By Nis Frome published August 11, 2013

Hacking Content Marketing: How a Parking Ticket Turned into 40,000 Customers

cutting through the maze-hacking content marketingContent marketing comes in many shapes and sizes. Sometimes it arrives in a regular, anticipated form, like a daily newsletter with links to interesting industry articles. But often content marketing is at its best when it takes on a slightly less traditional format.

I’ve always found that the greatest lessons can be learned by examining cases found on the fringe of our industries. Such cases address the questions that many marketers ask themselves, such as, “What can companies without the resources of a Fortune 500 do to get ahead?” or “How can we generate and nurture leads, organize content and presenters for a webinar, and rise above the clutter?

Take the case of the social travel platform, Tripl, which once delivered a content marketing campaign in the form of parking tickets slapped on hundreds of cars owned by more than 200 of the biggest names in tech on the West Coast. Tripl’s CEO, Peter Sullivan, was able to get his company’s philosophy, product, and infographic in front of hundreds of thousands of eyeballs without having to spend even a fraction of the money it would take to purchase 50 clicks on Facebook.

How Tripl “hacked” its way into content marketing success

In the summer of 2012, Y Combinator, one of the most prestigious start-up incubators in the country, was gearing up for its Demo Day in San Francisco. The event featured quick, 2- to 3-minute presentations from more than 80 companies, with the expectation that prospective investors would make investment decisions based on these quick pitches.

Tripl’s Peter Sullivan happened to be staying in a hotel room a few blocks from the event. At the time, he didn’t have the street cred to gain entrance to the Demo Day and all of its influential attendees. But he did make an observation that inspired him to find an alternate route to participating:

He noticed that Demo Days attendees all drove to the event and used the nearby parking spaces and lots. In a moment of inspiration, he pulled out his laptop and designed a fake parking violation. The ticket read, “You have illegally been subjected to make a big investment decision based on a two-minute demo pitch,” and included a QR code for Tripl’s app — as well as the company’s latest infographic on the role of mobile devices in the booming travel industry.

parking ticket - violation

Sullivan printed nearly 300 of the fake tickets, and placed them on the windshield of every luxury car he could find in the surrounding area. He then took a picture on Instagram and posted it to Y Combinator’s Hacker News site, before heading into a meeting he had scheduled with a venture capital firm.

Halfway through the meeting, an associate entered the room, excitedly pointing at Sullivan as she proclaimed: “You’re the number one story on Hacker News!” It seemed that Sullivan’s Instagram photo had risen to the top of the popular news aggregate, and two major tech outlets had already posted coverage on his prank.

After the incident, Sullivan recalls that scheduling meetings and attending events became a lot easier. And although security personnel removed the tickets from windshields before most attendants had a chance to find them, Sullivan’s prank was dubbed by several sources as “The Best Pitch at the Y Combinator Demo Day.” The resulting press his content received helped his start-up reach 40,000 users within its first year.

Three content marketing takeaways from Tripl’s stunt

1. Deliver thought leadership content through your target market’s preferred venue(s): While it’s likely your target market spends a lot of time on Twitter or Facebook, you need to examine the reasons why they are using those channels — and consider what other channels they frequently access for business information. Are your prospective customers searching on Twitter for information on products like yours, or are they just there to follow their favorite athletes and celebrities? Might you have a better shot at pitching your thought leadership by delivering content at a conference or meet-up, or through a guest blog post that lets you share your industry insight?

Thought leadership is often a reactive process — being in the right place at the right time means observing what is, in fact, the right place and time for your particular audience. For example, SendGrid offers email delivery services, but the key to its growth isn’t necessarily that its product is scalable or reliable. Rather, SendGrid developers dedicate an impressive amount of time at “hackathons” and tech conferences, not just to speak about industry trends, but to actually get their hands dirty by deeply exploring other people’s code to learn new ways to implement best practices. SendGrid knows that to achieve widespread brand recognition and positive association, its content needs to be where prospective customers are at times when those prospects are engaging with new technologies.

