Guerilla marketing: Promotional ideas that are too crazy to work but do

Surprise your customers

The word “crazy” isn’t usually a good thing. But when it comes to marketing, sometimes crazy is exactly what you need. Increasingly, guerilla marketing is gaining traction as a way to promote products and services in nontraditional, even outrageous, ways.

For instance, a few years ago, one of my clients had a problem. The company offered several highly-rated resource materials for physicians, but they just weren’t selling. It occurred to me that the problem was that they were telling people why they should buy these resources and not showing them how they could use them to overcome challenges and achieve their goals. So I suggested calling in my imaginary friend, Dr. Best.

Best of the best

Dr. Best was a marketing image I created to solve my client’s problem. He would be a colleague to the customers we were trying to reach. A series of ads in targeted publications would feature Dr. Best talking about how he used these resources — clinical practice guidelines and clinical toolkits — to solve problems, improve patient care, maximize quality, increase staff efficiency and satisfaction, and more.

These ads, hopefully, would help customers see that they could have similar results if they bought and used these tools.

Sounds great, right? The challenge was that we barely had a budget for the ad campaign. We couldn’t afford to hire an actor and expensive photographer. We asked around the office, and one woman had a brother-in-law who fit the part. He agreed to do the photo shoot in return for — this is true — some chocolate and a sexy photo of Bea Arthur. He was kidding, but I managed to deliver both.

Related: How to work with brand influencers when you don’t have a budget

 Guerilla Marketing Photographer

As for the photographer, I approached a friend of a friend (personal contacts can help) and offered to write a marketing brochure in exchange for one day of his time. Then we arranged the photo shoot in a local nursing home, where staff would appear in the pictures as needed. We got Dr. Best a lab coat with his name on it, and we were off.

The campaign was a hit.

 

Within a few months, sales were up nearly 200 percent. And Dr. Best became a celebrity. We had a cardboard cut-out of him made, and customers would take pictures with him at conventions. The following year we took the campaign up a notch by adding real practitioners, who shared their stories with Dr. Best.

Guerilla marketing can help you get a lot for a little

As this story shows, a great marketing idea doesn’t have to come with a million-dollar budget. A YouTube video you make with the camera on your phone can do the job just as effectively as a professionally produced commercial.

The key is pairing the right idea with the right execution to encourage your customers to take the desired action.

Related: How to use YouTube for successful digital marketing

While there is no exact formula for finding a guerilla marketing idea that works, these ideas can help you start thinking about what might make sense for your company.

Don’t be afraid to ‘borrow’ a good idea

The movie “Night at the Museum,” where exhibits come to life after midnight, inspired a Chicago museum to run an essay contest with the winner getting to live at the museum for a month. The museum received entries from all over the world.

Dance your way to marketing success

The element of surprise can be a highly effective marketing tool. Many have accomplished this with flash mobs, where a group of people seem to appear out of nowhere and perform in perfect (or imperfect) synchronicity.

You don’t need 100 people to pull this off. Say, for example, you want to promote a fundraising event that has a Mardi Gras theme. You could get 10 to 15 people to do an impromptu jazz funeral. For maximum success, theme your flash mob so that it has a clear connection with what you’re selling. And film the event, making sure to capture bystanders’ reactions as well as the performance.

Guerilla Marketing Breakdance

Do the unexpected

Years ago, I had to find a way to attract a professional audience to a fairly dry presentation about medication safety. As invitations, I sent out blister packs full of chocolate candies instead of pills. People loved it because they weren’t expecting something fun — and edible — to bring attention to a serious topic.

Learn from successful social media campaigns

Few fundraising efforts in history have been as successful as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which ultimately raised over $200 million for ALS research. Business leaders, celebrities, politicians and others posted videos of themselves being doused with ice water, and the campaign went viral. It was a hit because it was different, it involved recognizable figures doing something outrageous and unexpected, and anyone could do it.

Related: A beginner’s guide to social media for small business 

Hold a contest

Build a contest around a cultural touchpoint that connects to your company in some way. For example, a babysitting company could ask followers to post videos of themselves reenacting a scene from “Home Alone” to win a free week of services. Or a video production company could ask people to write a one-scene script, with the winning submission being produced and shown on a local TV station.

Invent a crazy holiday

Make up something funny, attention-grabbing and memorable — and be sure to tie it to your business. For instance, a bedding company could create March Mattress, a spoof on March Madness, and offer discounts to customers who wear team shirts into the store. Or a cleaning service could celebrate Dust-Free December, offering various discounts throughout the month.

It’s all about balance

Of course, not all of your marketing ideas should be guerilla tactics. It’s best to take a balanced approach that includes proven marketing techniques mixed with an occasional guerilla marketing effort. And make sure every part of your marketing plan — even the crazy parts — are designed to appeal to your target audiences. You don’t want to turn off your customer base with a wild idea just to get attention. Stay true to who you are, but don’t be afraid to show your audience something a little crazy every now and then.

Joanne Kaldy
Joanne Kaldy started writing when she was 16 and got a job at her hometown newspaper covering high school sports. She hasn't stopped since then. After several years in association management and a year-long stint as an aerobics instructor and personal trainer, she started Cooper Communications in 1992 and took on a variety of clients, mostly in the healthcare/medical field. She spends her days creating and producing everything from articles, videos, speeches and website content to annual reports, marketing materials, educational programming, fundraising initiatives, and special events. Most recently, she has been sharing her passion for animal-assisted therapy through articles, speaking engagements, TV appearances and blog posts. Connect with her on Twitter.