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How to Spread Rumors About Your Business

Photography: cortto

At the beginning of the year, three months before the iPad’s official announcement, the Wall Street Journal published details about Apple’s new product. The newspaper was right about the launch date, right about the size, right about the models, and wrong about the reported $1,000 price point. For a company as secretive as Apple — a company that is reported to instruct employees to cover prototypes with a black cloak when someone walks into the room and turn on a red light to alert others when they’re working on something top secret — the amount of information that the newspaper had managed to acquire was impressive, even if it didn’t all turn out to be completely accurate. According to John Martellaro, Apple’s former Senior Marketing Manager, it was also a planned corporate leak, a careful and deliberate use of rumor to prime the market.

Writing on MacObserver, Martellaro described how Apple uses rumors for one of four reasons: to apply pressure to a foot-dragging partner; to confuse the competition; to generate interest for one of its media events; or  to float an idea (in this case, the $1,000 price point.) A rumor allows the company to do all of these things from a distance while denying responsibility for the results or implying any official verification of the news being leaked.

That was all interesting stuff, but perhaps the most interesting aspect of Martellaro’s disclosure was that this leaking fell to him. For Apple, seeding rumors is an essential part of marketing.

So what can smaller businesses learn from Apple’s ability to control both the information it possesses and the details it chooses to release to the rumor mill?

Be as Interesting as Apple

The most important lesson is probably to be as big and interesting as Apple. Reporters are happy to be fed information by anonymous Apple insiders because they know that readers are fascinated by the company and by its products. It’s an interest so strong that it’s even allowed one fanboy to turn  his back on a medical career and spend the last ten years doing nothing but publishing Mac rumors. It’s hard to see a physician giving up his medical bills to live on the income generated by a site peddling Microsoft rumors.

Smaller firms with lower profiles and less interest from the public will have to work a little harder than Apple then, but the right rumors themselves can do that too. Corporate rumors are interesting when the information they contain sounds as though it might impact the lives of the people doing the listening, and make them much more fun. People want to know about Apple because the company’s products are disruptive and desirable. Rumors about products from a small firm then have to be equally interesting — at least to some people.

You might not be calling reporters from the Wall Street Journal, but the same principles apply to trade reporters, local journalists and even bloggers desperate for new content. Where there’s already some interest in your company and what it does, rumors can heighten that interest — and the more exciting those rumors, the greater that interest will rise.

Fortunately, those rumors don’t have to be entirely true — that’s why they’re rumors not releases. But they do have to be mostly true. Apple paid for the ability to test a $1,000 price point in the Wall Street Journal by telling the newspaper’s reporters some true facts about the product’s specifications. A company that wanted to spread rumors about its new product then would need an air of secrecy to show that the information was valuable; some true information to ensure that the reporters didn’t get burned by publishing nonsense; and the real information it wanted released surreptitiously.

No Email

So much for the message. The release process is no less tricky. Martellaro has described how he would be approached by a “senior company executive” who would ask him to call a “trusted person” at a major media outlet. During the conversation, he would “idly mention” the information that Apple wanted to put out. Email was forbidden so that there would be no paper trail and both sides could claim that any inaccurate information was the result of a misunderstanding.

Smaller entrepreneurs are unlikely to know trusted people at major media outlets but they might know the main writers in their field, and meet them at conferences and launches. Or they could make contact with them on Twitter. Create an anonymous timeline with a bio describing yourself as an employee, start chatting with someone with the right connections and let slip a little detail that you hope will spread virally. While that would leave something of a paper trail, at least until you deleted the post, it would also be a lot easier than trying to call someone you didn’t know. As long as some of those rumors turn out to be true you’ll build up enough respect and trust for others to pay attention to you.

You could seed the same information more anonymously through posts on industry forums, or even in comments at the bottom of important blog posts. That would allow you to skip past the reporters who act as the media’s gatekeepers, and reach audiences directly. While open places are more likely to be filled with misinformation, predictions that turn out to be true will stand out, and commenters who consistently deliver useful information will be watched for when they post again — even when some of that information turns out to be more useful to the company than to the audience.

For most businesses, it’s hard enough to drum up media interest using traditional press releases. Rumors are even harder to use because they depend on at least some interest in the company already being present. They also deal with an element of untruth, promising reporters and audiences unreliable information in return for being among the first to know about it. Used carefully though, they can have the effect of wrongfooting competitors, preparing the market — and discovering that $1,000 is too much to charge for a tablet computer.

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