Muscling it to the top of the sales charts was an incredible feat, but part of how Instant Pot keeps building buzz hasn't been well understood. So I talked recently with Instant Pot's inventor, CEO Bob Wang, to discover his company's marketing strategy.
In short, two words: Facebook and cookbooks (including several perennial bestsellers on Amazon). Here's how it all came about, why it works, and maybe how you can mimic Instant Pot's success.
A calculated viral phenomenon
The Instant Pot is really two things: It's an updated, 21st-century pressure cooker, and it's also a calculated viral phenomenon. We can break its hugely successful marketing strategy into three key steps.
1. Build a great product
Going by the sheer volume of ebullient five-star reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, people agree it's a pretty groundbreaking cooking appliance. (Seriously, none of the rest of this would work if people didn't really like the product.)
2. The initial, low-cost marketing plan
Back in 2010, Wang's company sent free Instant Pots to 200 food bloggers and influencers. Those writers loved it (remember step No. 1), blogged about it, and even wrote cookbooks. This created early word of mouth that other marketers would salivate over.
3. Maintain that high level of engagement
The ongoing effort is powered in part by a robust Facebook group that Wang's company set up in May 2015. Seeded with content from Instant Pot HQ in Ontario (but also attracting scads of community submissions and comments), the group's grown to 1.1 million members. Most of them get ideas on how to use Instant Pot in their Facebook feeds every day.
"A really big choice"
Wang told me that the company chose to focus on Facebook groups after considering and rejecting an email marketing strategy. The timing was perfect, for while Facebook groups had languished as a neglected feature on Facebook, they launched just as Mark Zuckerberg began to promote them.
Check out the official group now, and you'll see lots of posts (new ones every few minutes) and lots of engagement. As I'm writing this story, for example, this post--about decorating an Instant Pot--has been up for about 45 minutes. It already has more than 600 reactions.
"I think its better to have the customers talking to each other, rather than we just talk to our customers," Wang told me. "This turned out to be a really big choice. If we'd gone the email marketing route, God knows where we'd be now."
But there's one more really big factor involved here as well--one that I'm not sure was anticipated at the start. It's that Wang appears willing to let others share the wealth.
Sharing the wealth
There are actually more than 190 other community groups on Facebook about Instant Pot. They aren't affiliated with the company, and many have specific focuses: a group for Instant Pot fans with autoimmune issues, or for parents, or for people who love Indian food.
While some companies would try to crack down on other people using their trademark to build groups, Wang seems totally fine with it. Each new post and member means more free marketing, and they have a combined membership of 3.4 million.
"We know that one community cannot cater to all needs,' Wang said. Meantime, there are also about 1,500 Instant Pot-related cookbooks, including many Amazon bestsellers, that give the company free, constant marketing on the very platform where the company started selling to begin with.
For example, I reached out to author Coco Morante, whose book, The Essential Instant Pot Cookbook, was the No. 22 book on Amazon as I wrote this. She runs a separate Facebook page with about 300,000 fans.
My best guess, knowing a little bit about the publishing industry, is that Morante might make $500,000 if her sales remain steady at this level for a year.
"I will say I think your royalty estimate may be a little bit high," she told me in a Facebook message, but she showered praise on Instant Pot and Wang himself, citing his "generosity of spirit, understanding of the power of word-of-mouth advertising and social media, and genuine desire to help home cooks."
Not much of a secret
A recent profile in The New York Times called Wang's company "a new breed of 21st-century startup," since it has only 50 employees, raised no venture capital, and spends "almost nothing on advertising"--yet built a giant following.
I know there are a lot of entrepreneurs who would love to get one-10th of the attention this product gets. The good news, perhaps, is that as an engineer, Wang doesn't seem to find it all that surprising or complicated.
It's almost as if there's a repeatable formula that others could use to build this level of customer engagement and sales.
"I don't think there's much secret," he told me. "Get the product right, treat the customer well, and get them talking. And that's it."