Anatomy of a Stunt: Creating Controversy for Fun & Profit

At the core, marketing is a challenge of distribution. The name of the game is getting attention — and within reason, the quantity of the attention is less important than the cause of it. Obviously, a brand shouldn’t be overtly horrible, but a well-executed stunt is often the best option. Recall Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power:

“Law #6: Court attention at all costs.”

Not only are stunts cheaper to execute than traditional press releases or advertising, but they’re more fun. They give a brand a chance to make a statement and show a little personality. So in addition to the new eyeballs you draw in, you’re strengthening your position in the existing audience’s mind.

In our case, we wanted to show our fans that we’re real people — silly, sly, and a little irreverent.

The Concept

Analog Watch Co.’s brand identity is “inspired by nature.” We use natural materials like wood and marble in our designs. The joke for this stunt is that we’d be using live animals “to remind the wearer of the beauty of nature” — intending to elevate the natural world while unwittingly killing and commodifying it.

The Fake Product

Inspired by those iconic green ant farms, we need to turn this concept into a mock-up that we could promote. There are a few reasons why this would never work as a real product, but we expected that people wouldn’t think too hard about it.

The “product” was made by spray painting one of our real watches. We bought life ants from AntsAlive.com. For the voiceover narration, we hired a guy with an English accent from Fiverr to give it a sort of poor-man’s David Attenbourough vibe. This was the majestic result:

The page on our website had a major clue that this was all a prank: We were not actively taking payments — the only way visitors could order was by signing up for an email list. We promised to notify them when orders opened on April 1, 2015.

The Hook

Our business has meaningful press connections with relevant local blogs, communities of watch enthusiasts, and design taste-makers, so the obvious move would be to comb through our Rolodex and pitch the hell out of all the relevant contacts.

But we knew while this might get us some traction, we needed something else to truly amplify our message and create a more remarkable spectacle.

People onlineIf people online are good at one thing, it’s getting pissed off about the cause-du-jour.

Emotions run high online. It seems that everything that spreads is

We had to piss some people off.

Internet traffic is driven by emotion. The higher the emotional valence of a piece of content, the faster it spreads. And of all emotions, anger is probably the most provocative. It’s so powerful that among certain group, it can seem like people are just waiting around for an excuse to get outraged. They’re on a hair trigger, and all it takes is a small group of people to have a strong opinion about something, and others will jump on the bandwagon.

Animal rights activists are notorious for this sort of behavior, and therefore the perfect group to target and help us spread the word about our brand.

The opening move:

I posted this on Reddit from my personal account. Despite being a relatively small subreddit (<9k subscribers), this simple comment provoked 37 comments and hundreds of visitors. The Ant Watch never actually appeared on Treehugger. This was a flat-out lie. But of course nobody bothered to check. The need to get angry outweighed the need to find out the truth.

Once it had gained some traction on Reddit, the story was ripe to be pitched to bloggers. It was absolutely crucial to put it on Reddit first rather than pitch it as a press release. A release isn’t a story; it’s a promotion. But even after just a couple hours, we have something better. We have a debate.

Here’s where the second lie occurs. A created a Gmail account under a fake name and pitched to several larger animal rights blogs, breathlessly explaining how I saw this thing on Reddit about how this awful company was making this terrible product, etc. The goal was to create the impression that a conversation was happening on it’s own, bubbling up from the depths of the internet. This is catnip to bloggers. And of course one of them bit.

The pitch:

The response:

The result:

The Dodo is one of the top animal rights blogs on the internet. This article received hundreds of comments and sent thousands unique visitors our way. They even called and interviewed our CEO. The call caught him off guard, but he expertly held his ground and didn’t blow the prank.

From this one post, we knew that other blogs would pick it up and get attention. We’ve seen how media outlets seem to recycle the same content over and over, so we let the controversy run its course and tallied our results later.

Summary

We saw a 15x (1,500%) increase in traffic over the course of this stunt. The video alone got over 110k views on Youtube.

Hilariously, we had two petitions on change.org urging us to halt production.

All in all, it seemed that about half the people got the joke because they recognized that the product was just too preposterous, or because they saw the “launch date” of April 1 on our website. A number of them left comments to make fun of the other oblivious half in the comments, which was funny.

We beefed up our lists significantly: Close to a thousand new signups to our mailing list and tens of thousands of visitors who activated our retargeting pixel, who we market to using the Facebook and Adroll networks.

