The Power Of Mouth To Mouth Marketing

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A version of this article previously appeared on Forbes.

The CEO of Expertcity (creator of GoToMyPC and GoToMeeting, acquired by Citrix) was born in Germany and grew up in South Africa. Although his English was impeccable, he was occasionally tripped up by colloquialisms. One that he particularly struggled with was "word-of-mouth marketing,”which he consistently referred to as "mouth-to-mouth marketing." We adopted his phrasing and made it our mission to devise creative, mouth-to-mouth marketing initiatives.

Startups must economically counteract the pervasive drone of large incumbents' messaging. One way to do so is to ensure that when your customers share their experiences with your products and solutions, they do so with the passion and intensity of a soulful kiss. Such mouth-to-mouth communications have sufficient intensity to cut through the confusion of the noisiest markets.

Over the years, I have documented a number of clever mouth-to-mouth stunts, from DoubleClick to TestFlight. These articles have inspired readers to experiment with their own mouth-to-mouth campaigns, including the one described below by Hubba's Emma Nemtin.

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image004After stumbling across your article on trade show guerrilla marketing, it inspired me to take a leap. A leap that got me on a flight from Toronto to Dallas to execute a serious 24-hour mission. I now realize why guerrilla marketing is not for the timid. Sometimes it takes a bold move to get noticed.

I work for Hubba, a Toronto startup that has built a sharing platform that takes a unique "big data" approach to data management for brands and retailers. We decided to shake things up and take a risk at the biggest data management summit, attended by multi-billion dollar corporations, including IBM, Oracle and Informatica. We did not purchase tickets for the event. 

Our goal was to have the conference participants wake up in their suites to a flyer stealthily placed under their doors in the middle of the night. The flyer said "We wanted to be the first to welcome you to Data Management 2004". At the bottom in small print it said "(if you would like to see your data could be managed in 2013, please visit us at www.hubba.com/TheNewWay)". 

This seemed like an easy task to pull off, but when I arrived at the hotel I was in awe. The hotel had over 1,400 rooms and, after chatting with the front desk, I realized that the attendees were scattered all over the hotel. I had no idea how I was going to slip the flyers under the doors of conference attendees. I was beginning to feel that this brilliant idea of ours was going to be next to impossible to pull off.

Regardless, I settled in nicely to my grandiose Texan hotel and woke up at a cool 4:45am to begin my mission. I figured my best bet was just to sporadically place flyers under every 10th door and hope that an attendee would see it. But, when I opened my door I realized that the guerrilla angels were shining down on me.

A conference bag had been hung on my door handle, and every other attendee's door handle as well. This white swag bag was my beacon of light. It was as if the conference organizers had placed a massive arrow saying, "Hey Emma, place it here." I now knew exactly where to put the flyers and starting ninja-ing my way down the dark halls, only to be met right off the bat by a hotel manager who greeted me with a weary, "Good Morning Miss."

My palms were sweating. I jumped down to the next floor where I ran into the same hotel manager (still holding a giant stack of flyers) who looked at me and said, “We just keep running into each other don’t we?” Yes. we sure do. I thought one more encounter and I’m definitely getting reported as the sketchy guest who snuck into the conference to distribute bootleg marketing materials. I booked it down the stairs and ran to another wing of the hotel to complete my mission. 

Next I went into the conference and placed the rest of the flyers in opportune locations around the keynote rooms. I acted calm, as if I belonged there. I poured myself some coffee, and did a lot of pretending to be on the phone, dig through my purse, while silently slipping a few flyers onto any surface I could find that was surrounded by attendees. I even went into the ladies washroom (which happened to be empty, thank goodness) and propped up a flyer on each bathroom stall. Hey, you never know.

Needless to say, the flyers caused quite a stir, as its message was a direct shot at the lack of innovation from the industry's big vendors. Before lunch, we had received inbound inquiries from analysts, potential partners and prospects. Based on the hits to our website, our competitors took notice too.

We became a big part of the conversation at the conference at the cost of less than a tenth of one single registration ticket. Sometimes you knock on the door and sometimes you kick it down. 

The efficacy of a guerilla marketing campaign should be measured by the concrete results it generates. Buzz that does not ultimately generate sales is worth little. In Hubba's case, the company was well rewarded for its boldness.

  • 230 flyers resulted in 87 site visits (38% conversion rate)
  • Twitter hashtag activity resulted in 4 demos
  • 4 analysts, 6 potential partners and 9 institutional investors reached out to the company
  • Big competitors like SAP and Microsoft immediately started spending large amounts on the company's site

Do you have a noteworthy mouth-to-mouth marketing story to share? Let me know in the comments section. If it is appropriately effective and audacious, I welcome the chance to share it with my readers in a future article.

Follow my startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse. I promise I will never tweet about cute pandas, politics or that killer burrito I just ate.

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John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.


Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.





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