During my time on the road, I had the privilege of interviewing Tom Szaki, founder and CEO of Terracycle. Most of what the interview centered on was how he uses free advertising to dominate in the recycling industry. Tom started out as a student at Princeton University when he and his friends realized they had a problem trying to make their plants grow. When they started feeding the plants worm poop, the plants did incredibly well. This discovery became the foundation for Tom’s first product which was liquid worm poop in a used soda bottle. To get the bottles he started a plastic bottle collection drive using free advertising, Since the US is filled with people who are sympathetic to green initiatives, plastic bottles were sent to him from all over.
Not everything was rosy in the beginning of Tom’s venture because it was easier get the bottles and fill them than it was to sell the finished product. Things came down to the wire until he got his first big order from Walmart. That’s when the Terracycle empire really was able to take off. Now Terracycle collects from two thirds of American schools and has a strong international presence. Schools and communities know of the company through his unusual free advertising ideas. For example, he partnered with Newsweek by having them make the magazine cover an envelope in disguise. Inside the magazine, people were instructed to shop at Target, stuff the envelope with their plastic shopping bag and then send it to Tom. From there, Tom’s team of scientists created products from the plastic bags and then went to market.
Another refreshing advertising idea came in the form of a Facebook video game called Trash Tycoons. People can collect garbage, create recycling depots and get points by recycling. The faster you recycle the faster you get points. This is totally free to Terracycle because the app company, Gorilla Apps, saw value in supporting the Terracycle brand. Surprisingly, Terracycle has even made a deal with the company to share some of the income of the game.
Fortunately, the business model of Terracycle is so unique that Tom was able to star in his own mini-series called Garbage Moguls. Each episode Tom would come in with garbage made from a specific raw material and then plan with his team what they could make with it. One episode they made ponchos and kites which they were able to bring to market. This was a big win because it was not just a form of free advertising, it actually earned the company money. Plus, it was a lot of fun!
On top of managing his company’s affairs, Tom also writes a blog for the New York Times which brings his company exposure. He has also partnered with some major brands like Craft Foods, Nestle and Frito Lay. These companies accept recycled material from Terracycle for use in the packaging and they love to declare this partnership on their products. So that’s another unlikely way Tom has gotten free advertising.
Probably Terracycle’s biggest asset is being able to appeal to organizations, companies, schools and even governments to band together and clean the environment. For example, the company’s operations have recently expanded to Latin America and has gained favor with the politicians there. The reason? There is already a large contingency of homeless people who collect and sell trash and Terracycle puts a higher value on what they collect. This gives the lower caste an opportunity to work itself out of poverty and have a better standard of living. The advertising to collect what Terracycle deems valuable is done by word of mouth throughout the homeless communities. In the US the system is different to accommodate our culture. Since Americans value going green, they are overjoyed to fill shoe boxes with distinct types of garbage like pens or chip bags. When the box is full they go online, download a free shipping label and send the box to Terracycle. People are able to see how much money accrues in their online account based on the amount of their trash donations. After the account reaches a certain level of money, the account holder can donate to any valid non profit organization. The power of altruism is very effective, especially in schools that are trying to instill this ideal into their students.
Other ways to get free advertising
1) I don’t want to turn you into a Facebook droid that uses friends to promote ideas but I must. If you have a company that has a newsworthy background or business model, reporters need to hear about it. So try to friend a lot of reporters. If only one reporter is influenced by a single Facebook post, you have hit a gold mine. He creates your company related buzz based on what you fed him and other news sources feed off him.
2) It’s interesting that Tom Szaki, the CEO of a huge recycling company is blogging. You would think that he’d be spending his time relaxing somewhere in the Cayman Islands and coming up with new product ideas. But not only is he getting free advertising through blogging for the New York Times, his company has 15 other blogs that supply other news sources. So if you want exposure for your company and its products you need to blog.
3) Years ago I was in the pharmaceutical intelligence industry and one of my duties was finding out how much each pharmaceutical company was spending on ads. I was surprised to find out that many of the industry magazines were run by the pharmaceutical companies themselves. For example, Chugai Pharmaceuticals had a publication that went out to many of the oncologists in Japan, but none of them knew of the affiliation. This is a step up from blogging and an extremely valuable publicity tool. I can see how a publication like this could be not only free but amazingly profitable.
