This chapter is a free excerpt from Make Something People Love: Lessons From a Startup Guy.

Good news: there are lots of publishers who are hungry for good content to syndicate. You have an opportunity to create good content that positions you and your brand as something that is generally useful. We’ve used this line of thinking time and time again at hipmunk, starting with infographics, whichif you’ve been using the internet in the last few yearshave kind of become the thing. As we kept working, we stumbled on a couple really interesting trends. For one, we saw that the most popular infographics were the ones that were just slightly contentious, like the one below, which shows that on January 15th, 2010 the IRS declared that baggage fee revenue was tax free.

Whoa. Infographic by Shaun Sanders

After hearing that, all those baggage fee increases started to make a lot more sense. Now, what does this have to do with finding agony-free airfares? Nothing directly. But what it does show is that we care, we notice things, and we want our users to be informed of what’s going on in our industry.

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Good news: there are lots of publishers who are hungry for good content to syndicate. You have an opportunity to create good content that positions you and your brand as something that is generally useful. We’ve used this line of thinking time and time again at hipmunk, starting with infographics, whichif you’ve been using the internet in the last few yearshave kind of become the thing. As we kept working, we stumbled on a couple really interesting trends. For one, we saw that the most popular infographics were the ones that were just slightly contentious, like the one below, which shows that on January 15th, 2010 the IRS declared that baggage fee revenue was tax free.

Whoa. Infographic by Shaun Sanders

After hearing that, all those baggage fee increases started to make a lot more sense. Now, what does this have to do with finding agony-free airfares? Nothing directly. But what it does show is that we care, we notice things, and we want our users to be informed of what’s going on in our industry.

And when we couldn’t be a little contentious, we thought, let’s just be really helpful and surprise people by showing them that there actually is an equation for how to choose the right sized airline kennel.

 
 

Other times, we simply wanted to give people something to laugh at. So we created a series of pedestrian guides to crossing the street in various American cities. Again, we didn’t have to do this, but we thought it would be kind of funny and we were delighted to discover that people responded very strongly to what’s basically just us poking fun at walking around in these different cities. These guides generated a ton of attention, both in the cities themselves, as well as on the internet more broadly as people discussed whether walking around Boston really was like a cruel, icy game of Pac-Man. (Steve and I launched reddit from Medford, MA and lived/worked in Somerville, MA when we were acquired. I’ll never forget that winter. I’m clearly still not over it.)

 

 

A word on budgets: as the old saying goes, it’s not how big it is, it’s how you use it. This applies as much to startup marketing budgets as it does to anything else you and your partner are trying to start up. Even though I’ve come a long way since the days of stickering on the subway, I’ve never really left the mentality of doing things on a small startup budget, no matter how much funding we’ve raised. Although we’ve had opportunities to do much bigger things because of funding, the marketing projects that really excite me are the ones that usually cost less than $500. And the way we approach them is the way we approach everything we do: like decent human beings.

One of our first and most successful promotions at hipmunk was a Mother’s Day giveaway with a slight twist. We wanted to help our fans do something special for Mother’s Day, so we asked them to write in and tell us why, despite their love for hipmunk, they still loved their moms more. In return, we promised to send a hundred dollars’ worth of Mother’s Day gifts to the lucky mothers of our three favorite responders. And with this $300 investment, we got a bunch of wonderful responses from people sharing lovely stories about their moms.

And because we’re nice guys, we figured we’d take care of everything—the flowers, the chocolate, whatever their moms wanted, and we would send it on their behalf. Now, here’s the other important part: When it came to the gifts, we didn’t tie ourselves in whatsoever. When those lucky moms received their bouquet and chocolates, they just knew it was from their awesome son or daughter. There was no “These flowers brought to you by your son/daughter and hipmunk” or nonsense like that. That’s exactly what a normal company would do, but we knew we already had a fan in the person who was looking to win the contest; we just wanted to make sure that he or she really, really loved hipmunk and what we stood for. And so you can bet we used the same model time and again with different promotions. We ran a similar contest on Father’s Day, and we recently sent people home for Thanksgiving.

