Never be shy about creating big buzz

Most small business cannot afford to promote themselves on network TV, unless, of course, the exposure is free.

That helps explain why Manolis Alpogianis, co-owner of Chicago-based America’s Dog restaurants, was standing in front of Buckingham Fountain last month with what he calls “the world’s longest Vienna Beef hot dog.” Turns out, TV couldn’t get enough of the 16-foot-1-inch frankfurter.

Alpogianis’ hot-dog stunt led to exposure on “Good Morning America,” CNN, The Weather Channel, The Travel Channel, WLS-TV and more than 80 other stations.

Best of all, “I didn’t have to spend on penny on it,” said Alpogianis, adding that even the hot dog was free from Chicago-based Vienna Beef.

By practicing what’s become known as “buzz marketing,” experts say, small firms can get noticed by the masses. And, as Alpogianis points out, the technique doesn’t require big bucks.

“I don’t have the budget that McDonald’s or Corner Bakery does. So I’ve decided to put on low-cost events that are going to catch a lot of publicity,” he said.

On a cost comparison, the America’s Dog stunt even beat a feat pulled off several years ago by Mark Hughes, chief executive of Buzzmarketing.com in Media, Pa.

As head of marketing for Half.com, his mission was to generate publicity inexpensively for the Web store. So, Hughes scoured maps and found Halfway, Ore., a town of about 300 residents. He offered the town $100,000 if it would rename itself Half.com The townspeople agreed. The feat was outrageous enough to attract media attention, and it helped people remember that name of the off-price Web site.

Among other spots, it garnered a five-minute segment on the “Today” show with Katie Couric, Hughes recalled.

“One hundred thousand dollars is still a lot of money, but we got four or five million dollars worth of exposure from it,” he said, adding that the exposure boosted sales. “It literally put our brand on the map.”

Hughes credits the buzz about Half.com for eBay’s acquisition of the company for $300 million less than six months later.

Being outrageous is one way to get people talking about your company, said Hughes, who now gives others advice on how to generate buzz.

Potter power

When it works, it generally costs less than the more traditional approach of paid advertising.

At the core of buzz marketing is the understanding that generating word-of-mouth discussion about a company “is the most effective technique on the planet,” Hughes said.

Buzz spreads on its own from a good idea. For example, the June 20 Harry Potter release paty that drew an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 people to Oak Park’ The avenue shopping district, at Oak Park Avenue and Lake Street, wasn’t intended to get national attention.

Rose Joseph, co-owner of Magic Tree Bookstore, planned to hold a small party, much as she did last time a Harry Postter book was released. Back then, she hired a strolling magician to entertain customers who were counting the minutes until the book could be released.

This time, one of her workers suggested turning the Avenue into Diagon Alley, a place frequented by wizards and witches in the Potter series.

But Joseph says she never imagined the concept would go so far. Not only did other Avenue merchants catch Potter fever, but with Scholastic Inc. and Web site MuggleNet.com promoting the event online, it drew Potter fans from other states. They came dressed as characters from the books to see a life-size wizard chess game, tour the local US Bank branch’s version of the vault at Gringott’s Wizarding Bank and participate in merchantotteresque activities.

It repordly was the biggest potter event in the nation, Joseph says.

The event helped Magic Tree sell nearly 1,200 copies of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix” that night. (Miraculously, Josephs says, she didn’t run out). But it wasn’t just a one-night boost to sales.

“We felt the residual effect for two weeks afterwards. Because of the publicity, people kept coming. They were curious,” she said.

For Magic Tree, word of the event began spreading in April, and the publicity, helped spur a 12 percent rise in sales as of June 30 — in a year when the book industry as a whole has been down, Joseph says.

Follow-up needed

But the Potter party isn’t the only way Magic Tree generates buzz. The shop makes a weekly appearance on WGN-TV on Thursday mornings, with the co-owners offering a “pick of the week” book selection.

It also hosts “art and appetizer” evening events twice a year with other Avenue merchants, luring customers to the shops and restaurants with free appetizers and a chance to watch illustrators at work.

Experts suggest that, no matter how much buzz one event generates, a single marketing effort generally does not have staying power. To make buzz marketing successful over the long term requires follow-up.

That’s why Alpogianis, who says his hot dog sales were up 15-25 percent every day in July over the year-earlier period, thanks the publicity, is working the “world’s longest dog” concept into his overall marketing program.

He plans to put up 16-foot signs of the hot dog at his outlets and to refer to it on menus, ads and mailers.

“We’re totally capitalizing on it,” he said.

Vienna Beef is making another 16-foot hot dog to coincide with the opening of America’s Dog’s newest location, in Peoria on Thursday.

Besides the long dog, Alpogianis is holding a hot-dog-eating contest in which the mayor will participate to kick off a new mall.

“All you need is something big to wow people,” Alpogianis says. “Then it snowballs.”

Bulding buzz

Consultant Mark Hughes, chief executive of Buzzmarketing.com in Media, Pa., recommends these tips for getting people to talk about your company.

Look for a way to break through the advertising clutter and garner “100 percent attention” from customers and prospects. Buzz marketing does not necessarily have to lure the TV cameras. It can be as simple as a fortune cookie with your company’s advertisement on the back, another of Hughes; ideas. When read aloud at the dinner table, a tagline like “Be a smart cookie. Save a fortune at Half.com” may get more notice than a commercial on prime-time TV.

Think aobut what ignites word-of-mouth conversation naturally. “We talk about the odd thing we heard on the ‘Today’ show or the funny thing on Jay Leno,” Hughes said. “We talk about the outrageous, the unusual and the taboo. We talk about sex and lies, rumors and celebrities.”

Then act on it. Do something outrageous, or at least unusual. “If you’re a plumber, do your plumbing in a tuxedo,” Hughes said.

But be careful not to “cross the line” by pulling a stunt that is offensive to your audience, or that comes across as just plain dumb or that stretches the truth.

Be upfront when you are seeking publicity. Trying to surreptitiously get people to talk about your product by “planting” the idea in an undercover fashion will probably backfire because people don’t like to be lied to.media_brothers.jpg


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