4 word of mouth lessons from Tough Mudder

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With almost no traditional advertising, Tough Mudder, a traveling 12-mile extreme obstacle course, has grown from 20,000 participants in 2010 to 460,000 in 2012. How? Word of mouth is built into everything they do.

Here’s what we can learn from a company made to be worth talking about:

1. Do something shocking
2. Make it a group effort
3. Have a good secret
4. Make your swag stand out

1. Do something shocking

Tough Mudder’s founder, Will Dean, said part of his inspiration came from the fact that marathons can be boring. He wanted to offer athletes a completely different, intense experience — stuff that makes people ask, “Can they do that?” For example, past races have included courses with live wires that electrocute you with 10,000 volts and trails lined with four-foot walls of fire. And at the end of a course, instead of a banana and a Gatorade, participants are given a beer and the chance to get a Tough Mudder logo tattoo. What are you offering that’s completely different from your competitors — is it outrageous enough that people will talk about it?

2. Make it a group effort

As a part of their partnership with the Wounded Warrior project, Tough Mudder focuses on camaraderie. Participants have to sign up with a group and participate as a group. That means runners are asking around for their friends, family, and co-workers to join them — making them advocates just for signing up. They even have “Tough E-cards” prepared to help you invite friends to join.

3. Have a good secret

From quarter-pipe wall climbs to greased monkey bars, Tough Mudder’s website describes almost all of the crazy obstacles participants can expect — all but one. This one secret obstacle sparks tons of conversations both before and after the race. That way, even the most seasoned repeat-participants have something to talk about before the event.

4. Make your swag stand out

If you finish the course, Tough Mudder will give you a beer, a t-shirt, and a bright orange sweatband. The beer goes fast, but the t-shirts and sweatbands serve as conversation starters long after the event. Plus, the orange sweatband is distinctive enough that if other runners see someone with it at the gym, they’ll talk about the crazy race they endured. In a sea of koozies, pens, and fridge magnets, what can you give away that gets people’s attention?

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