August Turak

Author Consultant Speaker

War Story 2: Scavenger Hunts, Scamps, and Guerrilla Marketing

I made my bones in guerrilla marketing when I was just 11. I was at summer camp when the powers that be announced a scavenger hunt. There were 100 items on the list from bottle caps to paper clips, and the first camper to deliver them all was slated for a couple dozen candy bars. However, when the list was handed out, I didn’t join the mad rush for the door that immediately ensued. Instead, I gathered the other boys who shared my cabin and suggested we divide the list, win the contest, and split the candy bars. In no time flat I presented all 100 items to a group of stunned and unsuspecting camp administrators. And a few minutes later I was passing out candy bars to a group of ecstatic boys who wouldn’t have traded that shell shocked look on those camp counselors’ faces for all the candy bars in the world.

Several years ago I related this story to a group of friends in Israel. I then asked if they thought what I did was fair. “It wasn’t fair,” a lawyer replied, “but I’m so glad you did it.” I didn’t ask for elaboration, but I think that despite her legal training she thought our creative spirit more than compensated for our close reading of the rules.

I read somewhere that creativity came into the world through a lie. According to this writer, the first creative act was some cave man imagining an imaginary water hole and sending a rival clan off in the wrong direction. All creativity imagines an alternative universe. A universe that does not yet exist, and in this sense every creative act is “untruthful.”

Great guerrilla marketing means developing a sixth sense for knowing when and how to creatively cut corners. It requires a sort of impish instinct for breaking rules. But it also means successfully walking that invisible line between creativity and unethical chicanery. If I’d kept all the candy bars for myself, what I trust is a tale about youthful creativity would be a story about an unethical violation of trust instead.

As I said in a prior post, we started our own company on lots of moxie and very little cash. Needing revenue fast, we started reselling shrink-wrap software with price tags ranging from $500 - $1000 a user. At the time everyone was selling software by first sending demos. The assumption was that no one would fork over up to a $1000 without test driving the product first. But calling prospects, sending demos, and following up was not just expensive; it also meant stretching out the sales cycle to such an extent that we’d either have to inject cash into the business or go bankrupt.

Instead, we just eliminated demos all together. Rather than mail truckloads of demos we simply asked for a credit card and backed it up with a 30 day money back guarantee. The strategy worked, we got cash flow immediately, and before long we won an award as one of the fastest growing companies in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.

Every school has its good kids and bad kids. But every school also has its scamps; the kids who are both perennially in the principal’s office and hugely popular with their teachers as well. The universal draw of the scamp is the driving force behind many films, and I recommend Ferris Buehler’s Day Off as a great primer on guerrilla marketing.

Every great guerrilla marketer is a bit of a scamp; a person who is constantly evaluating the rules that make up conventional thinking looking for the ones just screaming to be broken. If the bowling ball is the implacable enemy of the egg, guerrilla marketing is the implacable enemy of all the assumptions that pass for business as usual.

In this case, by questioning assumptions, we discovered that computer programmers were perfectly willing to impulsively buy at prices generally considered prohibitive. The fact that we had no prior experience with either shrink wrap software or computer programmers allowed us to look at the prevailing business model with unbiased eyes as well. It is no accident that most creative insights whether in art, science, or business come from the kind of outside the box thinking that usually comes from outsiders.

An old adage says that most of our problems arise from what we assume to be true. Unfounded assumptions are the single biggest obstacle to great guerrilla marketing. Set aside a little time each day to question all the assumptions both explicit and, more importantly, implicit that underlie your business model. Host brainstorming sessions that question business as usual. People your company with scamps, and go easy on the managerial Ritalin whenever they show up looking for forgiveness rather than permission as they inevitably will. Cultivate colleagues and board members from outside your industry for fresh untainted advice. Most of all, nurture that inner scamp by taking a few risks yourself. I’m sure you’ll be amazed at the results. So sure in fact, this offer comes with a money back guarantee.