If you’ve read my blog before, you’ll notice that this post is slightly different from what I usually write about. Some of you may not know that I own a digital agency based in Edinburgh called RNR SEO.
This recent guerrilla marketing campaign was a test to see if I could generate some interest and clients for my internet marketing company by manipulating ‘old media’ sources and doing something totally different that had nothing to do with online marketing.
The results were better than I expected and quite surprising, I ended up almost getting arrested, got a half page article in the largest newspaper in the city and gained a number of really good clients!
Read on to find out exactly how I done it, what actually happened, and how you can do exactly the same for your own business.
The guerrilla marketing technique I used is something called ‘Reverse Graffiti’. Before I explain exactly what that is and the history behind it, check out this short video which shows the preparation, actual process and also the results we achieved on some of the reverse graffiti sites:
If you’re having trouble playing the video, click here to view it directly on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DmykAZa0xBs
What is reverse graffiti?
Reverse graffiti was a term coined sometime near the turn of the new millennium. It’s also sometimes referred to as ‘clean graffiti’, ‘clean tagging’, ‘clean advertising’, ‘dust tagging’, ‘grime writing’ and ‘green graffiti’ to name just a few.
It involves taking a dirty surface, which could be anything from a street or a wall, to a window or a vehicle, and cleaning the dirt off to leave a message visible on the dirt. Here’s an example of the ‘clean advertisements’ I created in Edinburgh for my SEO company during my campaign:
Depending on the footfall/pollution/cleanliness of the pavements, the reverse graffiti advertisement can remain visible anywhere from just a couple of weeks all the way up to many months and even years.
There are hundreds of examples of reverse graffiti campaigns that have been adopted by advertising and marketing companies over the years, however, it was created initially by pioneering street artists who discovered a way to display their art using what is ‘technically’ a legal method, as opposed to having to spray paint their graffiti all over the cities.
This is where we enter something of a grey area. As you will see later on in this piece, the press spoke to a few council officials in my city and the verdict on the legality of reverse graffiti was somewhat divided.
There have been a couple of high profile cases where companies have been fined for reverse graffiti campaigns in the UK, River Island being the most notable, but the vast majority of these campaigns seem to go under the radar.
With this in my mind I decided to just take the plunge and deal with any consequences afterwards. There was a little part of me that was hoping there may have been some sort of outcry about it, no harm in getting a little extra publicity after all!
After doing a little bit of research, I realised that not only had nobody ever done this on any sort of scale in my home city of Edinburgh, but there was also no notable case studies online of how the process was executed and what sort of results had been achieved.
Also, there was definitely no sign of any digital marketing agencies having done this in the past so I thought if nothing else it would be good fun to try. As you read on you’ll find out it became quite a nice earner as well which was a bonus!
Right, let’s get in to exactly how I done this step by step so that you can replicate the campaign in your own home city if you wish to.
How I executed it
I should start off by saying that I set out to execute this campaign by spending as little money as possible, mostly so I could present the method in this tutorial in its most affordable form. I will also include other options at each stage of the campaign where you could spend a bit of money and save quite a bit of time.
Another quick thing to mention is that you will need at least 2 people to carry out this campaign. I had the help of one of my business associates Matt, without him it probably wouldn’t have happened as we had a lot of hurdles to overcome and he put a lot of work in to it with me. If you’re reading, cheers mate!
STEP 1: Creating the stencils
Creating the stencil that we needed was by far the most time consuming part of the entire preparation stage. I’d highly advise you to pay to have an aluminium stencil laser cut by a professional. This will cost roughly between £150 and £200 (~$250 and $300).
What we did was take 2 old menu boards that had been discarded by someone who was based in our office building. They were about 10mm thick and made of plastic.
We then settled on the message that we wanted to be displayed all over the city. In the end we went with:
IS YOUR BUSINESS
GET IN TOUCH TO
Here’s how it looked prior to us cutting the stencil:
The large ‘STOP!’ sign served to grab the people’s attention and literally stop them in their tracks to read the rest of the advert.
