Pssst… Let Me Tell You a Secret

I was recently talking to a candy company (which, unfortunately, will have to remain nameless as it hopefully will soon become a client) with a brilliantly simple marketing strategy. Though this company sells through traditional retail channels, it also sells directly via the Web. As a relatively small company, it doesn’t have the millions necessary to advertise across the Web to drive customers to its site. So what did the marketing execs do? They got sneaky.

Stealthily planning “leaked” promotional codes on sites such as Hot Deals Web and BargainDog, this company was able to grab customers who thought they were privy to secret deals available to a select few. Of course, these promotional codes were also clearly available in other, more obvious places, but every time the company “leaked” a code to a bargain-watcher site, sales skyrocketed.

Think this is a guerilla tactic only applicable to small companies? Think again: Big media companies have used the same tactic very effectively (though not via the bargain route). When promoting its film “Swordfish,” Warner Brothers created a site that challenged visitors to break into it through secret codes hidden in movie promotional materials. When pushing “AI: Artificial Intelligence,” the brains at the WB actually coaxed the actors into letting secret codes slip when giving interviews and included clues in trailers.

Customers lapped it up. Thinking they had stumbled on to something secret, fans passed along the codes in message forums and IMed each other with their latest findings. The result? Lots of traffic to the promotional sites and higher visibility for the flicks.

Why do tactics like this work? It’s because they take advantage of one of the Net’s unique features — its ability to connect people in an instant — and combine it with our natural affinity for something that’s so lacking on much of the Web today: delight.

These sneaky tactics leverage delight as a business strategy. People love to discover new things, love to think they’re getting away with something, love to have that “ah ha!” experience of becoming an insider — even when being an insider is exactly what the marketer wants them to do.

Today, the Web is increasingly dominated by template-driven, content-managed Web sites that begin to look the same after a while. Differentiation is key. But differentiation doesn’t mean being different just for its own sake. No, on the Web, effective differentiation comes from innovation driven by an intimate knowledge of the customer.

For films, games, and other entertainment media, fans have always been a part of the picture. Motivated fans are true fanatics, often spending countless hours researching the minutiae of the objects of their adoration. They’re also fairly cliquish, reveling in the sense that they know something somebody else doesn’t. These industries, being glamour professions, are inherently exclusionary. Anything that lets a fan break into the “inner circle” is irresistibly attractive.

Of course, strategic leaks have long been used by these industries (and any other industry with intensely loyal fans) for years. Game companies have used stealthily released screen captures to generate excitement long before the game is even completed. Film companies have used sneak previews. Computer companies (especially Microsoft) have used the tactic of “leaking” news of groundbreaking technologies in an effort to do everything from whipping their consumers into a frenzy to stifling competition (or so I’ve heard).

But that’s why the candy company I spoke about at the beginning is so interesting. Knowing its customers, it was able to bypass commoditization by tapping into a base of customers for which price was a major issue. Not that the company sold a substandard product, far from it. Its product is high-end and handmade. But knowing that it didn’t have the brand recognition to compete against household names such as Russell Stover, Whitman’s, and Godiva, the company’s marketing execs took a stealthier route to generate interest. And it worked.

When crafting your next marketing campaign, look for these opportunities to surprise and delight your target audiences. Though they may be accustomed to ignoring the same old ads, they may respond to a tactic that comes to them from unexpected places.

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