Jay Conrad Levinson, who coined the term guerrilla marketing and has written a series of books on the subject, defines the expression as going after conventional goals by using unconventional methods. "It's a way for small businesses to achieve high profits without a major outlay of money," he explains.
Maria Carilao, founder of Yo-Bonic Yo-Yos in Seattle, makes up for a limited marketing budget with energy, vision and raw nerve. Shortly after starting her business in 1997, the 27-year-old gained the attention of premier specialty toy retailer FAO Schwarz by tying her "yo-yos with an attitude" to the doors of its New York City store along with dozens of her business cards. "I wanted the top-notch stores to sell my product, so I did whatever it took to get their attention," explains Carilao, whose yo-yos are now featured at FAO Schwarz and have also been sold at Nordstrom and other retail outlets.
Carilao has become a master of attention-getting. She drives a psych-"Yo"-delic Volvo station wagon covered with hundreds of colorful yo-yos; dresses as "Yo-Yo Girl" for store appearances; and peppers her conversation with "Yo speak," a hip play on words. (For example, she calls herself the world's first CEyO.)
"I didn't have money for a marketing campaign when I started, so I had to be really `out there' and in buyers' faces to get attention," says Carilao. Not all the attention has been positive, though. Her limited-edition Presidential Blo-Yo, sold briefly last fall, featured caricatures of President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky in packaging that played off of "Zippergate."
"Not everyone thought the Blo-Yo was in good taste," says Carilao, "but sometimes you have to take a chance and be in the public's face in a bold way in order to be seen."
What makes her marketing madness work is that it's more than just hype. Says Carilao, "I know I have a solid product to back up my aggressiveness."
Don't let the term guerrilla mislead you: "Guerrilla marketing is the diametric opposite of in-your-face obnoxious," says Levinson. "It means earning long-term relationships by using personal attention, sincere caring, attention to detail, generosity, time, energy and imagination--rather than the brute force of a huge budget. Instead of in-your-face, it encourages marketers to be in-your-mind."
Of course, sometimes in-your-face is the best way to get noticed--and many experts contend no marketing technique is too outrageous, since there's no such thing as bad publicity. "You'd have to be pretty `out there' to be obnoxious," says John Kremer, co-author of High-Impact Marketing on a Low-Impact Budget: 101 Strategies to Turbo-Charge Your Business Today! (Prima Publishing). "[Even if] something is too offbeat [and doesn't] work the way you intended, at least it puts your name out there, and the next time you do something, people will remember who you are."
Whether you take a low-key or high-energy approach to marketing, keep the three basic stages of the guerrilla method in mind:
1. Create a low-cost, high-impact game plan. Levinson says your marketing plan should be clear and concise--seven sentences max. "Plan an approach you can stay with for the next decade, if possible," says Levinson. "If you get it right the first time, you won't have to waste money developing new strategies."
Lead with a sentence explaining the purpose of your marketing plan, followed by one listing the benefits of your product or service you'll stress to attract customers. The next three sentences state your target audience, your niche in the marketplace and the specific marketing weapons you'll use in your attack. (The key to a successful guerrilla marketing plan is to stock your arsenal with as much free ammunition as possible; publicity and customer service should be at the top of the list.)
The last sentence expresses your marketing budget as a percentage of projected gross sales. Although the average U.S. business invested 4 percent of its gross sales in marketing during 1998, Levinson recommends doubling that figure.
Does even 4 percent sound too steep? Not a problem, says Kremer, who says you shouldn't even bother to budget for marketing. "Most start-ups have no money for marketing. Instead, focus on what you have time to do," says Kremer, who recommends creating a publicity plan that lists the top 50 media outlets in your area and stories you can feed to them once a month. "Offer something for free, create a contest, write press releases about great ways customers have used your product or service--there are lots of ways to get publicity for virtually no money down," he says.
Once the cash starts flowing, publicity can supplement your print and radio ads. (Except for local cable stations, TV advertising is usually too expensive for start-ups.) Local television and radio stations sometimes allow businesses to tape public service announcements in exchange for helping to sponsor a charity event.
2. Launch your attack. Prioritizing and timing are keys to successful guerrilla marketing. "You don't have to use all your weapons at once," says Levinson. "Prioritize and launch them one at a time, in order of importance, over a long period of time--as many as 18 months." Write down all the marketing tools that are available to you--such as networking with business associates and local merchants, advertising, publicity, introductory offers and special events to attract customers. Levinson says it will be easy to prioritize based on time, budget and potential effectiveness.
"Although there's really no way to judge how effective a marketing tactic is before you try it, talking with other businesses in your neighborhood or [industry] to see what worked for them can be a good sounding board," says Kremer. Many cities have entrepreneurial workshops or business associations; Kremer suggests creating your own local marketing association and meeting periodically to brainstorm and compare notes.
You need both a short-term marketing plan to gain quick name recognition and a long-term plan to continue building your business. This is where a marketing calendar or timeline comes into play, as you prioritize which tactics to use on a month-by-month basis.
Kremer suggests using a matrix, or grid, of boxes with the names of five potential audiences for your product or business in each box going across, and five ways to reach these audiences in boxes going down. "Some start-ups just place an ad in the newspaper or Yellow Pages and see what happens," says Kremer. "A better approach is to first identify who you want to reach, then figure out the best way to reach them."
Use your matrix to prioritize your marketing arsenal. Determine five affordable projects that will produce the best results now, and five for the future. Re-evaluate your marketing matrix every six months.
3. Maintain your attack by knowing your competition and customers. According to Levinson, this is the toughest step. "Unless you maintain what you've started, all that planning has been done in vain," he says.
"Small-business owners rarely understand that they have access to the same research about their customers and competitors as large corporations do," says Philip Nulman, author of Start-Up Marketing: An Entrepreneur's Guide to Launching, Advertising, Marketing & Promoting Your Business (Career Press).
According to Nulman, local media can be among your best research resources. "If the sales manager at a radio station thinks he can sell you ad space, he'll gladly put together a tape of competitors' commercial clips for you and send a media kit that details the station's listener demographics," he says. "These free tools will help give you a good profile of the local market's supply and demand for your service or product." Are you interested in other information sources? Search the Internet for other companies in your market niche, and call competitors to request information in the public domain, such as their brochure or annual report.
Maintenance also means monitoring your marketing strategy's results by surveying customers to find out what works and what doesn't. This can be done on a low budget via phone or e-mail with a few brief questions or by forming a grass-roots focus group of friends, relatives and acquaintances to brainstorm about your business.
Customer service is a powerful guerrilla marketing tool; it's low-cost and, when done right, highly effective. "Consumers are getting angry and refusing to do business with companies that don't meet their standards," says Nulman. By monitoring how customers feel about your company, you can make them allies in the guerrilla marketing game.