Before a million pails of cold water brought the disease to global attention, many people had never heard of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. But after a summer of ice bucket challenges, the devastating motor neuron disorder now has an astonishing level of awareness. Though the campaign didn’t originate as a deliberate marketing strategy, it’s a great case study of the power of guerrilla marketing in the social-media age.
Inexpensive, small scale and non-traditional marketing tactics can be extremely effective ways of promoting your brand if the idea catches the public imagination and goes viral. But so-called “guerrilla marketing” covers a huge variety of activities, from PR stunts to viral videos.
To determine if there’s a tactic that will work for your business, consider these five tips for crafting an effective guerrilla-marketing campaign that will resonate with your target audience.
Related: 4 Secrets to Multichannel Success
1. Have a hook.
If your product or service is something people don’t ordinarily care about, you need to give it an attention-grabbing hook, like the ALS ice bucket challenge.
Dollar Shave Club made the hardly earth-shattering idea of mail-order razor blades really engaging with a hilariously offbeat and low-budget YouTube video. Within two days of launch the commercial went viral, generating 12,000 new orders.
Or try connecting with people in unexpected ways, like this fitness company ad that appeared on German subway trains showing a man hanging out to a weight, rather than a subway railing.
2. Be provocative.
Controversy sells so if you’re willing to break taboos and speak truths that people usually prefer to ignore, you can turn heads. This is a common tactic for charities and non-profits, like the visually arresting ketchup packs created by Campaign Against Landmines. The packets say, "In 89 countries walking on a mine is still routine" and on the flipside is a pair of legs. When someone opens up the ketchup packets, it depicts blood on the legs.
My company Hightail has indulged in the occasional provocative but fun stunt. We once handed out free cronuts to attendees at a competitor’s annual conference. The pastry packaging came with step-by-step instructions, including “Discard Box”. It was a playful and controversial (we were kicked out of the venue) way of targeting a very specific audience.
3. Sell an idea, not a product.
As a startup, your passion for what you do and vision for changing the world is incredibly powerful. Stating that vision boldly and selling your product based on emotional appeal, not rational argument can give you an advantage.
Salesforce did this brilliantly with its “No Software” logo that evangelized the company’s underlying vision of simple, inexpensive, cloud-based services rather than focusing on what its product actually does. I still remember Marc Benioff’s ad in which a fighter jet shoots down a biplane. Though it was a little cheesy, the image represented a powerful idea that ultimately lived up to the analogy.
Also, you don’t have to be starting out to harness the power of ideas. IKEA celebrated the 30th anniversary of its popular Billy bookcase by filling 30 of them with books and placing them on Bondi Beach in Australia. Beachgoers could swap a book for one of their own or donate to a literacy charity. By focusing on the popular beach pastime of reading, the furniture company got people’s attention while still promoting its product.
4. Make it tangible.
Physical manifestations are great guerrilla marketing. Translating your idea into an object or event can help explain a product, especially digital services.
A Westfield shopping mall in California installed a real-life Pinterest board to act as an interactive store directory. Though Pinterest didn’t initiate the idea, by approving the use of its logo, the company got a great real-life demonstration of its online service.
Even better, if you can capture your physical-world tactic and share it online, you can get a viral multiplier. Adobe cleverly achieved this with a bus stop prank in which they Photoshopped waiting passengers into a fake digital movie poster, as a way to advertise its Adobe Creative Day. The “candid camera” appeal of this stunt has garnered more than 22 million views on YouTube.
5. Take a risk.
Some of the best ideas sound unbelievably dumb on paper (and may still, in fact, be dumb when you actually do them). They may flop, but you won't know until you try. Many guerrilla campaigns get attention precisely because they are unusual, outrageous or unconventional. So don’t worry about people laughing at you.
For instance, ride-sharing service Uber has promoted its service by delivering ice cream or puppies to customers. In December 2013, Canadian airline WestJet asked passengers boarding a flight to Calgary what they wanted for Christmas then delivered these gifts when they landed.
Whichever style of guerrilla marketing campaign you devise, remember to document and publish everything. Most guerrilla marketing is by its nature small in scale but it’s the shared links, laughs and likes that will make your campaign a big success.