I have an official announcement to make: I am not a candidate for Governor of the state of California. I did, however, give serious consideration to the idea of running in the upcoming recall election. After all, for only $3500 -- the cost of filing -- I could get my name and personal statement included in the voter handbook. My platform, of course, would prominently -- and repeatedly -- mention my books and website. What better way to reach every registered voter in California for $3500?

Finding inexpensive and unique ways to reach potential customers has become commonly referred to as "guerrilla marketing" since the term was popularized about 15 years ago.

The term reflects the concept of guerrilla warfare -- using methods that are surprising, indirect, and cheap. While inexpensive advertising is not a new idea for small businesses, the idea of guerrilla marketing reached its peak during the dotcom boom when Internet companies spent millions of dollars on attention-grabbing campaigns.

Guerrilla marketing, however, doesn't need to be clever or outrageous to do the job. Here are some real life examples:

  • When my first book, The Successful Business Plan , debuted, I had thousands of paper napkins printed with a humorous description of a "Business Plan on a Napkin." I attended the huge American booksellers trade show and put stacks of these napkins on the coffee carts around the convention center hall and convention hotel bars.
  • My niece, Adeena Colbert, handled public relations for a New York-based Internet company. She printed fortune cookies with clever sayings mentioning her company, then donated the cookies to Chinese restaurants near the offices of major newspapers and magazines she hoped would write about her company. The cookies were delivered whenever someone from those publications ordered Chinese food.
  • Another campaign my niece created (she's quite a clever young lady): She printed posters with her company's logo at the top and the rest blank. She gave the posters, with marking pens, to tourists at the Today show who were trying to appear on television. They'd write things on the posters like, "Hi Mom and Katie" and when the camera panned the audience, her company's logo was flashed nationwide.
  • Les Schwab, a tire dealership in Oregon, has run a highly successful "free beef in February" promotion for forty years. Each year, they give away over one million dollars in beef to customers.
  • A nearby bank gives free Vidalia onions away once a year to anyone who comes in. It's such a fond, and odd, local tradition that when the bank gets lots of local press coverage.
  • My hairdresser just moved to a new location, with few pedestrians. The biggest source of walk-in customers comes from the popular drycleaners across the street. I suggested he give the owner of the drycleaners free haircuts in return for putting up a sign with discount coupons on their counter.
  • Weekly, a Houston restaurant donates appetizers for guests at a nearby business hotel in return for putting ads in each room.

As with guerrilla warfare, the problem with most guerrilla marketing campaigns is that they use a scattershot approach, hitting everything within reach. But that means spending lots of time and money on things that never bring real customers. And small businesses can't afford that.

So while you might want to adopt some guerrilla marketing techniques, you should never forget that you still need an overall, disciplined marketing plan.


  • Target your customers -- make sure the people you reach are likely to buy.
  • Develop an overall budget -- prioritize how you spend your marketing dollars.
  • Have fun but don't confuse your message -- be certain each activity is consistent with your image.

The lack of focus was why I finally decided not to run for Governor. Instead of spending $3500 to reach thousands of people who would never need my products, I'm going to spend that money to exhibit at a trade show where I can reach customers who could buy or order thousands of my books. Now, if I were in a different kind of business, one aimed at a wider consumer audience -- something like, let's say, the movies -- I might have decided to throw my hat in the ring.

Copyright, Rhonda Abrams, 2003

Rhonda Abrams is president of The Planning Shop and author of The Successful Business Plan: Secrets & Strategies. Register to receive Rhonda's free business tips newsletter at www.planningshop.com.