Do you remember Richard Branson wearing a space suit to announced the launch of Virgin Galactic? How about the Old Spice man filming YouTube videos for people who tweeted at him? Or the car service Uber delivering cupcakes and kittens to employees who wanted a break from work? PR stunts like these are not only amusing, but also a proven way to generate press coverage and buzz.
Unconventional PR doesn’t suffer from the crowding that the more popular traction channels face. Nearly every company attempts traditional publicity, but few companies focus on stunts and other unconventional ways to get buzz.
There are two different types of unconventional PR. You’re probably familiar with the first type: the publicity stunt. A publicity stunt is anything that is engineered to get media coverage. Richard Branson made his press conferences as outlandish as possible (dressing like a woman, driving a tank through the streets) to get the media talking about whatever Virgin was launching. By creating a spectacle around every one of his product launches, Richard Branson turns uninteresting product launches into international headlines.
The second type of unconventional PR is customer appreciation: smaller, more scalable actions (like holding contests or ten notes to customers) that both increase goodwill as well as generate press coverage. Small gestures like these turn your customers into evangelists, which leads to an increase in organic growth. They also add to your unique image and story, both key elements in building a strong brand.
When done right, publicity stunts can propel a startup from anonymity to national recognition in an instant. That’s exactly what happened to Half.com
Before their launch, the team at Half.com spent weeks brainstorming ways they could get on the national radar. Eventually, they came up with the unconventional idea to rename a town! And, in one of the most well-executed startup PR stunts, for one year the little town of Halfway, Oregon, was known as Half.com.
Founder Josh Kopelman launched Half.com on the Today show with the mayor of Halfway, Oregon. This stunt had everything traditional media loved in a piece: it was unique, surrounded the launch of a high-potential new startup, and told a story about how the company was creating jobs in a small town (they hired several residents).
Half.com received coverage from The New York Times, PBS, The Wall Street Journal, and hundreds of other publications as a result of this one PR stunt. It launched in late 1999, before the days of ubiquitous email and social media. Even without these sharing tools, this campaign received more than 40 million impressions and gave Half.com a strong customer base right out of the gate. Just six months later it was acquired for more than $300 million by eBay.
WePay, a Web payments startup, pulled another popular stunt at PayPal’s annual developer conference. Rather than marketing to PayPal’s customers traditionally, they placed a six-hundred-pound block of ice at the conference entrance.
At the time, PayPal had been criticized for freezing some of its customers’ accounts. With this little stunt, WePay shifted the press conversation to focus on these frozen accounts-at PayPal’s own conference! This stunt led to thousands of signups. It also put WePay on the map as a viable alternative to PayPal at a time when few people knew it existed.
As another example, DuckDuckGo (Gabriel’s search engine) bought a billboard in Google’s backyard highlighting its privacy focus. It then, used the billboard to get national press stories in USA Today, Wired, and many other media outlets. The reactions from this stunt alone doubled its user base at the time.
Blendtec is a blender manufacturer located in southern Utah, In 2007. its team decided to create a series of videos called “Will It Blend?” In these videos, Blendtec’s CEO stood by one of its blenders and blended items like a rake, golf balls, and even an iPhone.
The series took off shortly after the videos were posted to YouTube. The iPhone video alone has received more than 8 million views, and the “Will It Blend?” series has become one of the one hundred most-viewed on YouTube. All for a company that makes blenders!
Dollar Shave Club, a subscription shaving startup, got similar attention for its launch video titled “Our Blades Are F**king Great.” It also has millions of views on YouTube and was the main source of the more than 12,000 customers it acquired within two days of launching. The video was also shared more than 31,000 times on Facebook, received over 9,500 comments, 12,000-plus likes, and more than 16,000 tweets.
The company benefited in other ways as well. Though Dollar Shave Club had been around for just a short while, it quickly ranked third for the Google search “shave.” This ranking is largely thanks to the 1,500-plus sites that linked to its video. The video also led to features in Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and Wired.
On the other end of the unconventional PR spectrum is the more sustainable, systematic form of this traction channel. Customer appreciation is a simple way of saying “be awesome to your customers.” The goal is still generating publicity. However, if you fail to get press coverage, you still have happy customers and a stronger, more relatable brand, which significantly increases word-of-mouth effects.
We talked with Alexis Ohanian, founder of reddit and Hipmunk, about how he’s made customers fall in love with his companies. Shortly after Alexis launched Hipmunk, a travel booking site, he sent out luggage tags and a handwritten note to the first several hundred people who mentioned the site on Twitter.
These tags were functional, were cute, and led to many tweets and pictures from happy early customers excited to have a chipmunk as a travel companion. Hipmunk also gave out other free items (T-shirts, stickers, handwritten notes) to show its customers’ appreciation.
Alexis did the same thing at reddit. In its early days, he handed out free T-shirts with the reddit alien on the front. He personally emailed users to thank them for spending time on the site and did everything he could to make early redditors feel appreciated for being part of the community. These stories became a central theme in reddit’s early press articles and had a pronounced effect on the brand.
