone:
“We heart Alex too!” with a picture of his nametag.

That generated 30,000 retweets and 43,000 “favorites” on the Target Twitter feed. By comparison, a toy sale tweet the previous day prompted 112 retweets and 150 favorites.

Social media experts and branding gurus have plenty of opinions on what Target should do next.

I think there’s a prime opportunity to use social media to further the store’s “Target team member” model.

In the interview with Ellen DeGeneres, Alex came across as a really nice, kind of goofy kid still blindsided by his sudden celebrity. When DeGeneres asked if he had any other talents, such as singing or dancing, he replied “No, but apparently I bag groceries well.”

Exactly. And that’s important. Ask anyone whose bread has been smushed by a gallon of milk. And the person bagging groceries is a shopper’s last touchpoint with a store.

In addition to Alex, Target could highlight the other employees who are on the front lines of customer service, as well as those behind the scenes making sure there are enough Elsa and Anna “Frozen” dolls on shelves for the holidays or snow shovels and handwarmers for those already blasted by winter in the Midwest. It seems to me that this could be the basis of a really smart promotional campaign, both in mainstream and non-traditional media.

What’s the broader business lesson here?

Simple. Your company, your employee, or your product can go viral on the internet in minutes. It may be a photo, or a comment, but it can reach thousands in seconds and there is little you can do to control it.

What every retailer, producer or service provider must do is always track what is happening in social media and be prepared to move quickly and react responsibly – whether is a photo of a cute bagger named Alex or reports of a massive credit card breach. Just one tweet, that’s all it takes.

Comments? As always, send them to me at .
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