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How to measure startup PR stunts, with insights from Transferwise, Thursday, Confused.com, Thriva, and a 90s tech stunt from Guinness
This is the first in a series of posts examining How Startups Should Think About Brand, based on conversations from the people who were there.
For many, improving your core growth engine is getting harder.
As teams question whether they've hit their ceiling on core channels, attention turns broader and brander. In this post, we look at some of the biggest startup PR stunts from the last few decades, and how those teams went about measuring them.
A huge thanks to Tom Hillman, Anya Jackson, Tom Beverley, and Carl Mesnor Lyons, for these conversations.
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Based on these conversations, there are four groupings of ways to evaluate success:
*Note here being, this is a sample size of four companies we spoke to. Want to add to the list? Hit reply and get in touch email@example.com.
Thanks to Tom Hillman, former head of paid media for this conversation.
Think back to 2014. I was in my first startup job at Pact Coffee. UK Tech felt like it was beginning to blossom. And there was buzz everywhere about the financial company that had 100 people naked in Liverpool St Station. Fintech wasn’t yet common language.
Nothing2Hide was one probably one of the defining stunts in the 2010s. Stunts were nothing new of course. Marketing stunts have taken place as long as there have been people trying to sell something. But this felt big for the company stage. Buzz-per-head was definitely unusually high.
Fast forward 9 years, and Wise are still the company who’s stunts get referenced more than any other. That buzz has been long lasting.
It wasn’t just me, who had noticed it either.
“I remember seeing those stunts on YouTube, thinking, ‘shit, this is how Transferwise grow,’” says Tom Hillman. “They do these big stunts, everyone hears about them, and it’s all massive word of mouth.”
“Turns out, it wasn’t like that at all. The stunts were fun, and they didn’t spend much on them. But the reason they did them was twofold.”
“One was to get press. This helped both directly grow the business, and indirectly through legitimacy.”
“The other way was using the content for ads.”
“We had the entire creative team in-house. They had the creative director and head of creative orchestrating the stunts, with creative producers and videographers directing and producing it all.”
“We’d get video back in a day, pump it out on social, see what worked, then iterate while sitting next to the team that did it.”
“After a while, we started thinking about the cost of the stunts and factoring those into the CPAs. But if that’s inflating CPAs beyond what we thought, what else is it impacting?”
“We’d look at what Facebook then did to word of mouth? For every user acquired via Facebook, we’d know they’d bring x number of other people, so we’d add those to the LTV.”
“Our mission was to make money transfers cheaper. The product teams all worked hard making that happen, and so marketing had to do that as well.”
Thursday: the intern stunts
Thanks to Anya Jackson for this conversation.
If Wise’s early stunts spread through YouTube. Today, startup stunts spread through LinkedIn. In 2022, if you were a LinkedIn user in UK tech, I bet you’d have seen one of the above two posts.
Thursday is a dating app that is focused on one day a week. Dating apps are notoriously difficult to grow. ARPU is typically < $10/year, meaning you’ve basically limited to free channels for growth. Paid acquisition won’t cut it here.
Anya Jackson who was marketing intern at the time, was tasked with generating awareness with very little budget.
“The stunts were all about maximum brand awareness, and getting people to download the app,” Anya told me.
“The time I was there it was a crazy growth period and we were just trying to get as many people talking about it as possible.”
“There wasn't a way to see how my work affected downloads due to the nature of the stunts. However, judging by the impressions on my LinkedIn posts we could assess brand awareness and this was very positive.”
“LinkedIn content was pretty much the main goal. The balloon stunt I was walking for about 1.5-2 hours and people took pictures, but the handcuff one, I was only up there for about two minutes for the picture and then went back to the office. This was funny because everyone was getting so angry in the comments.”
I asked who Anya who she’d recommend think about stunts like this.
“I feel like thinking out of the box can be done by anyone. I don't think other companies should try to copy exactly what Thursday did, as that isn't original. There's a million and one ideas out there and companies can create their own viral campaign.”
And one brand you think are nailing stunts at the moment? “Surreal. They have been absolutely smashing it recently.” I quite agree.
Confused.com’s Accident Avenue
Thanks to Tom Beverley for this conversation.
In 2010, Confused.com wrapped a street in bubble wrap to mark its position as the country’s most accident-prone street.
I spoke to Tom, who was Customer Marketing Director at the time, about how they thought about how they thought about measurement on the stunt.