4) Get an ideal domain from Godaddy that could house a blog, a product or a social agenda that is close to your company’s brand. You don’t have to know exactly how you’ll use it but get it. Then make really creative videos that gain the public’s attention. At the end of the videos tack on that address. It has to be part of the video and not a Youtube overlay (These overlays can’t be seen on mobile devices). In the beginning, this address could be a blog. Years later it could redirect to a product page. Many years later it could redirect to an app download page. The idea is that your future videos will be creating free advertising and you can direct the traffic to promote whatever. As you start producing your long array of videos, don’t forget this valuable publicity tip. It will serve you well as the years go by.
5) This advertisement idea may not be free but it has the same spirit. Work with a t-shirt shop to design really cool t-shirts that prominently show your website address. Then deliver the shirts to Goodwill. The success of this idea depends on your flare for design. I REALLY like this idea because you can actually target a specific area by delivering to the Goodwill stores that are open there. And how long does a t-shirt last? I’d say about 3 years. That’s a long time for people to be walking advertisements for your website!
6) When I lived in Japan I learned an interesting way of promotion that I never see here in the US. Business owners would stand by subways outlets and hand out packs of tissue paper. The bottom of each pack always had an advertisement that could be seen through the plastic wrapper. And here’s a trick from the Japanese yakuza (mafia) that helps them promote their not so nice websites. They would have these website addresses printed on post-its and then they would affix them to bus stops as well as the insides of trains and buses. Keep in mind that these advertising strategies work best in metropolis areas.
7) Design a bumper sticker on your computer that’s really clever. Print it out and tape it to your bumper so that it looks professional. Make sure the outside is totally air tight. If you are like any normal person, you drive at least 30 minutes to get to work and the same back home, all the while giving yourself free advertising. And when you get stuck in traffic you will be the only one feeling good. If you need to pull over at a gas station, why not go inside wearing one of the shirts you designed? If it looks cool enough you could feel great about wearing it anywhere.
8) For Halloween, don’t pass out candy for the trick or treaters. Instead, buy fortune cookies with your company’s personalized message which points to the landing page of one of your products. Since moms are always sorting through the candy to insure safety, they will be sure to see your message. Because of the unusual way the URL is found, the whole family will be interested in seeing what lies at the other end. Although this creative advertising idea isn’t totally free, it deserves to mentioned here.
9) Do a Youtube search for the term “perpetual motion”. You will see a list of videos of inventions that seem to go on forever (although this is impossible). Build your own machine that’s based on one of the videos you find. Then make a video with the URL of your company’s product embedded inside. Take this free advertising idea one step further by creating a dedicated website for your contraption. You can broadcast on this site an ongoing video stream of your perpetual motion machine. With each passing day, be sure to put a card in front of the machine showing how long it’s been operational. If you build your machine correctly, this advertising venue could go on for years. Take a quick look at http://www.usdebtclock.org to see how this principle is already being applied.
10) Make a staged video of you finger painting your website address (with suntan lotion) on the back of someone supposedly sleeping on the beach. Let the actor soak in some rays for 2 hours and then film the actor waking up and discovering the website address by someone else telling him. If the actor allows this, try writing the address on his face and film the staged reaction inside the car when someone lets him know about it.
11) Because it’s getting increasingly difficult to rank well in Google, you need to rely focus on keeping lists of people who have visited your website. Start this list from the very beginning of your website’s creation. Each time one of your products come out, you can inform this list which is most likely your dedicated fan base. Being able to contact a list of 10,000 people will keep you from going under in case you suddenly lose favor with Google.
12) Years ago I had a job that involved cold calling homeowners to set up sales appointments for window and roof installations. My primary tool was the old fashioned door knocker, which is a long and thick piece of paper that fits over a door knob. This advertising method plus direct contact with homeowners allowed me to initiate $350,000 in sales in one year. Granted, most of the sales came by setting up appointments directly but I can’t ignore the effectiveness the door knockers had on my bottom line. Those who don’t like to physically confront people can try the door knocker method or experiment with putting messages under people’s windshield wipers. This second method always gets my attention when I’m the target of advertising.