Are you attending a conference and don’t want to be lost in the crowd? Do you want to be recognized as a rebel with a cause in your industry? Are you trying to balloon your business? Then organizing a peaceful crowd might be in your cards.
As a fellow Canadian the last thing I want to do is start a protest in the United States. After all, I have nothing to complain about living in such a great, startup-friendly country. That is what I thought until last week when the marketing geniuses at our startup VIRURL decided that a protest was the best way to get attention at ad:tech, the world’s largest advertising technology conference.
It feels good to say that effective guerilla marketing is not dead – in the last week Forbes, Adotas and Businessweek have featured us. We spent just under $2,000 to pull off the stunt and increased our sales by 500% compared to the previous week (mostly due) to the press we got.
Here is how we pulled it off:
The first step of the entire operation was to figure out how we could cleverly re-associate the protest back to our company. Obviously we had to be careful. We wanted it to be a theme that was relevant but not blatant enough to the point where it could instantly be identified as a company’s PR stunt.
First we thought about dressing everyone up as banner ads. Nope – too expensive. Then we thought about having the protesters storm Javit’s center during Mark Cuban’s keynote. Nope –too risky. We finally agreed that having 100 protesters meet outside the Javit’s center and walk down protesting as the keynotes occurred would be the most impactful.
Legal Mumbo Jumbo
We decided to hire 100 actors and actresses to meet outside of Javit’s center where the conference was occurring. All the actors were contractors and had signed releases so we could use their likeness in photos and videos.
We asked all the protesters to wear green. That didn’t really happen (and we were expecting that). Since the protesters were not going to be doing a flash mob dance we decided to build them banners. We took a $60 shopping spree at Staples the night before and bought:
- 30 plain white cardboards ($40)
- 12 permanent wide tip markers ($20)
We then bought a bottle of Macallan Aged 12 years single malt. That was an ‘nice to have during the protest preparations but certainly not a necessity (if you’re over the legal drinking age limit. I definitely recommend it).
We began writing and sketching a bunch of crazy signs. Here is what we came up with:
Finally, we had ordered a battery-powered bullhorn from Amazon. It was powerful enough for a coast guard but a few minutes before the banner protest occurred an officer informed us that battery powered bullhorn use in New York City requires a permit, otherwise you get a fine. Noted and bullhorn discarded.
Time to Protest!
We scheduled the hundred or so actors to meet us at the corner of the convention center. As the actors began congregating on the corner of the street so did the intense gaze from the conference’s security guards. In hindsight, we should have informed the security that VIRURL was A) an exhibitor at ad:tech B) going to be doing a light-hearted stunt peacefully. The looks of the security guards and the ad:tech employees was priceless. There was a general sense of confusion as to why 100 people would be protesting banner ads. It was such a ridiculous and inconceivable theme for protesters to actually get out of bed to complain about.
Dozens of people fist in the air were calling “death to the banner ad!” and cars were slowing down and honking as we filled the air with protest. Things were beginning to escalate – even though they were trained actors you could feel the energy multiply. It was a first hand experience on how the mob mentality can really get out of control. Keep in mind, these were all trained actors and had the explicit instructions to stay peaceful and obey all laws. I would not recommend launching this kind of stunt with untrained random people. Security was beginning to become aggravated and mentioned that they would be calling the police. During the protest, the security guards at Javit’s center removed my co-founder’s exhibitor pass. At this point we swiftly approached them and said “guys, work at startup and are ad:tech exhibitors, no one is going to get hurt and we will be out of here in 10 minutes.” At this point, the tone completely changed. The ad:tech employee started smiling and overall welcoming of the attention grabbing stunt.
The Press Aftermath
The press aftermath is the most valuable part of the entire stunt and the main reason for using such a great guerilla-marketing tactic. Prior to the event we messaged dozens of news outlets and reporters not knowing which one would care. Immediately following the protest, a Forbes writer tweeted out an image which was then retweeted by the official ad:tech conference twitter account – giving us exposure we would have never received otherwise.
Our tiny booth in the startup alley at ad:tech that week was flooded with both press and people asking us why we decided to do the protest. The clear answer was “because VIRURL wants to replace spammy banner ads and we thought a protest was the best way to garner attention”.
Here are some additional links covering the protest:
Here is another great shot of the protesters outside of ad:tech (jk)
Advice for those considering crowd marketing:
- Make sure you are not breaking any federal, local laws
- Get a lawyer to review all the releases and paperwork
- Make sure all your actors are aware that it is to remain peaceful
- Have an internal security guard that knows exactly what is going down
- Have a great photographer on hand to capture the protest
- Don’t forget to send the news to the press
Above all stay peaceful, sincerely,
About Francisco Diaz-Mitoma
Francisco Diaz-Mitoma is the CEO and Co-Founder of VIRURL. VIRURL is a content-only ad network that provides distribution for some of the top brands and bloggers on the internet, including Sports Illustrated, VICE and Funny or Die.