Don’t Just Give Them Something Extra . . .

Don't Just Give Them Something ExtraStudents swarmed the Erwin Center, eager for the chance to meet prospective employers. We carried our resumés, wore our business attire, and readied our tongues to ask the questions that would get us a steady income. Company representatives readied themselves and all they had to share with us. Highlighters, pens, keychains, bags, and bottle openers flowed into our hands in trade for our precious information.

It’s not like we didn’t appreciate the handouts. Students can’t get enough when something’s given for free. In fact, I found out about the job fair because of someone talking about the free handouts that I would get. But some of the best technological companies in the world provided me with useless crap that didn’t work. If they thought that their free stuff would make us promote them as worthwhile companies, they failed.

Word of mouth may be the most sought after and least understood method of generating publicity. From supposedly viral internet campaigns to the latest fads in fashion, marketers have sought the buzz that comes with everybody talking about their latest product since the dawn of free market economies. Heck, propaganda ministers have even sought it in totalitarian dictatorships (the Nazis)! If we only knew a surefire way to get that word-of-mouth going . . . .

Let’s first agree what word of mouth is. Wikipedia defines it as, “The passing of information from person to person.” When it comes to marketing, the best definition I’ve seen comes from Roy Williams on page 16 of Secret Formulas of the Wizard of Ads, where he says, “Word of mouth advertising is the result of having impressed someone, anyone, deeply.” Or in other words, make a big enough impact on someone, positive or negative, and they’ll start talking to other people about it.

The engineering companies who came recruiting at the University of Texas decided to make an impact on me by giving me something unexpected for free. My excitement at their free gift soon turned to frustration when I found out that their product either had no use to me or quickly fell apart. W. L. Gore & Associates got me talking about how cool they were—until their plastic bottle opener stopped opening bottles. Air Liquide provided me with a triangular highlighter, which I never used and never talked about. No one provided me with anything I cared about.

Instead of giving us useless little trinkets, they could have made a much bigger impact by giving away gift certificates to a free meal at a local restaurant, or a free music CD of something that was actually popular, or maybe access to a real person that would evaluate me for one of their job openings and give me solid advice on where to go if I didn’t fit what they were looking for.

But you might say, “Peter, those things cost more money than a cheap pen or a crummy highlighter.” You’re right, they cost more. But they MAKE A BIGGER IMPACT! It’s called advertising, and if you thought you could generate word of mouth advertising for free, you’ve been sipping on delusion juice for far too long.

If you’re a writer and think you can get a publisher (book or music) to remember you by sending them some cheap trinket, make sure it works, and they’d appreciate it before you start generating negative word of mouth advertising. Send them a high-quality pen that feels good in their hands. Or do something radical and put together a marketing plan that proves who’s going to buy your book and why. That’s something that very few writers ever do.

If you’re a publisher, and you want to give something away to get people talking about your new book release, make sure it works or is completely unexpected. Shoot, give away a short run of the book—if it’s so good—so that people will want to get their hands on all of it. If only record labels had found a way to embrace Napster and file-sharing sites to distribute music as promotional material for concerts and albums—before communicating to artists and fans alike that in reality they’re stingy, greedy and don’t deserve our hard-earned talent and money.

The only other way I know to generate generosity-based word of mouth advertising without spending any money involves using your time. For instance, Scott Alexander garnered publicity for his self-published book, Rhinoceros Success, by dressing up in jungle clothes and showing up over and over again unannounced at TV stations or bookstores to promote it. Since its release in 1983, that book has sold millions of copies, been translated into several languages, and has spawned a series of follow-up books and a successful speaking career for the author.

In my own career, I’ve found that what fans at my shows have cared about, even more than the free stickers I give away with every purchase, is the time that I spend hanging out with them after the show or on festival grounds. At a recent festival in England, I danced alongside everyone else to other bands, performed extra pieces for people off-stage, and listened to the heartrending stories of people moved by my on-stage words. It resulted in the organizers committing, on-the-spot, to invite me next year and spread the word to other festivals and events about my performing, without me asking.

You can always get people to swarm to an offer of a free giveaway. The difference between them leaving with your praise spilling over their lips or spreading a virus of negativity telling everyone to stay away, lies in the substance of what you provide them.

Don’t just give them something extra. Give them something extra that they care about.

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