We live for surprises. We don’t even care if they’re contrived – as long as we can make believe they’re spontaneous.
It’s as true in business as it is in life: the most brilliant strategies are the ones that come across as natural events. That’s what gives the unexpected so much power. When cool new things just seem to appear out of the blue, just like that, it captivates people. And that means business.
When Beyoncé released her latest album last week, there was no PR campaign, no TV appearances, and no retail promotions. Instead, fans were surprised by, well, the single word “Surprise!” posted on Instagram and the sudden appearance of the entire album on iTunes.
The stealth launch didn’t just fly in the face of conventional marketing wisdom. It created a huge buzz. It broke iTunes records. It worked, big-time.
Sadly, most people will see this brilliant marketing strategy as proving the “value of no marketing,” as a New York Times reporter did. Even those who recognize the strategy behind the covert rollout are likely to think that only big brands can pull it off.
Apple, for example, eschews the usual traditional media channels in favor of secrecy and single launch events where their executives can meticulously control the messaging and the demos. But you don’t have to be Apple or Beyoncé to do what they do.
It’s an old strategy that employs a combination of three factors: A grassroots connection with customers, a vacuum of information, and lastly, of course, delivering the goods with an element of surprise. If you can put those three things together, you might be able to create a huge buzz and generate a lot of business.
Notice I said: “might.” Of course, there’s more to it than that. If you’re not the one in charge – lets face it, how many of us are? – you’re going to need the guts to stick your neck out and fight the status quo, the powers that be, and pretty much everything and everyone else.
There’s an old IT adage that nobody ever got fired for using IBM. It’s the same thing with marketing. If you’re going to break the rules and cut your PR agency and everyone else in marketing out of the loop, you’re not only in for the fight of your life, but considerable downside risk. If your plan fails, at the very least, your credibility is shot.
It also helps if you’ve got a good marketing head on your shoulders. What does that mean, exactly? For the most part, it means having a deep, visceral feel for your product, your customers, and human nature. In the context of the three key ingredients necessary for a wildly successful grassroots launch, this is what it means:
Having a grassroots connection with your customers. The social media world has made that both easier and harder at the same time. On the one hand, it’s never been easier to connect directly with hordes of followers or potential customers. On the other hand, everyone’s doing the same thing, so it’s harder than ever to get above the noise.
That’s exactly why you need the second ingredient.
Creating a vacuum of information. First, you’ll have to create a buzz with some artfully placed hints and maybe a few leaks. Then you go completely silent. If you do it right, that has the effect of creating a void, an enormous question mark, where people are holding their collective breath just waiting for something to happen.
If it’s working, folks should start buzzing about it. That’s why they call it a buzz.
Delivering the goods. This is the toughest part and there’s no way to know if it’ll be effective or not. You can do it on a shoestring, as Beyoncé did, schedule an event, as Apple does, or go big at an industry trade show, as I’ve done successfully in the past.
If the news or product is a real shocker, you can just put out a press release and start calling the most influential media, pundits and bloggers and go from there.
Just make sure you actually deliver the goods. In other words, whatever you’re selling has to be widely available and it’s got to be big enough and good enough to warrant all the excitement. If not, it’ll backfire.
After all that, is it worth it? Absolutely. I’ve outmarketed far bigger competitors countless times using this method, and usually on a shoestring budget.
A word of caution, though: be genuine with your customers. Don’t BS or talk down to them. In a news release, Beyoncé gave all sorts of reasons why she launched her album this way, including, “I didn’t want to release my music the way I’ve done it. I am bored with that.”
It didn’t ring true to me. Beyoncé might be big and talented enough to get away with that. As for you and me, probably not. If you want to have a successful grassroots launch, don’t blow smoke up your customer’s you-know-whats. Keep it real.
Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.