Think you need a marketing team and a big budget to get people to notice your brand? Absolutely not, says Saul Colt. Widely considered one of the best word-of-mouth marketers in North America, Colt creates zany but memorable viral campaigns that get people talking about brands—all for what most marketers would consider pennies.
One of Colt’s past campaigns was distributing “hangover kits” at the party-heavy South by Southwest conference. Another was handing out bananas with a client’s name stickered on them, at a trade show booth made to look like the fruit stand from Arrested Development. His work launched Zipcar into the Canadian marketplace, and he’s been instrumental in growing the online billing software FreshBooks.com. Oh, and he just happens to be the smartest man in the world. (More on that later.)
We sat down with the man behind the magic to learn why word-of-mouth marketing is so important, where he gets inspiration, and how you, too, can create a buzz for your company—without a huge advertising budget.
What is word-of-mouth marketing?
I describe it as doing something so cool and unique that people are forced to talk about it. It’s really getting other people to champion your product and your services—to tell their friends about it. And it’s always tied to an experience.
How did you get started in the field?
A big part of my early career was spent with my own comic book publishing company. I was making superhero comics, and I had to compete for fans with Superman, Spiderman, Batman—the books that had big, big budgets. So I just trained myself to market in the most impactful way possible with no budget. And then later I found out it was called word-of-mouth marketing.
Why is word-of-mouth marketing so important both for small start-ups and for larger companies?
For small companies, it’s a really great for a couple of reasons: If you can actually get away without spending a lot of money on marketing, you’re ahead of the game. If you can do something really impressive that people really respond to, they’ll tell their friends about it. And a referral from someone that you know is going to go a lot further than a full page ad in a newspaper or a TV commercial.
It’s the same with big companies. One of the main factors in purchasing decisions is “know/like/trust”—if someone knows your company, likes your company, and trusts your company. If you’re doing things where you actually engage people on a different level, you break down the barriers to entry of “know/like/trust.” People will like you, they’ll feel like a part of your brand, they’ll want to support you, and they’ll spread your message for you—even if you’re a giant company that can afford any number of marketing practices.
What are some of the coolest campaigns you’ve done lately?
For FreshBooks, one of the biggest initiatives we take on every year is South by Southwest. The conference is getting bigger every year, and it’s hard to actually get a brand message through.
So I gave myself a challenge: How could we be the very first brand impression people got? And I decided that we should do something in the airport, right when people arrived. So we pulled people out of the baggage area and put them on two Greyhound buses that we rented and drove them to the conference.
Every person who drove on the bus saved $40 on a cab, so that made an impression—plus, they had more money in their pocket, which speaks to the brand’s promise. We also had 30 minutes where we could talk to these people. They were appreciative that we were doing something cool for them, so they actually listened to what we had to say. And then they talked about it for the rest of the conference. We managed to really created an impression that launched our presence in the festival for the week.
How do you get inspiration for your ideas?
I get my inspiration everywhere other people aren’t. Most of my inspiration comes from reading, or watching bad movies, or listening to some sort of brilliant podcast. I read three books a month, but I don’t read business books. I read about any oddball thing I can consume. I think that if you’re reading the same things that everyone else is reading, you’re going to have the same ideas as them.
The entire investment for the hangover kits we did was only $1,000—just some aspirin, band-aids, other small items that people need to recover from a night out, and bags to put them in. That’s cheap. For $1,000 you can’t throw a party, you can’t do a lot of the things people normally do.
What advice would you give to people—?
Stay in school and don’t do drugs!
Ha—fair enough. What advice would you give to people who want to create word-of-mouth marketing for their own brands?
Start small. Try little things. See what works and what doesn’t work. One of the best lessons I learned early was—when a word-of-mouth marketing tactic doesn’t work, nobody hears about it, it didn’t spread. So it’s not a failure. You just move on to the next thing, and don’t worry about it. Keep trying things and don’t give up, because you never know what’s going to click.
Also, it’s all about taking calculated risks. It’s all about knowing your consumer and about pushing the envelope as far as you can—but not irresponsibly. You want to do stuff that’s so outlandish and interesting that people have never seen before, because that’s what they’re going to talk about. You should know where the line is so that you know exactly what you can get away with. But you obviously don’t want to offend people or just be sassy for sassy’s sake.
You call yourself the smartest man in the world. Why?
I don’t call myself the smartest man in the world, I like to think I prove it every day of my life. How it was born—I needed a name for my blog, and it seemed fitting. Over the years, it’s sort of taken on a life of its own, and now I don’t have to tell you that I am the smartest man in the world, Google will tell you I’m the smartest man in the world! As of a couple months ago, I show up on the front page of the search results.
And that’s word-of-mouth marketing done well, right there! Any last words of marketing or branding advice?
Word-of-mouth marketing is also about building your own brand and advancing your own career. Everything you do should be memorable, and everything you do should leave an impression on people. That’s sort of how I live my life, both work and personal.