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When we ask small business owners 1) What is your annual marketing budget?, and 2) Do you have a written marketing plan? … both questions are met with eyes glazing over and a shake (not a nod) of the head. And understandably so! Small business owners are wearing several hats depending on the day and living with tactical responses to their customer and market needs.

So rather than a cerebral discussion of strategy – which small business owners generally don’t have time to execute – let’s have some fun with 5 tactical stunts that have worked and may prompt similar creative, no-cost responses from you folks who face the daily challenges of being an entrepreneur.

Right up front, recognize that the stunts in this article are slightly edited from an article published in Entrepreneur magazine, written by Geoff Williams.

Big Marketing Stunts, Small-Business Style

Jon Charles Salon

Jon Charles Salon

Located in Minneapolis, owned by Jon Charles, 45

The stunt: In February, 2009, Charles’ salon offered a new promotion. First-time customers who had lost money in their 401(k)s could bring in documented proof of their loss, and whatever the percentage of the loss had been in 2008, that amount would be deducted from their bill, up to 50 percent of the total bill. In his marketing, Charles brilliantly reassured customers that nobody should be embarrassed by their 401(k) plunge. “We’ve all been in tough spots before,” he said at the time, adding that “it’s between you and your hair person. That’s a relationship that’s even more confidential than the attorney-client privilege.”

Takeoff: The Associated Press wrote about the promotion, so a gazillion newspapers ran the story. Local TV stations followed suit. Soon, Charles was interviewed by Katie Couric on the CBS Evening News. Business boomed so much that Charles opened a second salon.

How they kept the momentum going: The promotion is still going at the second salon, and it brought Charles 700 new clients in two months. But the real success of his promo lies in the fact that he was able to retain 88 percent of those new clients, smashing the industry average of 33 percent.

“The idea has to be timely, using whatever the news of the day is,” advises Charles to any entrepreneur who wants to duplicate his success. “You have to make it funny; people have to get a kick out of it. It’s got to be easy to understand. As soon as people heard this idea, they got it.”

Networking and expanding the circle of people that you know is important, but not as important as nurturing people who know you. People really know you when you are memorable for what you bring to the table both personally and professionally. Be known for your professional expertise as well as your trustworthiness, dependability and reputation to deliver as promised and on time.

Strategic Guru, Inc.

A full-service direct marketing agency in Raleigh, N.C., owned by Carolyn Rhinebarger, CEO, 55

The stunt: In 2009, the company held a “Worst Website Contest” to see who would get the vote for ugliest website in the Raleigh, N.C., area–with the winner getting a free website makeover by Strategic Guru. “People could anonymously nominate websites,” says Rhinebarger. “One of the finalists chosen was very surprised to learn he had been nominated and didn’t think there was anything wrong with his website.”

Takeoff: “We ran the contest on our blog and attracted quite a bit of traffic,” says Chelsea Junget, a project manager for Strategic Guru. “The winner won a complete redesign from us, including copy, SEO and development.” Local websites like NCTechNews.com and WakeMyNC.com covered the contest, of course providing the company some welcome attention.

How they kept the momentum going: They plan to make this an annual promotion.


The Giddy Gander Company  (Now with Skywriter Media & Entertainment Group)

Creator of the Wumblers, a line of educational children’s characters. The company is based in Ridgewood, N.J., and Laura Wellington, 43, is the CEO and creator.

The stunt: Since the Wumblers are born out of watermelons (think eggs hatching and then picture a watermelon hatching), last summer the Giddy Gander Company held a watermelon seed spitting contest at Six Flags Great Adventure.

Takeoff: Besides pulling off an entertaining contest (you can see what we mean at this YouTube link), the two winners got to spit seeds on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. (You can view that clip here; funny stuff.) While that didn’t translate into a mention of the Wumblers on the show, sharp-eyed viewers may have noticed that the contest winners were wearing Wumblers T-shirts, and of course Wellington has been able to reference Fallon’s show in the company’s marketing.

How they kept the momentum going: Wellington’s company partnered with an iPhone app called iSeedSpit! that lets you simulate the experience of spitting watermelon seeds. But what the stunt really did, says Wellington, was put her on the radar of local and national media. “I’ve been invited numerous times to a variety of news and talk shows,” says Wellington, and her blog has been referenced in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

Melt Bar & Brill - Tattoo Family

Melt Bar and Grilled

Located in Cleveland, Ohio, owned by Matt Fish, 37

The stunt: They have an ongoing promotion–a 25 percent discount for life for anyone who gets a tattoo of their logo anywhere on their body. You might think, “What the heck? Not even free food, or maybe a 75 percent discount…”

Takeoff: Fairly quickly, 136 customers got tattooed. Fish suspects part of the appeal is that “customers really like to be recognized as members of an exclusive group.” He has also learned to accept the good with the bad: “Even the few who have been negative about the promotion can still be fans of the restaurant. Whether it’s positive or negative excitement, it’s still excitement about the business.”

How they kept the momentum going: Every time a new customer gets inked, Melt Bar posts a photo on its Facebook  page. And Fish holds special promotions and events for his (as of this date) 211-and-growing tattooed customers “to reward them for their diehard support.”

Web versus Webb

Langton Cherubino Group

A communication design firm in New York City, founded by David Langton, 49

The stunt: Web vs. Webb , a vintage TV quiz-show-style online game that asks people to decide if a word or phrase is related to the World Wide Web or was uttered by Jack Webb, the actor who played Sergeant Joe Friday on Dragnet. Because, you know, that sort of question comes up in life all the time.

They also offered “Masterpiece Yourself”, which allows users to upload their photo into famous paintings like the “Mona Lisa” and see how they look.

Creating online games for your firm’s website may not sound like a marketing stunt–but when your business does something a little zany and completely removed from its core business in the hopes of drumming up attention, that could be considered an ongoing marketing stunt. It’s also a good reminder that if you’re going to do a marketing stunt, you don’t have to spend millions of dollars or completely embarrass yourself in an attempt to get national attention.

Takeoff: They’ve had over 100,000 unique visitors, reports Langton. “MasterpieceYourself.com was featured in Redbook magazine, and a country radio station in the Midwest selected us as its site of the day. Italians love MasterpieceYourself–we’ve received over 65,000 visitors from Italy.” But what Langton’s really happy about–“visits to our website are up 61 percent.”

How they kept the momentum going: Langton and his business partner, Norman Cherubino, 47, have used the online games as examples of what they can do for other businesses. Of course, this all begs the question–has all the additional traffic and exposure brought the firm, which usually works with companies in the business-to-business arena, new clients?

Langton says yes. “It’s hard to put a dollar figure on it,” he admits, “but [the games have] helped us stay at the forefront with potential clients during a very difficult economic climate.”


So small business owners with limited (if any) marketing budgets, and no time to create a written marketing plan … here are 5 thought provoking, unique approaches to tactical marketing at little or no cost. The missing ingredient … just your creativity … and that’s free.


Top of Mind Communications

Top of Mind Communication