David Hauser took a similar approach at Grasshopper.com. Over the past several years, he’s sent customers Skittles, homemade cookies, Starbucks gift cards, books, and handwritten notes thanking them for their business. Doing these types of things has worked so well for Grasshopper that it has hired two full-time employees whose sole responsibility is to delight customers.
Holding a contest is a great, repeatable way to generate publicity and get some word of mouth. Shopify.com, a popular e-commerce platform, is famous for its annual Build a Business competition (and its six-figure prize). Last year, the contest drove 1,900 new customers and more than $3.5 million in sales on its platform.
Dropbox used to hold a similar contest with its annual Dropquest competition. In Dropquest, users who successfully completed an intellectually challenging online scavenger hunt were rewarded with online recognition, Dropbox-themed items, and free Dropbox packages for life. In the first year of the competition, almost half a million people went through the quest.
Hipmunk has run similar events, like its Mother’s Day Giveaway. For this promotion, company staff asked customers to tell them why they love their mothers more than Hipmunk. They received hundreds of submissons via Twitter and sent flowers and chocolates to the moms of the lucky winners. For $500, Hipmunk generated a lot of attention, increased its follower count, and made several customers (and their moms) Hipmunk fans for life.
Hipmunk has run other contests as well, including flying customers home for Thanksgiving and hiring a cartoonist to draw “chipmunked” versions of customers’ Facebook profile pictures. For this last promotion, Hipmunk received more than five hundred requests in less than an hour and was covered by Mashable and several other popular blogs. Its customers received funny Facebook profile pictures, and Hipmunk once again created a unique connection with its customers and increased its Facebook fans by over 350 percent.
Good customer support is so rare that, if you simply try to make your customers happy, they are likely to spread the news of your awesome product on that basis alone. Zappos is one of the best-known examples of a company that has incredible customer service.
Zappos focuses on creating the best customer experience possible, especially with its support team. In fact, Zappos classifies customer service as a marketing investment, which has interesting implications. For example, if the average time per phone call at Zappos is high, they do not view that as a negative. It might mean that the support team is taking the time necessary to do an outstanding job.
Zappos customer support personnel will help you however they can-whether that’s assisting with returns, ordering a pizza, or exchanging workout clothes for a deep fat fryer (real example). With policies like free next-day shipping and free returns, this focus on customer happiness, has made Zappos famous among customers who rarely receive such treatment from large companies.
Unconventional PR tactics can have incredible returns on investment. Half.com pent $70,000 and made two hires to generate hundreds of articles and more than 40 million impressions. Dollar Shave Club acquired more than twelve thousand customers with a short video that cost $5,000. Hipmunk received thousands of Facebook likes from a chipmunk-drawing contest that cost the company $500. Blendtec increased its sales by over 500 percent after starting the Will It Blend? series.
David Hauser told us the story of how he and his team rebranded their service as Grasshopper.com. Rather than issue a standard press release they decided to send chocolate-covered grasshoppers to five thousand influential people! With each package they included a link to a short video about how entrepreneurs can change the world.
After launching the campaign, they received coverage from major news outlets such as Fox News and were the subject of tweets by Guy Kawasaki and Kevin Rose, entrepreneurs with millions of combined Twitter followers. For $65,000, Grasshopper became a well-known brand among entrepreneurs (its target audience). It received major media coverage, created a YouTube video that was viewed more than 200,000 times, was written up in more than 150 blog posts, and increased the number of visitors coming from Twitter and Facebook by over 3,000 percent.
As with Half.com’s PR stunt, this Grasshopper 5000 campaign was a result of prolonged brainstorming and careful planning. After its success, the team decided to continue to use unconventional PR as a core channel.
David and his team pulled off another successful stunt when they introduced “The New Dork” video. They noticed a lack of startup-themed viral videos and so parodied the popular Jay-Z and Alicia Keys song “Empire State of Mind” with a video called “The New Dork.”
This video received more than 1 million views and was mentioned by Ashton Kutcher, Mashable, and Tech Crunch. The Grasshopper team made a conscious decision to include references to popular publications like Mashable in their video. When the video came out, they sent them a quick note about where in the video they made an appearance. This approach gave publications and individuals an incentive to show their audience how cool they were (by referencing themselves in the video) while giving Grasshopper additional exposure.
David’s team at Chargify (another one of his startups) pulled off another successful stunt at the popular SXSW conference. Rather than pony up the $10,000 to $15,000 SXSW sponsors normally have to pay, they something completely different and had a big green bull run around. For $3,000, they hired a stuntman to dress up as Chargify’s mascot and get people pumped about Chargify.
Before this conference, Chargify was a virtual unknown. After SXSW attendees saw a green bull giving people high fives, doing backflips, driving a Corvette, and ultimately getting kicked out of the convention center, the Chargify team left the conference with hundreds of customers and a significant jump in brand awareness.
Of course, David’s team has also had their share of flops. They’ve launched unsuccessful March Madness promotions, done failed ticket giveaways, tried to create videos of dancing grasshoppers, and done many other things that just didn’t pan out. Even with these flops, this channel has been well worth it to them. David told us that the majority of their marketing expenses are spent on the stunts and unconventional things they do to generate buzz.