Crash And Learn

A few real-life examples will help you learn from the marketing mistakes of others.
Magazine Contributor
6 min read

This story appears in the October 2000 issue of . Subscribe »

"March is a terrible time to run a direct-mail campaign to CPAs-they're all busy doing taxes!" says Robert Ramsay, who quickly found out how to waste his marketing dollars when he launched his business in 1997. Starting his company as CXWeb, a Web design and hosting company, Ramsay, now 30, set out to sell Web sites to CPAs in March 1999. Zero leads and $500 later, he figured out his two missteps: bad timing and bad timing. First of all, he dropped his direct-mail piece in March, not exactly a leisurely time for accountants. Plus, most CPAs were not interested in a Web presence in early 1999.

Re-launched as in October 1999, the Atlanta company has turned over a new leaf. "We now look into much more market research before starting a marketing campaign, even a small one," says Ramsay. "You can't know your market too well."

For those of us on limited budgets, even a few hundred dollars down the tube is intolerable. Learning from the victories and stumbles of your fellow business marketers can save you some sweet cash.

Take heart: Starting on the wrong marketing foot isn't terminal. SmallBizPlanet turned things around when Ramsay and his cohorts started attending conferences wearing blue denim shirts emblazoned with a bright yellow logo. Something as simple as spending $3,000 to attend conferences has netted the small-business portal about $10,000 in sales. "I have learned more about our target market and have generated sales leads while standing in elevators and waiting in line for food," notes Ramsay. "Sales have come from conversations started by the fact I was wearing a shirt with a bright dotcom logo on it. We've learned that the personal attention available at conferences is a great way to sell an intangible product like Internet services."

Kimberly McCall is the president of McCallMedia & Marketing Inc., a marketing, public relations and business communications agency in Portland, Maine. Contact her at(207)761-7792 or visit

Sweep It Away

For iChoose (, a creator and supplier of free software for online shoppers, the marketing misstep took the form of an online sweepstakes. The concept sounded strong: Promote a $15,000 shopping spree to persuade users to install iChoose software. The problem: Only 3,463 people entered the contest, and only 240 actually installed the software. What went wrong? Co-founder Kevin Dahlstrom, 29, along with CEO and co-founder Lance Cunningham, 30, say it was not the right audience for their product. Cunningham also says that high-ticket sweepstakes are required by law to allow "write-in entries," thereby lowering the chances of people actually doing what you want them to. (Think of all the times you've entered Publishers Clearing House without ordering any magazines.)

On its next campaign, however, iChoose hit marketing pay dirt. The company held a contest to set a new Guinness World Record for the most people inside a single T-shirt. During the halftime of a Dallas Mavericks vs. Indiana Pacers basketball game in March, iChoose stuffed 82 people into a size 50 XL T-shirt (measuring 11 feet tall by 11 feet wide). The event cost iChoose about $28,000, including the cost of the tickets provided to radio stations for on-air giveaways and a block of tickets for local charities. But Cunningham estimates they received more than $150,000-worth of publicity via media mentions, plus the value of airing their commercial at the game.

To augment the Guinness promotion, iChoose gave away T-shirts via its Web site to anyone who installed the iChoose Savings Alert software. The cost was less than $5 per person (compared with an acquisition cost of $98 per person in the sweepstakes promotion), and the program increased software installations by 260 percent.

Marketing campaign success can never be guaranteed; there are simply too many marketplace variables at play, from competition to timing. But you can minimize your losses by taking just a few steps: Know everything possible about what makes your audience tick, adequately fund your campaign, and be true to your company's vision. Don't spend a penny on marketing until you've crawled inside your prospect's head and taken a good look around.

Mahir Mania

In late 1999, an odd e-mail was making its way around the world, with heavy saturation in New York City and San Francisco. In a scenario that could only happen on the Internet, Mahir Cagri, a man from Turkey searching for a wife, became a celebrity literally overnight. His low-tech site featured his likes, dislikes and physical statistics, along with several photographs of him playing ping pong, sunbathing and sightseeing. Within days of posting his site-with its intro of "Welcome to my home page! I kiss you!"-Mahir was getting calls from around the world. One of those in hot pursuit of the "Cyber sensation from Turkey" was, an Atlanta-based Web service that matches users with Web sites tailored to their interests.

Jim Lanzone, the 29-year-old co-founder of eTour, decided that Mahir was a good fit for his company, whose philosophy is "now the things you like find you," and the Mahir craze was reaching its apex. So eTour decided to bring Mahir to the United States for what was dubbed his "eTour of America." For less than $100,000, eTour's campaign landed the company worldwide press in 50 publications as well as some TV coverage on CNN, among other programs. Using only e-mail invitations, eTour threw a huge bash attended by 1,500 industry insiders to award Mahir the "Key to Cyberspace."

Lanzone believes the company received well over $1 million-worth of promotion for the $100,000 investment. "The promotion was successful because it capitalized on Mahir before his 15 minutes were up. At least 20 other Internet companies were attempting to get him to the U.S., but we won out."

Lanzone also credits "guts and foresight" for the success of the promotion. "We followed through on an 'out there' promotion, and we were able to cut through the clutter in the heart of the most cluttered market in media history: Christmas 1999, with all the dotcoms flooding the market," he says. "The campaign also hit during the exact same two weeks as our company's first TV campaign, creating multiple points of contact with our brand."

And what of making mistakes? "As long as it's on strategy," says Lanzone, "your mistakes won't hurt as much, and the things you learn will make your marketing stronger in the future."

Brain Food

  • For tips on how to work with the media and promote your product or service, check out Linda F. Radke's Promote Like a Pro: Small Budget, Big Show (Five Star Publications, $19.95, 480-940-8182).
  • Brush up on your marketing theory with The Portable MBA in Marketing (John Wiley & Sons, $34.95, 800-225-5945) by Alexander Hiam and Charles Schewe.
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