The ‘IS YOUR BUSINESS CLEANING UP ONLINE?’ was of course a double meaning in the sense that it means is your business generating income online, and it was also a nod to the fact that we were ‘cleaning up’ the streets with the guerrilla marketing method we were employing.
Then the last line, in the form of a call to action to get in touch and obviously my company website at the bottom so they know where to find us.
Absolute nightmare: Cutting the stencil
Now we had cut out all the letters and pencilled them on to the plastic boards, it was time to cut them out. This turned out to be a horrendous endeavour. I can’t stress enough, if you do this, definitely get a stencil professionally laser cut for the extra money.
If you want to do it yourself like we did however, then here’s how we done it.
To begin with we used Stanley knives (carpet knives) to carve the letters out. After a few hours this resulted in painfully slow progress and aching hands all round.
We also had a problem on the second board when the Stanley knife slipped and broke the inside of the ‘G’ letter off. We had to get an extra board and just carve this letter out again and replace it every time we were stencilling so we had an intact ‘G’.
After a day of this, I went out and bought a little Dremel multi tool which turned out to be a life saver. The circular saw fitting sailed through the plastic with ease and shaved at least a couple of days of manual labour off the job using the Stanley knives.
Once the Dremel tool had sailed through all the letters, we just used sand paper to smooth all the edges to ensure that when the water from the pressure washer hit them it would be a nice straight edge and produce the words nice and clear on the streets.
Now the hard part was over, we moved on to how to acquire the machinery and tools to actually blast the thick dirt from the streets.
Vehicles, machinery and tools required
After doing quite a bit of research and phoning around, we established that we needed to acquire/hire/borrow the following:
- A transit van
- A trailer with a large water bowser, diesel generator and power washer attached
- Waterproof clothing
- High visibility vests
- Parking cones
- Wellington boots
- Good torches
- Length of hose
Let’s start with the van. If you don’t already own a van (which I don’t), you will have to either buy a van (probably not the best idea), hire a van (better idea) or borrow a van from a friend (best idea!).
Luckily my friend Shaun was kind enough to loan me his van for a week, which was already fitted with a tow bar (cheers mate!).
The guys at APlant Hire in Edinburgh also gave me a great deal on the weekly rental of one of their trailers which had a 1,000 litre water tank on it, a diesel generator and a 2,000psi pressure washer. Unfortunately I forgot to get really good close up photos of the van and pressure washer together but below is a photo I took form the office of it set up in the car park the first day I got them:
I used my skiing gear which worked perfectly as they were thick, warm and waterproof. Then I bought a couple of pairs of Wellington boots and a good torch. Now we were ready to take to the streets in the dead of night to get blasting! Well, nearly…
Filling the bowser with water
Filling up a 1,000 litre water tank proved to be a bit more of a pain than we first thought. We had to run a long hose from the ladies toilet in the office and connect it to the tap using electrical tape. This might not sound like a massive hassle, but we had to do this every night before we went out.
The reason for this was that we were doing this in November, which is when it is bitterly cold in Edinburgh, so we had to drain the water tank every night before we went to bed as if the water had frozen overnight it could’ve damaged the pipes and pumps. So if you try this in a cold environment, remember not to be lazy and drain the water bowser every night!
First night blasting
I should probably mention something before jumping in to our first night out in the van blasting in Edinburgh. We sat down and worked out all the best places to hit in the city. As a general rule, everywhere we hit had to fall in to at least one of these categories:
- Site must receive high footfall traffic – Kind of obvious this one, the more people walking past, the more likely that you will get the desired eyes on the advert. Also means more chance of people taking photos of it and sharing it on social media and other platforms.
- Site should be a well know landmark – The reasoning behind this was that it gave us a better chance of receiving the media attention that would be necessary to really boost the whole campaign.
- Site should be relevant to media organisation – The reasoning behind this again was to directly get various media outlets attention. This meant hitting the headquarters/offices of newspapers, radio stations and television studios in the city.
So with all the planning completed, the bowser full of water, and the van full of diesel, we headed off in to the night at around 8pm.
The first night we managed to blast the ad down at around 20 different sites, including a big cluster of them at the largest shopping centre (mall) in Edinburgh.
