Generating Traffic with Zero Marketing Budget

Guest Blogger: Gil Eyal

“Marketing is the price you pay for being unremarkable.” 

Not sure who should get credit for this brilliant quote. After reading all the other excellent answers though, I couldn’t help but feel like you didn’t get what you need from them for two reasons:

(a) You already knew 90% of this stuff–you obviously started a Facebook group, reached out to reporters, employed SEO to the best of your abilities and asked your friends to help promote to their own friends through social channels;

(b) None of that stuff works most of the time. Not because these are not good ideas, but because everyone is jaded. These techniques are performed thousands of times each day and your friends are just sick of posting stuff on their wall because someone asked them to. If you’re in a competitive space, everyone is SEOing and your efforts are often simply cancelled out.

So I felt would be an opportunity to offer a glimpse into what I like to call the “dark side” of online marketing. I wouldn’t call these techniques “black hat” because I never advocate doing anything illegal or that harms someone else along the way. They are however, aggressive and controversial and some of the readers of this answer may get upset after reading because they take advantage of people being gullible. For this reason, and the other one (people who do these things tend to get upset when people share too much about it because you’re “taking food off my plate”,) I’ll only point you in the right direction. From that point you’ll need to be creative and resourceful. None of these methods come easily but if you do them correctly the rewards can be enormous.

Side note: For the sake of this answer I will assume you did the traditional stuff at a reasonable level. This means you have identified your target audience, the channels you can use to reach them and most importantly you’re messaging which clearly identifies your value proposition (what’s the benefit of using your product/problem you’re solving) and differentiation from competitors.

So let’s get right into it. You’re launching a new startup. You spent all your money on development. You now need to launch and you really have no idea where the users are coming from. Let’s start with a simple method which I call the “grenade.”

1. The Grenade

The Grenade (tm, just kidding), identifies a controversial topic that is being heavily debated by your target audience and targets it. For example, let’s say you have a product that targets housewives. And let’s say its early 2011 and rumors are spreading around Oprah leaving her show. This is inspiring heavy debate between haters and fans. This is your opportunity! Many of those Oprah fans are housewives!

So now you go on to all those discussion forums, Twitter hashtags and blog articles and start posting comments that are contrary to the popular opinion. For this to work, your “opinions” need to be controversial enough to spark interest and discussion, but not so controversial that people will dismiss you as a troll.

You should have a blog post set up with an article providing support and credibility to your argument … and also packed with ads for your company’s product. It goes without saying that the blog should not be on your domain or under your name. For example, here you would buy the domain “Oprahshouldhavequityearsago dot something” or something along those lines, create a blog post, and generate 20-30 comments/discussions to make it appear very active and have people feel like they need to join in on the argument.

Now all you need to do every time you engage in a debate on a third party site, is forward people to the relevant blog where they can see “evidence.”

Did I mention that the blog should be plastered with ads for your product? (Ideally, make it look like they just happen to be ads served by an ad network.)grenade

Why is this called the grenade? Because you pop into a battle zone, throw a grenade in, and watch everyone evacuate (hopefully to your new blog.)

Obviously the stronger people feel about the topic, the better. Imagine how well this could work in elections, sports, reality TV and other context.

Here’s a great example of a grenade where the scheming mind behind it was so smart they actually got the gullible reporter to write a piece about the awful epidemic of college students paying tuition by working as strippers, and endorse that particular person’s strip club in the article. Amazing.

The article ends with: “In fact, hundreds of girls apply to be strippers at Saint Venus every day via Craigslist, according to Lisa. The real-girl appeal—the dancers have occasionally been paid by customers to merely converse—sets Saint Venus apart from its seedy counterparts. They’re also getting a more tactile experience when it comes to the lap dances. While it’s forbidden for customers to publicly touch a stripper at a professional club, here clients can fondle or kiss a woman on her mouth, face, even her breasts in full view of other patrons.

So if you’re a concerned feminist you’re disgusted. If you’re a potential customer, you can’t wait to try it out.

2. Be the Platform

Stop thinking about your product or platform as the story. We’ll start this one with an example. TheChive (disclosure, friends with some of these guys,) is an internet sensation and a great site for “guy stuff.” This is of course a very crowded space, and fighting for traffic is extremely difficult. They can do all the PR they want, but no one is writing an article on mainstream media about how TheChive is the best site for guy stuff just because they were pitched a PR story about it.

But what if something extremely interesting happened on theChive?

