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The Most Powerful Creative Marketing Channels


Image: David Erickson

Marketing a business always comes down to a simple calculation: how much attention and how many sales will your marketing dollars buy? While it’s always easy to toss out cash on search engine optimization, on AdWords campaigns, and even on traditional print, billboard and television advertising, when you’re really strapped for cash, you want creative ideas that can deliver results for minimal costs. You’re prepared to experiment with new strategies in return for the benefits of a low-cost investment. Fortunately, those experiments can now also be low-risk. The rise of smart, fast communication channels – and even smarter marketers — has created all sorts of effective and creative marketing channels for entrepreneurs.

The most obvious of these is viral marketing. When the audience is passing your marketing message to their friends, you’re not paying for advertising space. You’re also getting your name associated with something cool and fun, and you’re winning an implicit recommendation. If someone thinks that the virus you’ve supplied is interesting enough to pass to a friend, they’re telling their friend that you’re worth looking at.

The problem is that viral marketing campaigns can be complex – and they’re not always cheap. Although viral marketing is usually associated with tiny companies, creative marketers and shoestring budgets, the best examples often come from big corporations, the types that can afford to pay top dollar for the biggest advertising talent. When Warner Brothers wanted to create a buzz for The Dark Knight, for example, it created a traditional teaser page containing the Batman logo. Users who clicked the logo were sent to a fake District Attorney election page for one of the movie’s characters. That page led in turn to a defaced version with which users could interact. In return for their email address, users received a code that revealed a few pixels of a hidden image. In order to reveal the entire picture, lots of visitors had to sign up. It didn’t take long for fans to spread the word, telling their friends to visit the site and uncover the picture.

As a way of bringing thousands of people to a website in a very short time – without spending a fortune on marketing – it couldn’t have been more effective.

Tell a Friend, Win a Date

SinglesMonthly, an online relationships magazine, did something similar in the early days of the Internet. While other sites were experimenting with radio button-based quizzes, the site allowed its users to send an email to a friend, invite them to take the quiz and compare the results to test compatibility. The ploy was so successful at encouraging users to bring in more users that it was quickly copied by Women.com.

But viral marketing doesn’t have to be that complex or require such forward thinking. Hotmail’s decision to place its own Web address at the bottom of every email sent was simple, effective, cheap and has been copied by just about every online entrepreneur since.

One of the most effective creative channels is also one of the most derided. Facebook today might feel a bit like someone’s middle-aged cousin in comparison to cool, new Twitter, and if its valuation $15 billion valuation looked optimistic in 2007, it appears positively dreamy now. But advertising on the site works. According to research firm Borrell Associates, Facebook is expected to generate around $310 million from advertising in 2009. A whopping 74 percent of that revenue though is said to come from local firms trolling for local business.

Facebook Has Built-In Viral Marketing

That makes sense. Facebook allows companies to target leads geographically far more effectively and accurately than Google does. The Web might allow companies to reach people around the world but if you don’t deliver further than 50 miles then a service that allows you to focus on specific towns and zip codes – and throw in personal data, such as marital status, age and even alumnus organization – is always going to be valuable.

And Facebook even has its own in-built viral marketing system too. Wedding photographers are using the site to upload images from their shoots. When they tag the photos with the clients’ names, those shots are then pushed to everyone on the client’s contact list, allowing them to spread their images widely for free and with little effort.

Finally, competitions might be old and traditional but they’re still very effective — and online, they can involve mass participation too. Web company MoonFruit might have attracted a lot of attention earlier this year with its Twitter-based giveaway but its creative contests, in which  people got happy with Flickr, YouTube and lots of other places besides, were judged by the company itself. That was a missed opportunity to engage audiences and put the public to work on behalf of the company. When Similac, makers of baby formula, ran a contest earlier this year to find a “Superdaddy”, it allowed anyone to enter and it let contestants encourage friends and family to cast a vote. That might have turned the competition into a popularity contest rather than a test of fathering skills but it also meant that contestants worked their social media networks to bring everyone they knew to the company’s website. Soon Facebook was filled with requests to contacts to head over the site and click a button, generating plenty of extra exposure for the firm. A strategy like this requires a prize big enough to motivate people to enter and cheerlead, but the returns clearly have great potential.

One of the biggest changes to hit marketing in the Internet age is the ability to target your efforts on the demographics most likely to respond. The old lists sold by junk mail marketing companies now look as outdated and useful as the static ads in the Yellow Pages. But social media has also opened a bunch of creative new channels that cost next to nothing to use and which can generate a huge number of leads, conversions and new clients.

And best of all, they also make marketing – even on a tiny budget – fun.

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