Marketing: The Blimp Test

Friday Dec 10, 2010 by Philip Jacob - Founder and CTO, StyleFeeder

“I need you to find out something for me,” I asked my office manager in a way that caused her to look at me with suspicious eyes. “Sure, what is it?” she replied, knowing full well that this was going to be another non-standard request. “I need you to find out how much it costs to rent a blimp for an afternoon,” I said, trying not to smile too much. “Really?” “Really.”

Some of the most impressive marketing people I’ve worked in the past had a background at big credit card companies. Everything they did was based on numbers and analytics. No guessing, in any material sense, anyway. Every dollar they spent was tracked. At the beginning of the StyleFeeder story, I blew quite a bit on misguided marketing efforts involving SEM and really silly ad buys. I did a calculation at one point after a particularly unsuccessful spend in which we threw $3K at a prominent women’s blogging network and only six (6) people signed up for StyleFeeder as a result. Yeah, $500/user. I know. Tell me about it.

So I coined the blimp test.

Let’s pretend that it costs $50K to rent a blimp out for a few hours and fly it over a major city. Let’s say you print up fifty thousand postcards advertising your product/service/website/whatever. Attach a $20 bill to each postcard. Take the blimp out for a ride and start throwing the postcards over the side. How much publicity can you generate like this? You’ll have spent around $1M, almost certainly landed yourself on the evening news and probably turned a few heads along the way. But will it affect anything you’re trying to do? Your cost per lead is probably going to be in the $100+ range. Insane, isn’t it? Totally crazy.

Yet a lot of marketing efforts aren’t much more than this. Take a few hundred thousand dollars and poof them away. Whenever someone tells you about some cocamamie scheme that isn’t specifically designed to affect identifiable key metrics by a specified amount and that will almost certainly just blow a large chunk of cash, my suggestion is that you tell them that their idea probably wouldn’t pass The Blimp Test. Tell them this story and ask if it might be more effective than what they’ve suggested.

Philip Jacob was the Founder & CTO of StyleFeeder in Cambridge.  StyleFeeder was acquired earlier this year by Time, Inc., where he currently works as a VP in their technology organization.  You can find this post, as well as additional content on his blog called Whirlycott.

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