Beyond Facebook Ads: Alternative Marketing Forms

As a non-rectangular company, we are always looking for advertising opportunities outside of the Facebook/Google mainstream to collect emails of people who actually care about our product and team so we can send them launch alerts and company news. Our company is named dTOOR and we make “Non-Rectangular Phones for Non-Rectangular People” starting with a phone in the shape of a circle, called The Cyrcle Phone.  Here is our story, and the information we have uncovered along our journey as a company. Hopefully some of this information may help your company as well.

Conference booths ($50/email): In 2016 dTOOR hosted many booths at conferences. These generally cost $10K per industry conference and $2K for local conferences when you added up the booth fee, setup costs, hotel, airfare, and food for the team. Further, our team would be frantic at least a full week before and wiped out the week afterwards, and we would not experience many sales or website traffic during the conference (attendees seemed to be just as overwhelmed). Thus, for these reasons and more, we vowed to avoid these as much as possible.

However, through these booths we gained valuable customer feedback and marketing skills. This is where we learned that people would refuse to enter their information on any device (laptop, tablet, phone) or even scan a QR code. An old-school clipboard with a hastily drawn sign up sheet worked wonders for collecting emails. It was more authentic, and actually, more our style. People could doodle, write in comments, and so on, and we remembered talking to them even more because of it. The upsides far outweighed the trouble of trying to read their handwriting later. Swapping business cards was also a viable option.

Facebook/Instagram ($50/email): In the summer of 2018 our team decided to do a 12-week sprint of Facebook and Instagram Ads to confirm our customer demographics, test different ads and garner 10,000 emails prior to our product launch. We spent $3,000+ hiring a Facebook Ad professional to design and test ads, and $3,000+ on the ads and in the end collected only 118 emails.

This was such a disappointing experience that we talked to other companies who were performing similarly about this time and typically mid-sized companies were throwing away over $10K per season (12 weeks) in hourly wages and ad-spend. When I would talk to CEOs who did not have direct contact with their company’s ad machine they seemed completely oblivious to the new Facebook algorithms changes and thought their marketing team was doing a fabulous job. When I would talk directly to the people in charge of running the ad campaigns, they were in full-on panic and completely aware that Facebook ads were performing dismally in 2018 compared to previous years. The smart ones were looking for other tools and skills to save their company, spoke frankly about what they were finding that worked and didn’t for their product(s), and were asking around for more information. I greatly admired these marketers.

In person ($20/email): In August I decided to go old-school, and hired a team of college students to work with me to drift amongst the crowds waiting outside for the Blue Angels display overhead during SeaFair Weekend in Seattle. We told people that we were from The Cyrcle Phone team at dTOOR, asked if they would give us their time to give us feedback about our product (specifically, where the buttons should be located on the outside of new version of the phone), and if they wanted they could sign up on our clipboard to receive launch alerts.

We immediately found that anyone who looked like they were 27 years old would talk to us without much hesitation. Anyone that looked older than 50 would shout at us to go away. We avoided talking to minors, but if we were interviewing their parents, usually the parent would include the kids in the discussion.

Google Ads (?/email): We ended up spending money on Google Ads without receiving any emails. This was in preparation of our second product launch. Your experience may be different, especially if you are simply advertising a product that is already available online. For example, people may be able to click on the ad to directly purchase your product. Our product was not available yet, so people were simply clicking through to our website to enter their email for a launch alert. We received zero email signups during this period. Granted, this could be the way that our website is laid out. We typically receive a fair amount of organic traffic and signups from people who have met us in person or at presentations, but perhaps it is not a great landing page for people clicking through from Google.

Snapchat Ads ($0.50/email): After our painful experience with Facebook/Instagram and Google, I started looking at other channels and one of those was Snapchat’s new ad vehicle, Snapchat Ads for Business. Prior to July 2017 the Snapchat channel was available solely for large business. However, Snap opened it up (with limited software support) to smaller businesses in July 2017. The first ad I ran was in December 2017 for $50 for 24 hours and I received 118 emails. I subsequently tried 40+ different ads for $50 each and consistently received over 100 emails per $50. This was $.50/email with Snapchat Ads in contrast to $50/email with Facebook/Instagram Ads.