A few things we learnt on the first night of doing the reverse graffiti:
Firstly, don’t leave your wellies at the side of the trailer when doing a test blast with the pressure hose:
Secondly, the noise from the generator was VERY loud. This was a problem since we were doing our campaign through the night when there was a lot less traffic and pedestrians. This was our before and after solution to try and muffle the noise:
Unfortunately, the hastily fashioned cardboard box insulated with bubble wrap had no effect at lowering the noise levels! So we just had to make sure we selected our sites carefully and got in and out quick to avoid any noise complaints.
Thirdly, not all pavements are born the same. I’ve never paid attention to the pavements when I’ve walked on them over the last 20+ years, but doing this you have to learn to spot which types of paving slab will show the stencil clearly and which will not. I couldn’t believe how many different type of paving slabs there are!
Even after doing 50+ of these we were still finding pavements that looked identical to ones we had had great results on previously but then ended up turning out not so great. A lot of the time it came down to just pure luck. Here are a couple of examples of how some of the poorer blasts shoewd up:
Our run in with the police!
While I was pretty confident that this campaign wouldn’t result in me being thrown in jail, for a brief period of time I thought we were in big trouble with the police!
It was the last night of the reverse graffiti campaign at around midnight, and Matt and I had just laid down an ad outside a very popular casino in Edinburgh. We were driving along the road on the way back to the office and decided we would pull over to check out another ad we had laid down the night before outside an office block in the same area now that all the water had dried around it.
We checked the ad and it had come up really nice, so we jumped back in to the van and I started the engine… Next thing I knew, an unmarked Audi police car came screeching from over the other side of the road and skidded in front of us blocking the van in and preventing me from pulling out in to the road!
Stunned, Matt and I looked at each other with that ‘Oh sh*t, we’re in trouble now!’ look plastered all over our faces!
After 10 minutes of interrogations, to our relief, it turned out to be a case of mistaken identity! The police were looking for someone else in the area in a white Transit van who was also wearing a black beanie hat… What are the chances?
After our little encounter with the Police we decided to call it an early night and head back to the office.
Wrapping up the reverse graffiti campaign
Initially I thought that it was going to be a real pain getting these ads down but the reality couldn’t have been further from the truth! It’s true what people say, put a high visibility vest on and lay out a couple of parking cones to prevent pedestrians from walking in to the spray zone, and it seemed like we could get away with spraying these ads anywhere.
There were only 2 occasions where we had any hiccups. Firstly, and rather annoyingly, The Scotsman building (the owner of the main newspaper we were trying to get featured in) had a security guard working overnight who came out and politely asked us to stop, literally seconds before I was about to start spraying the ad.
Apart from that the only other mishap was when I was spraying an ad on the pavement of a very busy road in Edinburgh city centre and a woman walked past that I never noticed just as I started spraying. She got wet feet, gave me the ‘look’ and shouted “Are you serious!” then she stormed off in to the night!
Over the 4 nights we were out in van laying the reverse graffiti ads, we probably hit well over 50 different sites laying down over 100 separate ads. With the ads all in place, it was then time to get the PR machine in to full swing!
How we got local media attention
Never having attempted to get any sort of mainstream media attention in the past, I assumed that it couldn’t be that hard to get someone to write a story in the newspaper, and it turned out I was right!
The day after we finished the campaign, I came in to the office and created a number of different webmail accounts. I then went on the ‘Edinburgh Evening News’ website, and took down the email addresses of the editors and chief reporters.
With these email addresses, I then sent a series of emails from the newly created webmail accounts. Each email varied in angle, some were complimentary and saying how they had ‘spotted this cool graffiti on the ground’ in certain parts of the city, others were from a more negative point of along the lines of ‘have you seen this blatant vandalism advertising all over Edinburgh, this surely must be illegal!’ etc.
My reasoning behind this was to get these people’s attention and at the same time manufacture a fake debate by showing what different people’s potential point of view may be on reverse graffiti.
Only a couple of hours later, I had a reply from a reporter from the newspaper! She was hoping to speak to me (me being ‘Tommy’, one of the personas I had created in one of the fake emails) about the reverse graffiti, as she had already sent a photographer out to take photos of the ads and was looking to run a story on it… Bingo!