October 2010, the brilliant guys at theChive post a story that had all the characteristics of an internet sensation. Some person sent them some pictures of a girl named “Jenny” who had grown tired of her boss’ harassment and decided to quit her job in a unique and entertaining way.

The story had all the components needed to go viral.

  1. Jenny has a vulnerable girl next door look and she was victimized by an asshole male. Win with both guys who fantasize about being a savior and women who hate womanizing men.
  2. Jenny is quitting her job in a grand way. A way many of use can only dream of having the courage to do. She’s now a hero. Gotta tell the people who work with me when the boss isn’t listening!
  3. Start a discussion. HOPA? What the hell is that? I’ve never heard the term but it sounds like everyone knows what it is. How can I not know what HOPA is? Better look it up and start using the term all the time so people know I’m meme savvy! Hot Piece of Ass? But isn’t that HPOA? Better go argue with people about it.
  4. Mystery. Who is she? We know so much about her, someone must know who she really is? Let me Google/Bing it!
  5. Ego. Hey Techcrunch–check out this story. This guy’s system backfired on him and it turns out he spends more time reading Techcrunch than actually doing his job! How flattering! (This was an intentional part of the ploy–they referenced Techcrunch specifically.)

The whole store was a clever hoax created by theChive.

The post on theChive immediately prompted John Biggs to post an article titled “It’s official: the best bosses read Techcrunch”, and who can blame him? I would do the exact same thing if I were in his position.

Notice he posted a story about the girl, not about theChive! Nevertheless, theChive is of course linked to in the articles and in the discussion of HPOA/HOPA.

Mainstream media were soon to follow.

Reports say theChive saw traffic jump dramatically as a result of the story, from 15,000 unique views an hour to 440,000 the next. Overall, it’s estimated that millions of unique visitors were exposed to theChive as a result of the story. theChive has since grown to be one of the biggest blogs in the space, if not the biggest.

Notice one key aspect. theChive was never the story. At least not during the actual hoax. It just happened to be the platform on which the story took place. However, once the hoax was revealed, the creation of the hoax became the story and theChive got plenty of additional press and credibility.

3. Be a David Fighting a Goliath Or a Victim

It’s not that you don’t have a marketing budget. It’s just that people keep doing everything to stop you. You have such a wonderful product, but people can’t hear about you. A few elections back in Israel, Eran Arden (disclosure, friend of mine as well) was running the campaign for the Kadima party that was one of the main parties in the Israel election. At the time, Kadima was a very big party that has since fallen out of favor.

It is very hard to get media attention before the elections. So here’s what Kadima did. I’ll translate from Eran Arden’s book.

david-goliath-3295756In a situation where you have limited budget and manpower, one of the best tools to create activity on your site is to create an anonymous media “spin”… in one case for example, we posted information about our website being attacked by Irani hackers. Concurrently, we planted hostile files on the site to complete the picture. 

Next an item was distributed about our database being hacked into. Public complaints were filed. The appearance of vibrant activity under the surface was created. A commotion of plotting. Having an image of a martyr can never hurt.

Yes, this sounds childish and provocative but it’s important to understand that every spin of this type increases traffic but hundreds of percentages. Hundreds of percentages as zero cost and almost no logistical effort. These are the rules of the game, whether we like them or not.

The story granted Kadima major media attention and It’s easy to see why. Even though their politicians weren’t the story, being a victim improved their image. After all, if Irani hackers chose Kadima as the party they want to battle with, they must think they are the worst Israeli party from and Iranian perspective. And since the target audience is Israel, they are likely to vote for the party Iran fears the most.

How does this translate to your startup? Again, if you pitch a reporter a story about your new startup and what it does, you have a limited chance of getting attention. If you’re the victim of some big unknown evil, or even better, a David fighting a Goliath, the media will love your story.

For more on this check out the: What’s the Pillsbury Doughboy Afraid of Campaign.

The key lessons from there are that (a) if you’re competing against Yammer you should be fighting Microsoft (for the purpose of the story); and (b) if someone is trying so hard to stop you, than it goes without saying that your product is so good and superior that it deserves attention.


Traditional low budget marketing methods have a very limited success rate because your message usually gets drowned out in a sea of other messages and highly funded campaigns that as a result get much more attention.

None of the examples I shared tell you exactly what to do with your particular startup, because to really be successful you need to customize these concepts so they apply perfectly for what you are offering. I do hope that at the very least I gave you some food for thought and some leads you can follow in designing a low cost marketing solution for your launch.

Gil Eyal

Read Gil Eyal’s answer to, “Generating Traffic with Zero Marketing Budget” on Quora.

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