2. Eat your own dog food, but don’t force it down anyone else’s throat: It’s no coincidence that Sullivan used a QR code on a parking ticket: The point in this content effort was to illustrate his company’s insight on how people use mobile devices while they travel. Beyond using your own product (which should be obvious), do your content efforts align with your company’s overall mission statement? For example, if your business’ mission is to get consumers to believe in more efficient legal services, are you creating content that helps people achieve that goal — whether or not they decide to use your products or services?

For example, Moz (formerly SEOmoz) believes in providing useful analytics information, tools, and advice — so much so that the Moz website offers many such tools, for free. Moz also creates and shares infographics that convey its unique industry insights and provide actionable recommendations.

3. Never underestimate the value of situational relevance: Always think about how you can create content that weaves your expertise, products, or services into the fabric of your customers’ everyday lives. The reason Sullivan’s pitch was so effective was that he addressed the idea of how shortsighted it is to have to make investment decisions based solely upon a 2-minute pitch — at an event that required investors to do just that.

Of course, you should develop a content marketing plan for sharing your insights and expert content on an ongoing basis. But leave room for unexpected opportunities to connect with your audience based on emerging trends, current events and other real-world situations they may experience.

For example, soon after Gmail rolled out its new tabbed inbox, MailChimp, an email newsletter SaaS, jumped on the opportunity to provide a blog post containing expert analysis of the early results and implications. Surprisingly, MailChimp did not downplay the hit email marketers have taken from Gmail’s upgrade, further strengthening the notion that email marketers who want the latest best practices need to be engaging MailChimp.

Next time you approach content marketing, think about Peter Sullivan and being an outsider. You might be able to spice things up without even brushing the law!

For more insights and examples of content marketing efforts that have bucked the system, check out CMI’s Ultimate eBook: 100 Content Marketing Examples

Cover image via Bigstock

Author: Nis Frome

Nis Frome is a full-stack marketer with an obsession for UI/UX and growth hacking. He is an award-winning web and app developer, and is currently the COO of Hublished, a webinar marketing technology company he co-founded as a junior at Rutgers University. Follow Nis on Twitter @NisFrome.

Other posts by Nis Frome

  • Tahir Khawaja

    That is definitely a very good gorilla marketing example. FYI your link to the eBook at the bottom has an extra space in “examples”, thus it’s broken.

    • http://nisfro.me/ Nis Frome

      Hey Tahir,

      Thanks! It’s not my eBook, but I will let the editor know :)

  • Zion Kim

    Great read. Stories like these where entrepreneurs are able to take a deadend into a huge opportunity are always fun to read. Your second point is extremely valuable since many people are not fully aligning all of their efforts so they make sense with each other.

  • Jeff Pundyk

    clever idea, but how is it “content marketing” as opposed to good ol’ guerrilla advertising?

    • http://nisfro.me/ Nis Frome

      Hey Jeff,

      Good question – it’s probably in that grey area, although not sure it would fit Joe Pulizzi’s article’s criteria :) The idea was that Sullivan found a really clever and ironic way to distribute an infographic about mobile trends in the industry. Focus is more on the hacking marketing than hacking content, but I digress. The takeaways are useful for content marketing!

      • Jeff Pundyk

        thanks for the reply. always smart to put the good bits to work for us, regardless of where they come from.
        still, as an industry we need to be crisp about what is and isn’t content marketing or it will begin to feel more and more like a buzzword, not a discipline.

  • http://www.johnmihalik.com John Mihalik

    That was a great article Nis. That’s what I’d call thinking outside the box!

    • http://nisfro.me/ Nis Frome

      Thanks! I always thought starting outside the box is the best way to make the most of inside the box :)

  • http://www.nickburne.com/ Nick Burne

    Great example of stuff offline pushing online content success. This is a common theme we’re seeing again and again. Not much exciting stuff happens online. It happens in the real world and then gets discovered and discussed online. Right?

  • Uttoran Sen

    Excellent article – this is perhaps the best example of off-line content marketing i have seen so far, however – marketing is only one part of the business… just saw that the site – tripl – is dead now….

    even with a success in the marketing – startups still fail!