The point is this: we’re always looking for opportunities to show people that we are actually genuinely interested in making them happy. And it only takes a few hundred dollars to surprise and delight someone and also get a ton of positive marketing buzz. Just look at the numbers: For the Mother’s Day campaign, we got hundreds of submissions in just 12 hours, all publicly seen because they were all tweeted. It also scored us our biggest single day jump in followers, the whole thing took fewer than nine hours to execute, and cost less than $300.

We ran a similar campaign on Facebook, where we offered anyone willing to tag the hipmunk and mention where they’d rather be, the chance to become a chipmunk. We used an artist from reddit named Sure I’ll Draw That who offered to do caricatures of random people based on their Facebook profile photos and what they are interested in doing. Oh, and of course those people would be chipmunk-ified.

We capped our submissions at the first 500 and, again, we hit it in less than an hour. Not only did we get tons of coverage on sites like Mashable, but we now had hundreds of chipmunks with the hipmunk branding at the bottom being used as profile photos all over Facebook.

 

The numbers speak for themselves: we got 500 custom chipmunk requests in under 45 minutes, a 568% increase in Facebook likes, a 361% increase in active Facebook users, and the whole thing took about a week to go from idea to execution. This is what small teams can do. This is the huge advantage you have as a startup. When you don’t have to go through four levels of bureaucracy, you can just do stuff.

Plenty of other people have talked about the importance of social media, but what’s really special here is that when you’re talking about marketing on this scale, when you’re talking about budgets of hundreds (rather than thousands or millions) of dollars, your main cost of iteration, as with software development, is just time. So the cost of iteration when you’re running a $500 marketing campaign isyou guessed it$500. When you’re running a $5 million dollar campaign you are not allowed to fail. Which also means, in effect, you’re not allowed to take real risks. But when you’ve run a $500 campaign and it doesn’t turn out as successful as the last one, you’ve learned something important without bankrupting the company.

There are scores of tools to learn from your experiments -- data matters. When you’ve identified the demographic you want to excited with a particular campaign, don’t bombard with tweets. In fact, please don’t do that. Instead, they’re the people you should stay abreast of, the ones you’re supposed to learn from, the ones you’re supposed to engage with in a reasonable and respectful way. Just imagine they are human beings in the same room with you and treat them just as you would another human in the same room. Just because you can’t hear their groans when you’re sitting behind your keyboard and monitor doesn’t change the fact that they’re still groaning. You never want your users to groan when they think of you.

You’ll find similar options to better understand facebook engagement, too. And while it’s important to use data as a guide, don’t get married to it. There is some ROI (like goodwill) that just can’t be quantified—the sort of thing that happens when you send someone home for Thanksgiving and their entire family is thrilled because hipmunk did something a little exceptional. This kind of engagement is what startups do so well that larger companies simply can’t. For the record, when you find yourself doing something no normal person would do, like going out of your way to send some flowers to a stranger’s mother without including any swag or advertising, you’re probably on the right track; that means you’re doing something that nobody else is thinking of. And it will not be a wasted effort, because it’s the kind of thing that’ll get talked about. It’s the kind of thing that’ll be tweeted about. It’s the kind of thing that’ll be Facebook-ed about. Whatever the new thing is, they’ll talk about it there too. Focus on being exceptional and the buzz will follow.

I’ve always been really impressed by the Google doodles. Google has a site that’s about as vanilla as it gets. You don’t visit Google just to see what’s up on Google—you go because you’re on your way to someplace else. And yet, they still found an opportunity to surprise and delight their users. When we started reddit, I took that idea as a starting point and ran with it. Over the years, I’ve done hundreds of these reddit alien logo doodles (find nearly all of them at redditalien.com!). These were drawings I did early in the morning while other normal, sane people were doing more reasonable things. But I did them because I wanted to give people something new to wake up to, even if they didn’t even care about what was on the reddit front page.
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