An Idea So Crazy It’s Brilliant

Interactive marketing is the kind of place where small ideas can go big and every idea seems to have a chance of actually being made. I think that is one of the reasons that so many of us are attracted to this little corner of the marketing world: we can experiment and innovate and act on an impulse and an idea that might never get made through other means. And sometimes, those ideas wind up catching more than just our imagination, they also ignite the community of consumers and fans.

This is just what happened last month for Chrome, a manufacturer and marketer of backpacks and apparel inspired by (and designed for) urban cyclists. Fairly recently, it began making shoes. Really, its brand is strongly associated with messenger bags, and it realized it needed to do something to get people to start thinking of Chrome for shoes. Chrome mostly advertises in magazines that specialize in the urban cycling or culture scene, but it does have a good size following on Facebook, so it decided it would try something there. The idea, sprung from the brain of someone on the marketing team, was simple: let’s give away a bunch of shoes.

Turds for Gold

On March 17 , at 9:06 a.m., Chrome posted the following status update on its wall:

Hey Everyone! We’re doing a “Turds For Gold” Shoe Exchange and, starting RIGHT NOW, we’re sending a FREE PAIR OF CHROME SHOES to anyone that sends us a crappy, worn-out pair of kicks. The exchange is two days ONLY and packages MUST be postmarked by 3/18 to qualify. In your shipment, please include a return shipping address and shoe size info.

Matt Sharkey, the head of marketing, told me that, when he first heard the idea, he grabbed a slip of paper and did some math. By his estimation, he figured they would probably give out 500 or so shoes. Quick multiplication told him that the cost wouldn’t be too bad and they should go ahead and do it. The post went up on a Wednesday. Chrome also allowed people to bring their old shoes by its San Francisco store:

For in-store drop offs, you have to bring us your favorite six pack of beer along with the shoes to get the free pair 😉

By end of the day Wednesday, Chrome began to get a sense that this promotion might be a bit bigger than it thought.

“Matt, Get in Here”

Two days later (on Friday), 12 rolling bins of shoes appeared at the Chrome store, containing 400 pairs. Add that to the 50 pairs Chrome gave away in-store, and suddenly, the 500 pair target is starting to look a bit worrisome.

The next day, Matt was hanging out at home with his kids when his phone rang. It was the president of Chrome and he said “Get your ass down here.” Matt asked “What’s up?”

Nine semi trucks were lined up in front of the store, loaded with shoes.

What happened next was truly amazing. Pretty much everybody who worked at Chrome got pulled into the massive effort of dealing with shoes. When Chrome stretched its staff as far as it could go, it brought in friends and family. It then called in some temps. Finally, Chrome went back to Facebook and asked for volunteers. A bunch of people showed up. Eventually, the company managed to give out over 5,000 shoes. A rough estimation is that the program cost (in terms of goods and work) about as much as running two-page ads in its top five magazines for the entire year.

Lessons Learned

There’s a lot more to the Chrome story than can be told here. If you would like to hear the whole thing, you can download a recording of my interview with Matt here. But, for all of us who look to these amazing examples of grassroots marketing, there are a few lessons to be learned from this experience:

  • Estimate, even if it ends up being wrong: Matt did an estimate of how many shoes he would end up giving away, based on how many fans Chrome had and how many might see the promo. Even though that estimate proved to be way too low, it gave him a sense of what might come.
  • Make it all trackable: Because of the offline nature of the campaign, it is very difficult for Chrome to track the people who got free shoes. If the company was to do it over again, it would include a step where consumers would have to go online and register in some way. This might be a challenging step to spec out, but it would then allow Chrome to have a rock solid sense of the long-term or lifetime value it is generating through this program.
  • Engage at every step: This has to be the best part of this promotion. Consumers are used to dealing with promotions as outsiders. You do your thing, you get your coupon, and you’re all done. This was different. Chrome had a conversation all the way through the promotion, and the fact that people were willing to volunteer for the company is remarkable. That is the most pure expression of fandom I have ever heard.
Lastly, the thing to take away from the Chrome promotion was that the Web and interactive marketing is a great place to just play. Play with ideas, play with communications, and play with your customers. Yes, they could have bought a lot of print ads with the money spent on this promotion, but I would venture that those ads would never be talked about after they were done. As someone who actually got his shoes by bringing an old pair of sneakers (and a six pack of Liberty Ale) into the store, I can promise I will tell this story for a long time.

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