“When we were doing the stunts, the main measurement was HDYAU (How did you hear about us?), amount of press coverage or circulation figures, and any measurable impact on brand awareness.”
“But then we saw some great backlinks and so we shifted focus to links built from high value domains.”
“It was not a cheap stunt – costing something like £50k – but we managed to get links which were unbuyable: Wall Street Journal, Daily Mail, and the Times.”
“Measured for building site authority it was hugely effective. Confused went from #7/8 in SERPs for the term car insurance to #1/2, and that was worth millions to us at the time.”
Pretty punchy ROI.
Thriva: There’s Nothing Wrong With A Little Prick
In our first few years at Thriva. We did two big stunts. The first was Little Prick. A campaign where we hired Ant Smith – the man with the UK’s smallest penis – to carry a protest sign, which we then turned into a billboard. This was brainchild of Paul Stollery, who was then part of We Are Romans’ PR team.
This campaign was low budget – around £15k from memory – and the goal from the start was always direct acquisition.
This campaign blew up. It was picked up by all the red tops, the Mail, and all the consumer internet titles like Joe and Buzzfeed. But it wasn’t just the coverage that took off, but the conversation it created.
Each media’s posting of it on their social was full of shares, comments and likes - driving the virality of it. And most importantly for me, it made logical sense why we were doing it. “Why are this startup talking about little pricks? Oh they do little finger prick blood tests” – we had permission to talk about this subject area. It was funny, but importantly, made sense.
As a result the content went viral, and it was very quick to take away “finger-prick blood tests” as the one thing you remembered from it.
Direct acquisition impact was low. But suddenly all of our ads that had “finger-prick blood tests” across them took off. CPAs fell through the floor, we pushed more budget in that we’d done in the months leading up to it, and for a fortnight had some heroic performance out of paid social. The halo effect was real.
Our second stunt, the ill-fated Fatberg sadly didn’t land. While there was coverage, that coverage didn’t generate conversation, was a negative message and took too long to explain why we’d done it. Lesson learned.
Guinness: Dancing Man screensaver
Thanks to Carl Mesnor Lyons for this conversation, who was brand manager at Guinness at the time.
OK, not a startup. But a big consumer brand doing some fun stuff at the advent of technology.
“We had this advert – Anticipation, The Dancing Man – which had become so popular, people were mimicking the dancing in pubs. We did a tour where we had Joe McKinney judge who could do the Guinness dance the best.”
“It was a bit of a phenomenon.”
“The idea came from O+M. At the time, screensavers were a new thing. Certainly, brands using them for marketing, hadn’t been done at all to the best of my knowledge.”
“We had to design it to fit on a 1.44MB floppy disk. And I had this box of floppy disks under my desk. We’d just get letters into the brewery saying “I’ve seen this Guinness Dancing Man screensaver, can I get a copy?”
“As a brand manager, I’d be posting these things out. And that disc would get passed from person to person. You really did see if you went to offices, people had that screensaver. The cost of it –– the ad was a sunk cost, as it had already been done –– it was a very very low cost thing.”
“Because it was novel, and because it was fun. I mean having a beer in the workplace was something you couldn’t do before. It was slightly rebellious on those computers in the mid-90s. There was no internet for the majority of people. To have a beer on there was adding spice and fun into the workplace.”
“It was impossible to know the number of copies out there and in use, but there got to have been between 10,000-50,000 PCs with it on. Guinness was an innovator. We did things before anything else. We did the website very early days. We were one of the first to put a URL on a consumer brand TV ad.”
“Measurement wasn’t perfect. But they trusted us to do things that would get us talked about.” Sounds like a job accomplished. You can read more on this on Carl’s blog here.
What we did at Thriva – aiming for direct acquisition – feels inherently like the highest risk approach when thinking of stunts.
And generating conversation and buzz feels like it has inherent question marks to it? Does a single stunt that earns a fortnight in the sun have lasting impact? We definitely didn’t find that with our halo effect.
And while there are campaigns which clearly definitely go viral – Guinness and Thursday for example – a huge number of consumer stunts fail to land the mark.
There’s another post in unpicking the types of content that go viral. The top-level view is things that are funny, warm your heart, and are incredibly simple to explain to your colleague.
What’s missing from our measurement approach? Have you got a stunt that ticked boxes in another direction? Comment below👇
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