Press

The press coverage was incredible — here is a partial list:

designtaxi.com, trendhunter.com, coolest-gadgets.com, gadgetsempire.com, Gessato, Complex, mcgeeks.com, gizmodiva.com, Geekadelphia, 9ija News, beautifuldecay.com, HOKINDEE, PHILLY MAG, io9.com, The Dodo, Geekologie, Inventor Spot, Telegraph.co.uk, mikeshouts.com, Deisgn You Trust, Oddity Mall, Techspot, Change.org, Popist, blogpestcontrol.com, basicthinking.de, Technabob,Yahoo.com/tech, incrediblethings.com, Broke-ass Stuart, Technopolis Mag, Swagger New York, Fark Forums, Watchiseek Forums, Adweek, Beautiful Decay, Planet-Gadget.net, Waowtech.com, Swagger New York

In addition to major outlets like Yahoo! and Telegraph.uk, we were thrilled to be included in Adweek’s “Giant Roundup of the Best Brand Hoaxes”, where we were featured alongside major brands like Samsung, Pizza Hut, and Reebok.

Awards

As a company with a solid reputation in our home town, the stunt was heavily covered by local press. We were nominated and won an award for “Story of the Year” at the Philadelphia Geek Awards. Here’s a humblebrag photo of me graciously accepting the award:

In Conclusion

Might all this have happened without our manipulations? Maybe, but I think it’s unlikely. We definitely could have had some local press and some coverage on design/watch blogs, but it would have been strictly niche.

The real key, and the reason that the controversy blew up was because we supplied the spark. We were covered initially because we were able to give the illusion of a spontaneous conversation happening about the Ant Watch. We made the product newsworthy ourselves, rather than cross our fingers and wait for a news story to develop.

That said, we were absolutely stunned by how fast everything happened. From the initial Reddit post to coverage on TheDodo was only a matter of hours. Once we were on there, other sites were very quick to grab onto the story and post their own take on it (often times just a verbatim repost) within about 36 hours. Ultimately this worked in our favor — since we launched a few days prior to April 1, the rapidity of the coverage helped us spread further before the hoax was revealed.

Total Cost

Retail value of two watches which we scarified to make the prototypes: $300

Voiceover: $5

Ants and ant supplies: $15

Some sand from the neighbor’s flowerpot: $0

Total: $320

What I learned on my Kickstarter campaign

Tonic was not the first Kickstarter campaign I worked on, however it was the first I executed A-to-Z entirely by myself. It’s not a point of pride, because I recognize that there are many things which I am far from the best at. I would have loved to hire people to help with the design, video, and some research. I did it myself jsut to keep costs low.

All in all, the campaign cost about $500. This includes samples, some video equipment, props, and hosting. I took $10k in preorders in 30 days. Here are the biggest things I learned and how I would do things differently.

1) Plan the messaging better. Smarter people than me say that you need to build the marketing into your product. You have the Kickstarter headline, the video storyboard, the copy outline, the main benefits and talking points, and the marketing plan all done BEFORE you begin developing the actual product. This is hard and it requires more restraint, strategic thought, and clarity than I sometimes feel capable of. I didn’t do enough of this, so the result was that I spend way too much time and effort writing the copy, trashing it, and then rewriting it 5 times before I settled on a final draft. I did the same thing with the video and it cost valuable time.

2) Invest in a DSLR and learn how to use it. Some people will say that you can use your phone for video and photos no problem. I think these people are wrong. In 2015, as Kickstarter gets more and more professional, it’s getting more common for projects to spent a few thousand dollars to hire a professional videographer. Even if you’re filming it yourself, you need a dedicated camera because everyone is already using one. You do not want to stand out for having low video quality.

3) Build an audience before you need it. This is something I actually did, but I would have spend more time on if I had realized how effective it would be. Before launch I had a small email list which I built by giving away a free PDF version of my product. This list accounted for 80% of my pledges in the first 2 days, pushing me over the minimum requirement quicker than I ever could have. It’s a classic “permission asset” made up of with responsive and interested fans. Whether it’s email or something else, you need to have some of these people before you launch.

4) Relax. Don’t forget one of the biggest benefits of using Kickstarter: It’s a way to test your market. The costs of failing on Kickstarter are severely lower than they would be in any other instance. Be responsibile and put in the work, but be receptive to feedback and the possibility that nobody’s buying what you’re selling.

5) Have a post-Kickstarter plan. It boggles my mind that people run a Kickstarter campaign, and then once it expires their project page links to a website with a big “Coming Soon” banner. Don’t do this. You’re missing out on traffic and sales. You’re throwing money away because you couldn’t set up a basic single-product Shopify site the night before. Come on.

6) Pre-write emails. Do you have certain PR contacts, friends, or influencers who you KNOW you want to pitch or notify? Write these emails in advance. Especially if you have a full-time job and you’re doing this in the evenings. The first few days of a caompaign set the pace, and you need to hit the ground running. Save them as drafts a week before and send them when you’re live.