There were some serious drawbacks with the Snapchat Ad backend software, most of which we were willing to endure so I won’t speak about them publicly because this is has been hands-down the best vehicle for our ad-style and company-wide philosophy of experimentation, for reaching our target market, and we value this ad channel. One thing I am willing to share is that the open-rate for this new Snapchat demographic was 14%, whereas industry standard is 23% (and higher for people who have met our team). You may want to factor this lower open-rate into your calculations, and/or work on making your newsletter more appealing to open for this demographic (which is exactly we are working on).

Further, our demographic is Android, and if you use Mailchimp or other newsletter delivery service, you may be receiving higher ratings for iOS reads. 

Why might iOS and Mail open rates be deceptively high? From MailChimp: “iOS devices and Mail both have images turned on by default, so they’re always downloaded when an email is opened (including the one pixel image we use to track opens). Most other clients have images turned off by default, which can result in an inflated percentage of iPhone users showing up in your User Agents stats.”

Seattle Startup Week 2016

Industry Articles, TV and radio interviews (free emails): Our team at dTOOR has been lucky to have had high-profile articles in places like CNET, the Telegraph, and Tech Insider. In addition, we have been featured on King 5 and various radio stations. You might think that TV and print is dead, but I recommend to never turn these requests down. You may not receive many emails via your website that day, but these media opportunities pay dividends beyond the week they are aired. I still meet people who remember seeing me on TV years ago.


This section is all the stuff we haven’t tried yet (if only we had $20K to test these all out!), and the research we’ve done so far to get you started.

Influencers ($1,000+): You can use tools like Famebit, Upfluence, and so on to find influencers who will represent your product for a fee. Generally these offers are supposed to start at low price, but if you want a quality representation you will need to pay more, so plan on spending at least $1K. It also takes quite a bit of time to research the person representing you.

When I posted my offer on Famebit I found that the majority of those who applied would not bother to read my offer details. For example, I clearly stated that I wanted to run the campaign to target people in the United States, but over 50 people replied who wanted to run the campaign in India. Of the 12 replies which were actually targeting people in the USA, I thoroughly searched through their online presence. Only 4 had a “clean” online reputation (no nudity, profanity, or off-color humor). 3 out of 4 had fewer than 2,500 followers, but perhaps they were active followers who really listened, so it could be worth it.

I contacted all four accounts and in the end decided not proceed. Most of the influencers wanted a sample to show on their program, which works for great products which cost less than $200. Our phone prototypes cost over $70K in engineering costs and do not leave my hand when I go out in public. At the height of mass production, our phone retails in stores for over $700. It’s difficult to fully comprehend this situation, so I usually use a car manufacturer to conceptualize the problem. For example, imagine Tesla “giving out samples” of their prototypes for YouTube influencers to test drive. For more expensive products with lower profit margins, this model just doesn’t work. The best I could promise these influencers pre-manufacturing run was a splashy video of the product in action that they could show.

One influencer (the most promising, an almost-famous singer with over 85K followers on a beautiful Instagram account) was willing to show the video, on the condition that he could take it down after 24 hours, for a fee of $1200. That was the first time I realized that influencers can take your product advertisement down even immediately after you paid them. Fascinating.

Radio Ads ($5,000+): This Fit Small Business article says that radio ads can cost from $200 to $5,000 per week. In Seattle I think this ceiling is a lot higher. For example, I found out that an ad on one of the more popular talk shows in Seattle is a minimum of $10K per mention. One interesting tidbit that I found out – did you know that ads on talk radios receive vastly more attention than on music stations? People who are listening to music usually switch the station when an ad comes on. However, this is not so much the case with talk radio stations. The general problem with radio ads I see is that people can’t click on your website when they are in the car. The specific problem for our company was that both our company and product names have unusual spellings, which is confusing if people can’t see them in print.

