A couple of years ago, I wrote a book—a really great one, I must admit immodestly—about the power of the element of Surprise. In it, I praised the uber-effectiveness and efficiency of Word of Mouth Marketing, and the ying-yang relationship it has with Surprise.

“Despite its influence,” I wrote, “WOM is not self-starter. It needs a catalyst, a kick-start, a something to get it roaring. Surprise is that something. If WOM is the fuel for today’s marketing machine, Surprise is the spark that ignites it. And the brighter the spark, the more raging the ensuing inferno.”

Over a career that spans 37 years and the industries of journalism, PR, mobile media, and showbiz, I’ve used Surprise to trigger numerous WOM infernos. But of all the firestorms, perhaps the most thermonuclear was the one I caused at a conference in San Francisco with only a measly dollar bill as my weapon. Okay, 1,000 of them, but who’s counting? Anyway, without any further ado…

The story:

In the early days of my mobile media company, when it was called Airborne Entertainment, our marketing budget was miniscule, and spent primarily on making a splash at the semi-annual CTIA Conference (Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association). At CTIAs past, to keep Airborne face-forward, we would produce some sort of take-away collateral or swag, each of which would cost us about five or six bucks.

Unfortunately, the ROI on these standard items (t-shirts, glossy brochures, bouncy balls…the usual suspects) was less than spectacular, and at the San Francisco conference in Spring 2004, we were looking to spend less but get more bang for the buck, particularly since we were launching our mobile version of Donald Trump’s Real-Estate Tycoongame at the time.

Our brainstorm process went from “What can we do for a buck?” to “What can we do with a buck?” The end result, captured by the following photos, reduced our per-unit cost to about $1.02:

 

This was no photocopy or flimsy replica of legal tender; we took 1,000 actual singles and painstakingly rubber stamped them with a pertinent promotional message, which led interested parties to our show booth and a special website.

People were more than interested. They flipped out.

First, they flipped at Airborne.

“Are you crazy? We can’t screw around with the U.S. Mint!” the staff panicked. “Won’t we get arrested for that?”

“I hope so,” I replied. “Just think of all the publicity!”

(Truth be told, we used a vegetable-based ink that would fade over time…hopefully before I’d get out of prison for defacing American currency. At least that was the lie I told my staff.)

Then, they flipped at CTIA.

On day one of the event, we sprinkled the money on the conference floor and had a blast watching different reactions to the free dollar bills. Some people discretely picked ‘em up and pocketed ‘em; some looked both ways for hidden cameras before stooping; some grabbed, read and laughed; some ignored them completely, adhering to the “If It’s Too Good To Be True…” theorem.

A pleasant buzz was building, but no big bang. Yet.

The flare-up I’d been looking for came the following afternoon, when I was speaking on a panel about mobile games. The ballroom was packed for two reasons—the subject matter was important for the fledgling industry, and one of the panelists was the neo-celeb Trip Hawkins, a co-founder of gaming giant Electronic Arts. Airborne, as a small company punching above its weight at the time, had to make a splash here. And I had 700 or so single friends left to help.

At one point in the panel, as per the agenda, we were supposed to talk about our most recent project. The countdown began. As I started my spiel, I surveyed the crowd. Seated in the corners of the room were four Airborne co-conspirators, each with $150 of the Trump bills in their hands. I had the other $100. The plan was as soon as I finished the sentence “…but we decided to promote this the Donald’s way!” we would toss the bills high into the air as a catalyst to reactions unknown.

And toss we did. From my vantage point on stage, it was a thing of beauty. Poof! Five little clouds of cash, each rising up like firework explosions before cascading to earth like giant snowflakes.

And then the real explosion began. Bedlam!

The gathered crowd bolted from their chairs and battled for fistfuls of dollars. Chairs flew, bodies dove, tables overturned. Decorum was shattered into dust. Hawkins was incredulous. “How do I follow that?” he moaned out loud into his mic.

Once the bills had been scooped up and the combatants returned to their seats, the panel went on — but the “damage” was done. The room was vibrating, people were chattering, and there was little attention paid to anything else than what had just happened. Conference organizers even went as far as suggesting I be banned from further events because Airborne had “upstaged their paying sponsors.” No kidding.

Needless to say, the stunt was the talk of the rather staid conference. Here are two of the “reviews” from influential industry bloggers:

“Over at the Moscone West Center it was down to Airborne’s Andy Nulman to liven up the definitive panel on mobile entertainment. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a panel member throw dollar bills to the audience.”
— Monty’s Gaming and Wireless Outlook

“In one memorable moment, Andy Nulman flung about 100 singles in the air. Although each of these had an advertisement for the company’s Donald Trump’s Real Estate Tycoon printed on it, they were much sought after by a suddenly enlivened crowd. Several dozen mobile executives scrambling in response to Nulman’s extension of largesse seemed an appropriate metaphor.”
— Gamespot

For the next two days, I couldn’t take two steps without someone asking “Are you the guy who threw the money?” or, more often, asking for a sample.

And even as late as eight full CTIAs later, people still came up to me to inquire: “Are you throwing any more dollar bills this time?”

Of course not. That’s exactly what they’d be expecting. Been there, done that. To be true to my school, I’ve got to find new ways to Surprise.

Subsequent Airborne CTIA Pow! moments featured Maxim girls bringing pedestrian traffic to a standstill by sitting smack-dab in the middle of Atlanta’s Convention Center floor handing out freshly-kissed copies of the magazine, a flying 15-foot tall Stewie Griffin inflatable to celebrate our deal with Fox’s Family Guy in New Orleans, and a party which culminated in an R-rated male-female game of Twister in Las Vegas. And in the year when we decided to stop everything and do nothing, people assumed we were putting on an event so secret and exclusive, they begged us for invitations.

Let me tell you, there were times at Airborne when my staff and I spent late nights tearing our hair out, barking and throwing things at each other trying to come up with new, never-before-seen techniques to excite, attract and delight. We could’ve thrown in the towel, taken the easy way out, and recycled the dollar bill idea. But we didn’t. And in the end, each time, we were proud that we hung in there and kept challenging ourselves to Surprise.

And to get people talking, of course.

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About Andy Nulman

President of Just For Laughs, world's biggest comedy organization. Former mobile tech entrepreneur. Wild public speaker. Wilder public dresser. Author. Hockey player. Gym rat. Needs a longer bio.

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