7) Contact Kickstarter and try to get a staff pick. Contact stories@kickstarter.com and tell them why you’re a great campaign that deserves to be featured. I got featured as a “Staff Pick” and it helped, although the holy grail is to be featured in the email newsletter. It’s easy and worth a shot.

8) Schedule your time. If you don’t, you’ll lost control of your hours and you will burn out. This is true generally, but it’s especially true for a hyper-focused event like a Kickstarter launch. Pace yourself. If it means working your day job, running home, microwaving dinner, petting the dog, and then working from 7 – 12, that’s fine. But make sure you’re in bed when you said you’d be in bed. Don’t confuse activity with results.

I’m sure there are plenty of other things I’ve learned, but these are what come to mind right now.

I’m Making a Product

I thought since I’m bringing a product to market that I ought to record what I’m doing. I’m starting late, so here’s a summary of what I’ve done so far.

The product: I’m creating a card game for musicians. This was inspired by the fact that I’ve always been drawn to improvisation, but I’ve never been very good at it. Or at least I’ve never been very comfortable with it. Also, I think people have a real desire to learn improvisation in a way that isn’t strictly based on jazz or rock.

In short, I see some problems with the way music is taught is all wrong. I assume there are other people who feel the same way. So I think there’s an opportunity to help. They say you should scratch your own itch, right?

Timeline:

  • February – Brainstorming obsessively. Trying desperately to get all my ideas down on paper, whether they’re relating to strategy, marketing, design, influences, or the product itself. I tried Evernote but it got too hard to manage and I ended up putting everything into a massive Excel spreadsheet with a million tabs, one for each “theme” that I need to be thinking about.
  • Early March – Actually started creating the game. To test the market, I decided I would make something PDF-based so I could give it away for free. I read a few books about improvisation and music, and revisited several more, along with papers and albums from a few years ago when I was studying music seriously.
  • Mid-late March – I settled on a name (Tonic), pulled the nuts and bolts of the design together (fonts, colors, format, etc.), and build a basic landing page. The page linked to a PDF which I designed in Word and had an email subscription list. I posted to Reddit and got about 100 email signups, 5000 downloads, and hundreds of enthusiastic comments. My idea was validated. I decide to launch on Kickstarter. Full steam ahead.Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 8.19.34 PM
  • Early April – I researched manufacturers and decided what the game would look like. This was a lot of late nights emailing manufacturers and trying to understand design software. In the future, design is something I will definitely outsource. Not a strength or an interest of mine.
  • Mid-late April – I have samples in hand that I am satisfied with. Created a twitter account and am building it by churning followers and posting daily-ish improv-themed inspiration videos. Averaging about 30 new followers per day. Starting to think about the video.
  • Early May – Here’s where things get tricky. The social media ends up taking way longer than I had expected, and now it’s time to figure out how to sell this thing. I’m spending a lot of time writing and rewriting the positioning statement. Who specifically is this product for, and why do they care? This is all multiple times harder because I should have done it long before the product was designed.
  • Mid May – I am finally fleshing out the positioning and am working on the video. Identifying a story board is like pulling teeth. I spend a day or two filming and editing a rough cut. Then I trash it and to another one. I am humbled to realize just how little I know about video, photography, lighting and audio. Everything I do seems amateurish. Should I hire a professional and sacrifice control? Or do it myself and have the last word on everything? I opt for the latter.
  • Late May /early June – I scrap video #2 and do it again. Between filming, re-shooting, and editing, it takes days. But it’s getting closer.

Today is June 2. Video #3 is pretty good, but I need help with the audio. My voice isn’t good enough. I decided to hire a voiceover professional on Fiverr.

Resources for Doing Business in China

Blogs:

The Elevator Life – A couple young guys who moved straight to China after graduation to start product businesses. Great short videos and a whole community of makers and entrepreneurs.

China Importal – General info on importing, fraud prevention, dealing with factories.

Jacob Yount – An industry pro with valuable insight into the cultural differences that you need to take into account.

Articles:

The meaning of art according to Xi Jinping

Cultural psychology of the West and Asia

My experience so far with Alibaba (Reddit)

How to Crowdsource Editing

A few months ago I was thrilled to be a part of Charlie Hoehn’s crowdsourced editing process for his new book “Play It Away: A Workaholic’s Cure for Anxiety”.

For my part, I helped refine the structure and offer feedback and crafted the narrative which ultimately became an Amazon best-seller in its category.

Aside from a smart and effective way to improve the book’s message among his target audience, it also served as a unique marketing project, generating loyalty, word-of-mouth, and Amazon review prior to launch. The author detailed the entire project here.