Bus Ads ($5,500+): This Blue Media article says that exterior bus ads can range $150 – $600 for traditional ad sizes and 2,500 – $6,500 for larger/specialty ad sizes — per ad per 4 week period. (BTW, there are lots of other GREAT ad ideas in the Blue Media article’s sidebar.) Just like with radio ads, in Seattle prices are higher, especially by the time you pay to have the bus ad designed and published. However, the Seattle demographics were appealing for our product which targets Android users up to age 32. Also, the ads inside the bus can be as low as $35 per ad per 4-week period, you just need to order a minimum of $5,500 worth. The main drawback for our company was that the ad form is rectangular in shape.

Billboards ($7,000+): Rectangular form aside, a lot of people would see your ad. But they would not be able to click through to your website, and may not remember to look you up later. This Times Ooh Media website quotes an average of $7,421 per billboard in Seattle, but I’m guessing that you might be able to find a few that are less in the more rural areas.

Side note: Why would you want to advertise on billboards, or any other form of media which is more than a click away these days? There is an argument (and in my experience I believe it to be true) that people start to trust you and your product after they have seen you in at least three different places. I learned this first through volunteer work.

For example, your child’s school is hosting an auction dinner to raise money for new equipment. First, an announcement or two (or 5) about the auction goes out in the weekly school newsletter, including an explanation of why the equipment is needed and why it is a great tax write-off for you. Then you see a reminder about the auction date on the school marquee. Next, you receive a flyer with instructions about how to buy a ticket coming home in your child’s backpack. Finally, Pat on the auction committee approaches you at school during drop-off to ask, by the way, if you are thinking of attending the auction, could you please try to sign up tonight to help with the headcount?

If you had not received all of the prior notifications, Pat’s inquiry would have been seen as out of place. Also, in most cases, you will not purchase the ticket until someone (Pat) asks you personally. The public blasts need to come before the personal invite, and they work most effectively when you do both.

College Ambassadors ($5,000+): There are companies who organize college students to be your company’s ambassador on campus to promote your product, either by word of mouth, flyers or both. I heard that one of the famous razor companies used one of these companies to have students hand out samples for their campaign. We talked to one particular ambassador company that offered to have students tape fliers on the back of bathroom stall doors on campus. When I inquired if this (and of course I also asked about the sidewalk chalk as well) was illegal, they replied that it was marginal and that it if anyone complained they would take it down.

I am also aware of people who will go around town and post flyers, mostly for concerts and events, at all the public bulletin boards in town. They post the poster, snap a photo of where it is posted to prove their work, and they are paid per post. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find these people directly.

Sidewalk chalk (~$100): Spray can sidewalk chalk is about $11/can, but you will need a clean template which you can get cut at a laser-cutting studio like a makerspace or fabrication store for about $50. Important: you want to make sure that you test your sidewalk chalk brand yourself on similar materials to make sure it will wash away. Even brands that claim they wash off actually require professional pressure washing to remove.

Our company looked into doing something similar to chalk art at college campuses across the nation when we saw this cool Seattle-based product called RainWorks at Seattle Mini Maker Faire years ago. RainWorks is a non-toxic and invisible spray oil designed to use with a template to spray positive messages and art onto sidewalks. When the oil is dry the message is invisible, but when it rains (like in Seattle) the secret message is displayed. Fortunately, when we contacted RainWorks the team there filled us in on the legal details: you cannot advertise on public spaces. That means that whether you are using chalk, RainWorks, stickers, or whatever, you can’t use it to advertise your product on public spaces like sidewalks, roads, parks, and so on.

Honestly, our team is still enthralled with the sidewalk chalk concept, especially because our logo is so colorful, and we continue to look for private spaces near college campus thoroughfares so we can do temporary installations….if you know of any spaces like this, or have any “non-rectangular” marketing ideas of your own you’d like to share, please let me know below in the comments. 😊


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