As the Democratic National Convention kicks off in Charlotte this week, media members, political junkies, and business marketers from all over the world will generate thousands of storylines and a wealth of business opportunities. Of course, local businesses hope to profit from the convention by serving the 30,000 visitors to the city, and some will profit nicely as official vendors to the DNC. Local apparel company Brand RPM, for example, will enjoy the revenue boost that comes with providing 16,000 custom polo shirts for DNC volunteers.
But during an event as vast and as noisy as a national convention, how can a small business with limited resources distinguish itself in the sea of media messages and marketing clutter?
Amy Aussieker, founder of FABO, a Charlotte-based café and art gallery, has an innovative answer: She is inviting Jon Stewart of Comedy Central to visit her café and share a cup of coffee while he’s in town during convention week broadcasting The Daily Show.
Aussieker launched her tongue-in-cheek campaign, dubbed “Stalking Stewart,” in February. She began by mapping out a meticulous 6-month editorial calendar to coordinate the campaign’s many features, including:
- A dedicated website, Facebook page and Twitter account
- Transforming FABO’s women’s bathroom into a shrine (“Jon’s John”) with whiteboard walls on which visitors can scrawl personalized messages to the star
- Sales of “Stalking Stewart” T-shirts to benefit the Bob Woodruff Foundation
- “Lil Jon” postcards that have been photographed as far afield as Israel and Hong Kong
- Special events such as a festival and dog parade in which dogs wore ties in honor of Stewart
While Aussieker is still not certain whether Stewart will take her up on her offer, her campaign has proven tremendously effective for business purposes. “It’s been the most successful and cheapest thing I’ve done to market the business since I opened in 2009,” she says. “It probably has cost less than $500 and has created a great surge in awareness and sales, and more engaged customers."
Amy’s strategy offers some useful lessons for entrepreneurs hoping to capitalize on major marketing opportunities without breaking the budget.
Focus on an audacious question. Aussieker’s original goal was to figure out how to get involved during the DNC’s visit to Charlotte. She began brainstorming with others, and her central question became “How can I get Jon Stewart to come to FABO?” Finding creative answers to that question has been her mission ever since.
Go all in. Once she decided to pursue her goal of having Stewart visit, Aussieker never looked back, and committed herself fully to the cause. Her "Stalking Stewart" campaign has redefined her business identity within the community. And although she initially wondered whether her approach might alienate conservatives, she quickly found that interest and visits increased among all types of customers. “Even people who don’t agree with Jon Stewart politically appreciate the fact that he’s a funny guy, and they love the idea of someone so well-known visiting the café.”
Earn good will, and tap into it. Aussieker notes that one of the most important assets she brings to her small business is her track record of saying “yes” to the requests of colleagues and friends over her professional career. “I’ve always been willing to get involved in some committee, to host a dinner, to make a phone call. I’ve captured a lot of chips along the way. I wasn’t doing it on purpose—it wasn’t greedy—but I was willing to help. Now, people are willing to pay it back for me.”
Aussieker advises anyone wanting to be an entrepreneur to get involved in their community. “And you need to be smart about it,” she adds. “It’s not just about putting something on your resume. You need to really contribute. And it will come back to you.”
Create broader ownership. Aussieker knew that a key factor in spreading the word would be to involve a lot of talented and well-connected people in planning and coordinating the campaign. She picked a lot of creative brains in coming up with the original idea, and, early on, established a “stalker team” of advisors who helped her develop and carry out her plan.
Perhaps the most valuable by-product of the campaign, Aussieker says, is how engaged her customers have become. “You can’t spend 15 minutes at FABO without someone coming in and asking ‘Have you heard anything?’ People are on the edge of their seats about this and can’t wait to learn what happens.”
Have fun, and use humor. From hosting a tie-wearing dog parade to photoshopping her picture into a scene featuring President Obama’s and Jon Stewart (on her Facebook page), Aussieker is having fun with every aspect of her campaign. Her comic energy has been contagious, and it obviously fits with the goal of trying to get the attention of a celebrity comedian. But, regardless of the target audience, most small business campaigns are more likely catch fire and generate buzz if the entrepreneur is enjoying him- or herself, rather than taking themselves too seriously.