Hasbro and other toy retailers are beginning to listen to the crowd, but can’t take credit for productizing a viral trend.

The year 2017 marked the rise of slime, a poster-child for social media-driven virality. Though toy retailers now sell slime kits, the trend didn’t start with them—rather, the surge in slime-related products came from consumers who grew to know the product online. Far from Nickelodeon’s iconic green goo or the oobleck you made in sixth-grade science class, the slime that went viral was aesthetically as it was audibly pleasing—a perfect match for Instagram, where videos of slime blossomed. This slime, made from a mix of white school glue, Borax, water and various other accoutrements, from glitter to food clothing, skyrocketed to stardom in 2017, becoming so popular that an entire ecosystem formed around it. Today, in addition to the hundreds of slime vendors on social media platforms, other commentators update accounts like @slimeconfessions, which highlight intellectual property debates in the slime community.

A forerunner in the space was Karina Garcia, now 24, who began a YouTube channel for DIY crafts, publishing slime tutorials as early as 2015. As the trend gained speed, Elmer’s and Cra-Z-Art glue sold out at craft stores. These brands, as well as retailers like Michael’s, started marketing their own how-to videos online, and independent slime businesses—many run by middle-school entrepreneurs—cropped up on Instagram and Etsy, where slime searches increased 9,000% between October 2016 and June 2017. Though she does not sell her own product, Garcia’s YouTube channel now boasts nearly 8 million subscribers as of July 2018 and the #slime hashtag on Instagram garners more than 9.5 million posts.

Jumping on the consumer-driven trend that they saw in viral videos, Hasbro and Mattel produced slime-making kits. While these products in and of themselves didn’t reach viral status, one toy manufacturer, LaRose Industries, reported selling $50 million worth of kits with the Nickelodeon license in one year.

Though the case of slime had many winners, it’s important to underscore that businesses did not make the product go viral—online distribution networks did. Above all, this means that toy brands and retailers are simply reacting to a trend, meaning they do not merit recognition for slime’s virality—consumers and social media platforms do. What made slime viral wasn’t the product itself, but the participation it invited—anyone could create it—and the distribution channel that mobilized it.

When slime grew in prominence as both a fun creative project and a fun digital feed to watch and/or listen to, it became clear that the demand was there—the question, then, was who would supply it. Small-time entrepreneurs continue to produce and sell slime prolifically as social media vendors, but toy brands and retailers also capitalized on the trend, which points to constructive evolution in their research and development strategy. As companies began to take advantage of viral social distribution patterns, they were able to tap into a massive base of slime fans. Hasbro, for instance, formed a new team called “Quick Strike” in 2017 to investigate consumer interests on social media and turn those concepts into products.

Vetting ideas based on what consumers are already posting or viewing on social platforms not only gives creators an intimate view of what potential customers like and want—it also shifts the attention away from traditional toys, which don’t necessarily reflect consumer trends and often necessitate expensive licensing agreements (like the Star Wars franchise). It’s also recognition from the toy industry of the importance of fast turnaround at a time when consumers log on to social media daily and fads come and go at electric speed. The power that LaRose was able to harness by creating slime kits accepts the ephemerality of these trends and thus the pace at which their supply chains must operate, not only to tap into a viral idea, but simply to remain relevant. As the industry continues to reel from Toys R Us’ bankruptcy, more robust research and development will give retailers and manufacturers the boost they may need to stay afloat a new era of toy making. As illustrated here, those that pay attention to the crowd are likely to learn from it.

BuzzFeed spots potential viral products, crowdsourcing trends online and bringing them to life with a pliable supply chain.

A better execution of a company attending to consumer trends was BuzzFeed Commerce’s Glampsin—a lip gloss fidget spinner that launched in August 2017. While Hasbro and other toy retailers took a much more literal approach, noticing that consumers were discussing and creating slime on social media and retailing their own slime kits, BuzzFeed Commerce saw an opportunity to merge two interests—fidget spinners and lip gloss—after noticing that a high number of lipgloss customers were also consuming fidget spinner content.

A large part of why the Glamspin rose to at least the ninth best-selling SKU at Sephora was the concept itself, which put a new spin on a ubiquitous and trendy product. As toys and stress-relieving mechanisms, fidget spinners appeal to both children and adults—adding on lip gloss broadened the demographic, supplementing the product with new purpose. Development-wise, BuzzFeed Commerce also prides itself on crowdsourcing consumer trends, looking exclusively to Facebook and other social media—including BuzzFeed’s own audience—to drive its products.  

Just as important as BuzzFeed Commerce’s conceptualization is its well-oiled supply chain. This Commerce arm does everything—conceptualization, manufacturing, selling and shipping—all the while holding almost no inventory and working to maximize efficiency and get products on the market as fast as possible. For instance, in late 2016, the company decided to pursue Tasty: The Cookbook—a customizable collection of recipes from BuzzFeed’s successful Tasty series, whose food videos received 1.1 billion views in June 2017 alone. But rejecting the typical 18-month publishing timeline, BuzzFeed launched the product in three and a half weeks. To do so, the company constructed a pliable supply chain built specifically to digitally print and distribute books on-demand. Between the November 2016 release and January 2017, the book sold more than 100,000 copies.

This combination of media-driven products and an elastic supply chain allows BuzzFeed to spot potentially viral products or concepts in a way that Hasbro and other toy retailers cannot as large corporations that are only beginning to look to the crowd for ideas. With the Glamspin, for instance, BuzzFeed took two components,—a mundane but ubiquitous product (lip gloss) and a viral toy (the fidget spinner)—uniting them and betting on its chance of going viral. Just think if a company like Disney, armed with its massive licensing power, took advantage of consumer fads—for instance, ditching the hackneyed action figure toys for Star Wars-themed slime. Though the company’s supply chain is likely much slower than BuzzFeed’s, applying its R&D to consumer trends could catapult new toys with the potential to go viral, without removing the characters that make Disney Disney.

On the other hand, however, BuzzFeed sets itself up for a never-ending sprint, constantly sourcing new viral product hopefuls—not all of which go to market—and working to build the right kind of supply chain around them that will bring the products to market in record time. Perhaps even more importantly, the BuzzFeed method accepts the transitory nature of viral products altogether—it acknowledges that the products themselves are not long-lasting. But because its supply chain isn’t built around longevity, it doesn’t waste time perfecting each product, instead freeing up more resources to attack the next best idea.