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Best Online Marketing Trick? Go Offline

An online dating service got more than 100,000 sign-ups using posters and fliers. Here's how they did it.
Remember posters? They still work--even for online businesses.
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Imagine you're launching a new online service. Now imagine that product's target audience is students at some of our nation's most elite colleges: Pinterest-and-Instagram-loving, mobile-device-laden, 24-hour wired 20-somethings. Why would you think that the best way to reach this group is with paper fliers and posters?

Because it is, say Balazs Alexa and Jean Meyer, co-founders of DateMySchool, an online dating site for college students. Initially, dead-tree-based marketing was a matter of necessity, Alexa explains. "We didn't have any money to market it professionally, so we went back to the old school method of putting up posters and fliers." That turned out to be the perfect way to reach an audience inured to online advertising, he says. "They don't read banner ads. They don't watch TV, and they can't even see the ads on Facebook. They are completely resistant to these 'proven' ways of marketing. So what we are doing is very refreshing for them."

It certainly seems to be working. Where other college dating site launches have failed, DateMySchool is rapidly gaining traction, with over 110,000 users and counting at a rapidly expanding list of colleges. The service started at Columbia, where, the founders claim, one in three students is listed with DateMySchool. And they have bigdreams. "We want to account for more than half the dates at every college in the United States," Meyer proclaims.

Whether or not they get there, the DateMySchool founders have picked up some valuable lessons on how to create an effective paper-based promotion for a digital product:

1. Get the right URL.

This is always important of course, but with no link for prospective customers to click, it's imperative for paper-based marketing. Your URL has to be both simple to remember and self-explanatory. "DateMySchool" serves both purposes for Alexa and Meyer's service, which allows users to limit viewers of their profile to their own school or any other participating school. Those who want fresh faces can also prevent students at their own school from viewing their profiles.

2. Make it as simple as you can.

If you've correctly followed Step 1, then Step 2 may be really easy: Simply make posters and fliers that display your URL in large letters. "Ninety percent of the fliers and posters I see on campus are extremely complicated," Alexa says. "They were created by someone who wanted to put all the information on them. Or they're so shiny and colorful that you can't read them."

DateMySchool started out with pictures of couples on its posters and fliers, but soon decided to go simpler still. "We have a fraction of a second to convey a message, and the point in this case is our URL, nothing else," Alexa says. That's why the company's posters and fliers now prominently feature the site's URL and little or no other information or images.

3. Use repetition.

"Someone has to see an ad like 14 times before converting into a user," Alexa says. That's why he prefers to have not one DateMySchool poster but 10 or more in the hallways of colleges where the service is available. "If you see posters, and then you receive a flier, and then you see someone mention it on Facebook, eventually you might give it a look."

4. Use customers to get your paper materials in the right places.

DateMySchool has between one and 10 "ambassadors" at the colleges it serves, each of whom is free to promote the service in his or her own way, and they all have access to posters and fliers as desired. These ambassadors put up fliers and posters in enough different places that students can't help seeing them. (They also organize events and do other types of promo.)

"We pay them a little money on the side, and having this on their CV helps with job hunting later on," Alexa says. "But mostly they do it out of enthusiasm for the service." 

Last updated: May 8, 2012

MINDA ZETLIN | Columnist | Co-author, 'The Geek Gap'

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap, and former president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Like this post? Sign up here for a once-a-week email and you'll never miss her columns.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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