Here are the actual screenshots of the emails in question (click on each email to enlarge image):
I noticed that the reporter had said that the photographer couldn’t find any of the ads so I took the opportunity on the phone call, while masquerading as ‘Tommy’, to tell her exactly where I had seen the ads. Of course, the places where ‘Tommy’ had seen the ads just happened to be the ads that had turned out crystal clear. 😉
The email also stated that ‘Tommy’ was ‘not the first person to mention this’ which confirmed that word had obviously got around the office about the other emails I had sent in from the other web mail accounts too.
The reporter then called the number I had given her, which was Matt’s number, this was to avoid having to give her my real number to contact me down the line when she would inevitably contact me for my side of the story.
So putting on my best ‘aggrieved’ voice with a little bit of an exaggerated accent, I went in to character and took the call as ‘Tommy’!
The call lasted about 10 minutes and the reporter just asked me some questions about what I thought about the ads, where I had seen them and some other bits and pieces.
After the phone call, I assumed it would take a couple of days for them to get the photos, write the story and do their research etc. However, around an hour later I received a phone call on my business mobile phone and instantly noticed that the number was the same as the one that had phoned Matt’s phone earlier, it was the reporter!
The first thing I thought is ‘Oh no, she’s going to recognise my voice and know that I was actually ‘Tommy’ all along!’ It was too late to do anything about it so I calmly answered the phone and started chatting to the reporter. The call went on for at least an hour and she basically asked me for m life story, by the time I got off the phone she had asked me that much that I was having visions of a front page spread!
She also informed me that she was happy that she had got a hold of me as she was writing up the story straight away to get it included in the next day’s edition of the newspaper! So from sending a few emails in the morning, by 3 pm that same day I had managed to secure an editorial piece in the largest newspaper in the city the very next day, not bad for half a day’s work.
The next day, and the newspaper hit the stands…
I rushed from my home to the local shop to pick up the local newspaper for that day. Quite excited, I bought 4 copies of the paper and went back to the car to frantically flick through the pages.
I quickly realised that my front page spread dream was just that, but kept flicking through the pages until I got to page 21 and seen this…
After reading the article, and seeing the photo of one of our ads that had came up really clearly, I was quite happy with the story. I also noticed that the reporter had included a direct quote from ‘Tommy’ in the article which made me laugh.
A half page advertisement in that newspaper would’ve cost me a at least a couple of thousand pounds, so to get a half page editorial piece which the readers actually engaged with would mean it was worth more than any advertisement I could’ve placed. So based on that I was pretty happy with the thousands of pounds worth of local press coverage absolutely free of charge!
They also featured the story on their website that receives decent volumes of traffic, you can view the article here: http://www.edinburghnews.scotsman.com/news/pavement-stencils-drag-web-firm-into-graffiti-row-1-3198799
I’d noticed an increase in the website visitors as the days went by when we were laying down the ads across the city, which was encouraging, and then when the article was published, there was another spike in the website visitors. Just goes to show that old media isn’t completely dead yet!
The real bonus was that the campaign actually generated leads, and good ones at that! For a campaign that in total cost around £500 to execute, the very first client I took on off the back of it paid for the entire campaign costs many times over with the first monthly instalment, and 5 months down the line is still a happy SEO client of mine.
The impact of the campaign was relatively short lived however, and I did expect that to be the case. The main goal was to get the media attention and the story printed in the newspaper, as that turned out to be the main catalyst for the leads it generated for the business.
I think if I had been doing this for a company with a far broader potential customer base, then reverse graffiti could have a much greater impact for a longer period of time. Dominos pizzas proved this when they ran a campaign across a number of states in the US.
Their PR machine went to work and they ended up getting national press coverage on all mediums. They later said that they estimated that the reverse graffiti campaign had generated over one million dollars worth of publicity for them!
I’ve tried to make this tutorial as complete as possible, but due to me only having time to publish this 5 months after actually doing it, I’m sure there will be a few things I’ve missed out.
If you have any questions about anything in the tutorial then leave a question in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them all.
I hope to see some other internet marketers blogging about their own reverse graffiti adventure soon!