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Why startups should embrace this old-school marketing tactic

Here's how we took on Microsoft and Google €1.3k — and a billboard.

Humberto Ayres Pereira

By Humberto Ayres Pereira

When it comes to making a splash, startups tend to think only modern marketing tactics like paid social and search advertising will do. However, there’s a unique opportunity for startups and scaleups to embrace one old-school marketing strategy in particular: billboards. 

Plastering something on an outdoor board might seem like an idea from the stone age of marketing. But online channels like Facebook and Instagram are crowded and no longer as cost-effective as they once were. Anyone’s competitors can access the same targeting data and ad-purchase dashboards. 

Here’s how we took on Microsoft and Google with €1,300 and a billboard — and how other startups can leverage this tactic. 

From San Francisco to Europe

Startups across the pond have been keyed into the power of billboards for a while now. Venture-backed companies including Eaze, Airbnb and Brex have posted enormous billboard advertisements across San Francisco to catch attention. Given the huge concentration of tech talent in San Francisco, you even see B2B companies like MongoDB using billboards to telegraph highly technical messages that would go over most consumers’ heads. 

In Europe, it’s been mostly consumer-facing companies that have leveraged billboards. In London, Otta put up massive billboards to convince companies to be more transparent about salaries, while digital mortgage broker Habito caught the attention of the city’s commuters with a straight-talking Tube advertising campaign. On the continent, speedy grocery app Gorillas has complemented funding announcements with billboards peppered across Berlin.

We found success using this tactic recently when we plastered two billboards outside Microsoft and Google’s headquarters. The aim was to challenge the dominance of these mammoth incumbents by drawing attention to their out-of-date spreadsheet software, positioning our company as the best alternative to Excel and Google Sheets. We thought that using billboards would be a humorous and slightly provocative way to position ourselves David and Goliath-style and build on our recent branding marketing initiatives. 

Lasting two weeks, the campaign resulted in over 2,000 new sign-ups and cost just €1,300, including the photography — a fraction of some of the costs associated with other online marketing and PR tactics. Not only did we see signups increase, but the messages also spread organically on social media. The tweet we posted a few days ahead of the billboards received over 100k impressions. 

So really, what’s so great about billboards?

Think about it: billboards get your brand in front of a high volume of people within a specific geography. This could be perfect for an up-and-coming startup that nobody knows. Outdoor advertising can be a great way to reach a large number of people, making startups seem bigger than they actually are and fostering consumer trust. What’s more, this dynamic not only drives sales but can also help attract investors.

As startups become scaleups, the purpose of outdoor advertising evolves into increasing brand frequency. This is why some of the best outdoor adverts are targeted at commuters (as seen with Habito). The frequency with which a person sees an advertisement helps to build the brand up in that person’s mind.

Crucially, as well, the beauty of billboards in the digital age is that — thanks to social media — the message can reach far more people than those passing by physical board. In our experience, if the message is suitably eye-catching and adventurous, people will photograph it and share it on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and more. From here, this type of digital traction can help support PR campaigns for editorial coverage.

Of course, that doesn’t mean startups looking for a new way to tell their story should rely solely on billboard advertising. This method is a brilliant way to drive brand awareness, but as part of a wider integrated campaign to capture and drive demand. Another way to think about it is eschewing the solitude of Batman for an Avengers-style approach. Ultimately, founders who make billboards a central part of an integrated marketing campaign will be rewarded with tangible results and feel like their brand is everywhere — an opportunity too good to resist.

Humberto Ayres Pereira is CEO and cofounder of Rows

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