It was Monday morning, and I was running late. Of course, the highway was packed.
I made my way through traffic, trying to focus as I aggressively changed lanes (I’m a terrible driver), but something distracted me. Something caught my eye. A small, white banner hanging from the overpass.
Printed on the banner were four, large letters — the name of some new app, as indicated by the iTunes Store logo. I’d tell you the name of the app if I remembered it. But I don’t. The whole affair lasted no more than three seconds, and then it was back to weaving and bobbing.
The app’s creators, I imagine, felt pretty clever. They’d found a way to get massive rush hour exposure and flee the scene before their sign was taken down or they were fined — it’s illegal to hang banners from the overpass.
But the real question is, with all the expense and effort they went through to produce and hang the sign, did they get a single person to take action?
Did anyone driving down the freeway actually download the app, or even remember its name?
You Are Not McDonald’s
While I don’t agree with spending time or money on the banner, I understand where these guys were coming from:
They worked hard on their app. They think it will bring value to a lot of people. They want everyone to give it a try. So they set out to beat the system by erecting a much cheaper, much shorter-lived billboard.
After all, it’s what big brands like McDonald’s and Budweiser do. They advertise on billboards. And it seems to work. So wouldn’t we want to base our strategy off theirs? Wouldn’t a billboard be the best way to promote our creative project and get people to take action (assuming we could afford it)?
Billboards Don’t Sell Hamburgers
Advertising, successful advertising at least, works in one of two ways.
You can buy attention or you can earn it.
If you’re a major brand with lots of money, you can afford to buy attention by plastering your name everywhere — billboards, buses, TV, digital banner ads. You spend millions to get your name in front of people — anyone who might look or listen.
But it’s not any one billboard or ad that’s responsible for selling the product. Major brands succeed with these tactics because they oversaturate the market with their name.
If you’ve listened to more than two podcasts, you’re already familiar with the concept. Who sells online mattresses? Casper. Where can you build a website without any coding knowledge? Squarespace. These brands have bought colossal number of podcast sponsorships and it’s clearly paid off. Even if you’re not paying attention, you know these names, you know what they stand for, and most importantly, you know what they sell.
And if you can’t afford to buy enough airtime or enough billboards or enough 30 second TV spots? Then the strategy fails. It’s why this banner I’ve spent 500 words railing against fails.
No single banner sells an app (or anything else for that matter). Constant repetition does.
There is, however, the other strategy I alluded to, the one that involves earning attention rather than buying it. It’s nothing new, it’s just much harder to execute.
It’s easy to spend money on a banner, hang it up, steal any attention you can, and wipe your hands of marketing. It’s a much more difficult task to actually earn someone’s trust and attention.
Rather than spending money (which they probably don’t have) to interrupt people, the team behind this app should have spent time (which they have plenty of) to earn people’s attention and build a dedicated audience (this also know as inbound marketing). It’s why bloggers, for example, post dozens of blog articles before asking fans to buy their book. It’s how to get noticed when you don’t have a huge budget.
It takes a lot more effort to do well, but it also costs far less and has a higher success rate than paying for a single billboard or commercial.
I’ve seen the difference in tactics in my own marketing efforts. When I’ve written for major online publications or advertised my book on a targeted podcast, I didn’t get much in the way of traffic. Meanwhile, a popular post on Medium will often send a few dozen new fans towards my mailing list, the Monday Memo.
Small is Big – How To Get Noticed
Acting like a big brand does little for my small brand.
But taking advantage of the fact that I’m small often results in big wins. So rather than going for the flashy tactics like billboards and TV commercials, here are a few small things you can try out to earn fans and a build and audience for your creative project.
- Share your passion. Big brands pay 25-year-olds to run their social media accounts. But to them, the Facebook post or blog article is just part of their job. They don’t share the same passion about the brand as you do about your creative project. And it shows. Passion is contagious, and when you share your passions with others, they can’t help but get excited too.
- Forge real relationships. Budweiser can’t personally talk to every domestic beer drinker. They rely on expensive reports to learn about their consumers. You, on the other hand, have a much smaller audience, which means you can get to know your fans in person or over the Internet. You can learn about their fears and dreams. You can work with them directly to solve their problems. You can respond to every Tweet or comment. People are surprised when brands reach out to them directly, and in return for personal attention, they’ll become fans for life.
- Be a human being. Major corporations have huge law departments and thick binders filled with brand guidelines and rules about what you can and can’t say. It’s why their online content ends up being so…blah. But you don’t have those constraints. Your small brand has the power to talk to other people like a human would. You can show off your unique sense of humor. You can share your personal point of view. You can tell your story. You can talk about what you love. You can put your personality into everything you do. People hate talking to companies, but they love talking to other interesting people.
There are only two ways to share your work with the world and get other people to pay attention — by going big or going small. And unless you have Scrooge McDuck sized pockets, going big, while it may seem cool and flashy, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Be proud of who you are and what you stand for. Be proud of your size. You have an advantage the big brands don’t — you’re a human being, not a banner. You have interests, and passions, and a point of view. And when you share those things with the world, the world can’t help but care about your work as much as you do.