What Early Guerrilla Marketing Can Teach Us About Shareability Now

14th June 2020

In today’s fast-paced and tech-reliant world, it’s almost impossible to imagine running a business without the internet and social media. But once upon a time, offline marketing was the only option. In the early 1980’s when the information superhighway was still ARPANET, and the world was becoming saturated with advertising and marketing messages, being creative was key for businesses wanting to get noticed. Thus, guerrilla marketing was born.

Named because it relies mainly on the element of surprise, guerrilla marketing is the concept formalised by the late Jay Conrad Levinson and drastically changed the way many businesses approached marketing. Large, splashy, expensive campaigns gave way to more tactical, unconventional, small-scale, low-cost activations. And in many cases, the impact achieved significant gains in awareness, consideration and purchase.

These days, “going viral” is a common goal. Having thousands of people share a piece of content would be a dream come true for most businesses. So what lessons from the past can we apply to today’s digital world? One of the defining characteristics of guerrilla marketing was activation on a small scale, but the “shareability” of the exercise meant that the people who saw it talked about it. A lot. And then other people talked about it. A lot. And in no time at all, everybody was talking about it.

The pre and early digital days

In pre- and early digital days, massive reach meant activity was reported on TV and radio news or in print media – now classed as “earned media.” Today the same level of reach can be achieved within minutes on social media, so how can content be made more shareable? By making it emotive, funny, interactive, or even controversial. Taco Bell announced in 1996 via full-page newspaper ads it had purchased the Liberty Bell, to aid America in resolving its national debt, and would rename the treasured memorial to the “Taco Liberty Bell.” Costing a fraction of its annual marketing budget, the April Fool’s prank garnered the company an estimated $25 million in earned media coverage and over $1 million in additional daily revenue on the first and second days of the month. Two sidenote gems: credit for the idea going to the then CEO’s mother, and White House spokesperson Mike McCurry playing along, announcing an additional sale which would result in the newly renamed Ford Lincoln Mercury Memorial.

The most successful early guerrilla marketing campaigns were interactive, but in many cases the interaction was involuntary. Once upon a time, Twisted Sister couldn’t get their songs on the radio, so they bought ad breaks and played them there. This element is harder to achieve in the digital space, but it indeed provides food for thought. Immersive experiences like virtual and augmented reality are frequently used to inspire interaction and engagement, and other emerging technologies such as chatbots are becoming popular as tools to drive engagement and active participation in digital marketing campaigns.

The element of surprise

This was the foundation of early guerrilla marketing and is just as relevant today. People are exposed to so much content online, that it can take something genuinely unexpected to capture the collective consciousness. But drawing their attention to something surprising increases the chance that they will engage with the content and share it considerably; this means thinking past the flashmob, too. A little strategic thinking and the right execution can mean great business and PR gains – for some recent guerrilla marketing executions, ReferralCandy has an excellent roundup here.

Many old-school guerrilla marketing campaigns were followed up with more mainstream activities, and this also applies to online marketing. A business which manages to achieve virality has multiple opportunities to leverage the success of the initial campaign through sharing related content. Reaction videos, blooper reels, behind-the-scenes content are all great ways to maintain the momentum and keep people engaged with the story.

Ultimately there is no formula which guarantees virality, but these lessons from the early days of guerrilla marketing will unquestionably increase the chances of a successful online campaign.

Now off to brainstorming how you can apply this type of thinking to your brand and product. With the modern reach of social media, you don’t need to be a Taco Bell to get your future customers talking.