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Tactile and digital experiences: Annabelle Smith on marrying the two for brand growth

Annabelle Smith, Founder and Director of Social Playground

Annabelle Smith, Founder and Director of Social Playground

Armed with a box of digital toys, Sydney’s Annabelle Smith is raising social capital for her clients by making it fun for consumers to engage with brands at events and share their experiences online. She is the founder and director of Social Playground, considered the first company in Australia to ‘take the Instagram experience offline’.

To date, the company, which is based in Sydney with offices in Melbourne, has worked with 300 major brand including Topshop, Westfield, IBM, Spotify and Optus. It has also participated in 3,000 corporate and consumer events in Australia and around the world. According to Annabelle, the agency generates social media reach in excess of 20,000 impressions for every event.

“We’re a social engagement agency that aims to bridge the gap between the online and offline worlds through live digital experiences,” she told Dynamic Business. “We drive brand awareness for clients by inspiring event attendees to create and share branded content in a memorable way.”

“Social media is amplifying event experiences” 

Annabelle said that experiential marketing and social media, when taken together, are very powerful.

“Previously, brands could offer amazing experiences but their reach was limited to the people attending the event and their friends hearing about it afterwards,” she said. “Now with social media, all of those event experiences are amplified in real-time, creating brand awareness and hopefully a case of serious FOMO for those not at the event.”

“Our suite of products, which we call toys because they’re fun, includes the Hashtag Printer, GIFGIF, Branded Selfies, Live Feed, Open Photo Booth and Social Mosaic. Each one fulfils a slightly different purpose and, where necessary, we can customise them to fit a client’s brief and meet their objectives. Due to our expertise across experiential marketing, branding and digital marketing, we’re really able to add value for our clients and thus ensure the success of their events. We work alongside experiential agencies to provide the tech engagement component of their brand activations. We also work with, and complement the services of, media, PR, advertising or even digital agencies.”

SocialPlayGroundFinding her groove and hatching plans in NY

Annabelle started her career in experiential marketing, working with FMCG brands, after which she briefly flirted with fashion PR, generating media coverage for events such as the Prix De Marie Claire Beauty Awards. This eventually led to a two-year stint in New York, where Annabelle found her groove working for a start-up social media marketing agency, commencing in March 2011. Working alongside brand heavyweights including Tiffany & Co., Quiksilver, Estée Lauder and Nine West, she became immersed in the fast-paced world of content and influencer marketing, social media and community management and digital PR.

Critically, she was exposed to exciting social engagement technologies, still in their infancy. After seeing Hashtag Printing embraced at a handful of functions, where attendees had fun collecting print-outs of their Instagram photos, Annabelle realised there was an opportunity to use this technology to generate strong social value for businesses at consumer and corporate events: by tapping into the nostalgia for tactile experiences, she could incentivise the sharing of content online.

Scouting for new technologies, building partnerships

Soon after returning to Australia in mid 2013, Annabelle launched Social Playground with the Instagram Printer as its hero product. By the six-month mark, Annabelle knew the business had ‘some serious legs’.

“The clients we were attracting might have taken years to court had we been just another service-based agency,” she said. “Due to the innovative nature of our tech, and the fact that it filled a niche in the market, companies really wanted to hear us out. Despite that, we couldn’t rest on our laurels. Tech companies have to constantly evolve – for us, that meant backing up our Instagram Printer with another great product in the social engagement space. We were able to do that with GIFGIF, which was a natural evolution of our hero product.

“Our development team is always working on new products and updates and we’re also scouting around the world for new technologies to introduce to the Australian market. We’ve realised we don’t need to invent every product we offer; instead, we can spend time and resources on watching trends, identifying – and putting a local spin on – the best solutions from around the world. In addition to refining our product line, we’ve had to partner with the right clients in order to thrive. This has meant identifying likeminded partners who not only share our energy and enthusiasm but who attract further clients to the business. Setting clear expectations from the outset was also important.”                    

Delegating and timely damage control     

Despite being the lifeblood of Social Playground, Annabelle cites technology as one of the most challenging aspects of the business.

“Things sometimes go wrong,” she admitted. “When you couple that with the fact that we operate in a fast-paced environment, it can get a little stressful. The trick has been minimising any damage as quickly as possible – and having a great team of developers on call 24/7! Along the way I have learned to trust my team and delegate. When you give them the freedom in their roles to excel, they will step up to the challenge and grow. As we grow, I love seeing new procedures and processes being implemented by the team for the betterment of the company without even having to ask for it.”

Going global, continuing to grow – loving it

Due to the success of Social Playground in Australia, Annabelle has pursued a global growth strategy. Replicating her business model in other markets hasn’t been a cakewalk, she admitted, but with the help of people who possess the necessary market intelligence, it has happened. Social Playground now has a presence in the UK, Denmark, Iceland, Malaysia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brunei, Singapore, Mexico, UAE, Qatar and New Zealand.

We’re still very much in the growth stage,” she said. “We’re going to continue doing what we’re doing well now. The market is pushing us towards more custom projects as clients get more creative with their briefs – but we love any opportunity to let our creative juices flow and we’re excited to play more in the space. I’m loving this ride and have no plans to jump ship any time soon – there’s so much more potential and I can’t wait for what’s next!”