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Party Like It's 1999?

Andy Abramson has taken a swipe at recent tech industry parties, including the Hullo event I attended the other night.  He calls it the “return of the dot com party craze”.

A really worthwhile read that bears on this topic is Al Ries and Jack Trout’s 1992 Classic 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing.  Ries and Trout advocate publicity vehicles for brand building, and advertising for defence.  Essentially, they maintain that once you’ve exhausted the news, testimonials, and other third party “free” vehicles for building your brand, then, and only then, you should maintain awareness by paying for space.  Seth Godin says similar things in Unleashing the Idea Virus, when he advocates finding the “sneezers” in your ecosystem, and innoculating them. 

Word of mouth, and third party endorsements are the secret of all brand building.  These are the tools used by Microsoft to create the massive buzz around the Windows 95 launch a decade ago.  Word of mouth enabled Harley Davidson to rebuild without ever spending money on advertising.  And it was word of mouth, along with a savvy choice to allow concert goers to freely record shows and swap tapes, that kept Grateful Dead fans in the family for decades. 

Fundamentally, a party is a marketing event that’s about brand.  At a party you’re not going to sell anything, recruit anyone, or position your company or product any differently. The only thing you can do is brand.  In fact, if you want to decompose that one step further, the only branding activities you can undertake at a party are to increase awareness of an existing brand. You can’t build a new brand at a party, unless your goal is to position your company as a great company for parties. 

In other words, sponsoring events can work really well for an established brand, but are likely to be ineffective for a new brand.

So, let’s contrast a couple of recent parties: TechCrunch 7, and the Hullo launch. It’s a bit of a one-sided comparison, but it illustrates the point nicely:

Starting with numbers:

  • Both parties had a limit of 500 people.  TechCrunch, which has a very strong brand, filled those 500 slots in between midnight and 6 AM the day the party was announced.  Hullo had (I estimate) between 200 and 250 people in attendance. 
  • Blog mentions: TechCrunch 7: 1900, Hullo Launch: 2 (one of whom was me).
  • Flickr photos: TechCrunch 7: 712, Hullo: 3 (taken by me)
  • Press in attendance: TechCrunch 7: 25, Hullo: none.  TechCrunch had the tech media, the local press, and CBS and Fox News.

Most tellingly, Hullo is supposed to be targeted at the college crowd. However, there is not a single reference to hullo.com on MySpace.

Hullo had a good party, but nobody knew about it, and afterward, nobody talked about it.

Why was that?  Well, first, nobody knows about Hullo, period.  A Google link query on TechCrunch returns 381,000 other site references pointing to TechCrunch, whereas the Hullo link count is just 109.  Hullo is too new to have attracted any attention. Hullo needs to build some Google juice, by focusing on the press, bloggers, and other influencers out there.  They need to build a name. 

Was a party the right strategy then?  No. The money would have been better spent on a blogging and PR campaign targeted at students, the market they want to go after. A simple, cost effective strategy would have been to:

  1. Build a focused PR campaign targeted at student newspapers in selected schools in North America.  Explain the benefits of hullo to the student population.  Students will use this.  Free calling is just too much of an incentive to skip past.
  2. Seek out the opinion leaders among student bloggers / myspace users.  Again, these are out there.  Get them writing about hullo.
  3. Build a myspace widget that every myspace user can incorporate into their site.  Leverage the viral spread of social networking sites like MySpace. 
  4. For back to school 2007, once you’ve established a brand, amplify that brand by working with student unions to target frosh week parties on campuses across North America. 

Parties can work.  A party worked really well for Mike Arrington’s TechCrunch for a number of reasons:

  1. TechCrunch is a brand already.  It’s been around since 2005, and is one of the highest profile blogs on the net (currently ranked #11 by Technorati).  
  2. In Mike’s own words, TechCrunch “is a weblog dedicated to obsessively profiling and reviewing new Internet products and companies.”  By inviting new companies, the news media, and VC’s to the party, he’s reinforcing that brand.
  3. He makes news, and his audience is the industry, venture capital, and general media.  A TechCrunch party is an opportunity for those people to mix and network.  He’s taken the “sneezers” of the industry, put them all in one place, and set himself up as the matchmaker.  A TechCrunch party is a megaphone for reinforcing the TechCrunch brand and mission to the rest of the world. 

I don’t want to dump on Hullo too hard.  Their party was fun, and their product is really really good.  If you haven’t tried it, you should! Their launch strategy, however, was backwards.  An event can’t build brand.  You have to build your brand first, and then amplify it with vehicles like events.

{ 4 comments… add one }

  • Andy Abramson August 27, 2006, 7:27 am

    Alec:

    Your dead on and there is one more key point. It's a waste of money at a stage when a company that is likely VC or some form of venture backed needs to maximize what they are doing. Throwing a big party is a lot of work. In the case of TechCrunch and GigaOm, someone else paid for the parties as they were "sponsored" so burn rate is not really impacted.

    My concerns speak to "judgement." Had Hullo sponsored a series of back to school parties in Montreal at Lavel and McGill University, at Western Ontario, University of Toronto, Simon Fraser University, etc. across Canada in consort with on Frat and One Sorority they likely woud have had a bigger buzz billed than to their own "community" in Ottawa.

    Parties are a marketing event, but events have to also be business generators. My guess is that over 50 percent of the people at the party already knew about Hullo, and that in many ways makes the party self serving, not promotion.

  • PaulSweeney August 28, 2006, 12:31 am

    Spot on comments.

  • Bob September 5, 2006, 6:21 am

    It's worth mentioning what the goal of the party was. It wasn't intended as a full product launch. The goal was to get the focus group we had invite their immediate contacts they most frequently communicate with and increase the user base for the focus group. From that perspective I can tell you it has been a tremendous success.

    One lesson life in high tech has taught me is to get a very good understanding of your user community's motivations to use a product. We had a great idea that needed some tweaking to fit user needs. What most aren't seeing is the result of our competition held at the show where users who had the most compelling "use case" would win additional stuff. This forms the basis of product design and marketing for future releases.

    The party was intended as a thank you for our focus group and also a vehicle to keep them in the loop as an extended focus group. We have had some really exciting ideas thrown our way and they will be in future releases.

    I agree with the feedback on promotion (it should be a business generator) – this party was intended as a thank you to the local (Ottawa) focus groups that helped us tremendously in defining this product and its uses.

    In closing, the focus groups shed light on aspects we never considered in our initial feature/functionality matrix. Target market focus groups are a good way to get hard hitting feedback (both good and bad) for a new product.

  • Alec September 5, 2006, 7:30 am

    Thanks for the comments Bob. They add some great clarity, and fill out the picture a little more.

    Best, A

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