Lessons to learn from Blekko and T-Shirt marketing

You may or may not have heard about a relatively new search engine named Blekko – and fortunately it doesn’t matter hugely in the context of this post. If you’re interested in playing around with data and search, then it’s definitely worth checking out, but the important thing for this article is in the picture:

Free T-Shirt sent by Blekko

It’s a picture of a T-Shirt sent to me by Blekko. I can’t remember where I first saw their offer mentioned (Possibly Reddit), but if you emailed them via an address listed on their blog, they offered to send a T-Shirt and a cool little trading cards booklet which I can’t find to photograph right now. And shortly afterwards, they created Blekkogear, which continues to offer shirts and trading cards to anyone that emails them.

How lovely and fluffy right?

Isn’t that lovely? A nice free T-shirt – and they’re one of those rare companies that actually sends things outside of the U.S as well! But it’s not really marketing is it – it’s not like a homepage advert on a big website or investing thousands in a PPC campaign.

Wait a minute – there’s ROI here:

Now the team at Blekko might just think it’s a nice thing to send out shirts, or they might be doing it because they realise there’s a lot of value in it – or it might be a mixture of the two. Either way, it’s worth considering what costs and returns they might be getting. In terms of costs, the T-shirt design may have been an internal thing, or it might have cost them some cash, say $500 for the sake of this exercise. And each T-shirt with the image would be say, $20 on average using print-on-demand to avoid overstock, with say $10 for shipping each time (I have no idea of postage costs in the U.S, but in the UK, I’d guess it’d be probably £2 for a domestic parcel).

And let’s imagine that as Blekko, the Blekko blog, and the places it was shared are quite techy, they get 200 people enquiring about a shirt.

So that’s:

  • Design: $500
  • Shirts: $4000
  • Shipping: $2000

Total spend $6500.

That seems like a lot of dough for 200 T-shirts doesn’t it?

But wait a second…

They’ve let the offer percolate amongst a techy crowd, which is exactly the core market for Blekko – if it’s going to go mainstream, it’s most likely going to do it with the earlier adopters actively advocating and teaching others about it, as it will have to battle some change intertia to move people away from Google or even Bing, which have a ‘traditional’ search engine and also lots of brand recognition/advertising budget.

Say 25% of the T-shirt recipients are like me and have a blog. They’re not necessarily A-list bloggers, and they’re chuffed enough to post an article with a link to Blekko and Blekko gear. That’s 50 blog posts, and links – depending on the site, paid links can be somewhere between $50 and $200 judging by the going rate on various sponsored post and linkbuying services and the enquiries I regular see being pitched to a variety of bloggers (And in sponsored posts etc, those links are meant to be ‘nofollowed’ – the voluntary ones to Blekko are ‘Dofollowed’, which is handy). So that’s potentially about $10,000 worth of links.

I’m not a heavyweight tech blogger, and tend to be somewhere above average on most of the ranking services I’m registered on – e.g. AdAge, Technorati, Wikio, PostRank etc, etc. So knocking a little off my average article views, you’re probably looking at circa 10,000 page views targetted at the tech/marketing audience Blekko want to reach. Put that at a CPM of say $10, and that’s another $100, before we look at how the offer has spread via social networks, social sharing sites, and other word-of-mouth routes.

Then there’s the offline impact. I hang out with a lot of people involved in digital businesses, and I’m quite likely to be wearing the Blekko shirt on some of those occasions – if people haven’t heard of the name, like any normal geek, they’ll ask about it, and not only see the name, but get my quick take on what it is and does. And odds are, they’ll decide not to just take my word for it and have a look themselves. Coincidentally, the T-Shirt has arrived just before the Digital People in Peterborough Curry Night, so that’s 16-20 geeks.

And then there’s the fact that although I’ve heard the name and taken a quick look at some reviews of Blekko (and spend a quick bit of time playing), I still ahven’t really sat down and worked out exactly what it could do for me. But having received the T-shirt, I may not consciously think of it as a bribe, but it’s made me think nicely of the company, and every time I see it, I’ve got a visual reminder that I saved a load of Blekko information and intended to sit down and work through how I could utilise it effectively. With limited time in the day and countless startups appearing in my RSS feed that get filed for the mythical ‘when I get some spare time’, that visual reminder makes all the difference. I don’t know what the lifetime value is of a new user for Blekko, but say it’s $20. Out of the initial 200 T-shirts, they’re likely to convest a fair amount – say 20%, or 40 people. And from online and offline interactions, those people will probably spread the word to say 100 people (Average number of Facebook friends is 150 as an example). That’s 4000 additional people, and if 5% like Blekko, that’s another 200. Without going to the next degree of Kevin Bacon, we’ll say that’s 240 new users with a lifetime value of $4800.

So quick maths time:

Remember the costs?

  • Design: $500
  • Shirts: $4000
  • Shipping: $2000
  • Total spend $6500.

And the benefits?

  • Linkbuilding: $10,000.
  • Equivalent CPM ads: $100
  • User lifetime value: $4800
  • Offline recommendations: How much would you value someone’s friend recommending your product?
  • Total: $14,900.

$8400 of benefits already, so why aren’t more companies doing it?

Really rough calculations without getting into Blekko’s business model, accurately looking at social media sharing and recommendation values etc, but you probably get the message, and I save the calculations to decimal places for paying clients… But that not only leaves the question of why more companies don’t allow for offers like this, and limit their giveaways to conferences, trade shows or to members of the traditional press (Conference freebies end up as noise unless they’re really special – and traditional mainstream press still appreciate free schwag but are a bit more jaded than most people).

Even worse – how have I managed to work with a load of brands that have somewhat iconic status amongst their fans, to the point where fans are potentially willing to pay to advertise that company, and yet the opportunity isn’t taken because no-one ever gets around to it? And that’s ignoring the concerns about the brand identity, and what happens in someone undesirable wears our logo etc.

If you’re trying to be ultra-exclusive and maintain your desirability that way, then you might not want to be letting just anyone into your branded shirts or other merchandise. But even then, letting the availability spread via word-of-mouth means you get that same benefit until such a time as your making enough mainstream cash not to care.

And I’m not suggesting you should stop all your other branding, marketing and advertising and bung it all into T-shirts, but when you’re spreading your budget between SEO, Social Media, Display etc, it’s worth allocating some to something which might serve as a social object if you’re lucky.

And the best bit of this whole argument?

If it works, I’m hoping I can renew my wardrobe… And the last time I got a free shirt and modelled it (SocialMedian back in January 2009), it roughly coincided with the company being acquired for $7.5 million. It’s the T-shirts that did it…