By Ty Kiisel, Forbes -- Although Bryan Brandenburg and Dan Farr don’t wear a cape or tights, to comic book and sci-fi fans, they are superheros. Last year’s inaugural Comic Con in Salt Lake City turned out much better than Brandenburg and his partner Dan Farr could have ever imagined. The idea of doing Comic Con was Farr’s brainchild, and to be successful, they needed to turn a niche comic convention into a mass market Comic Con. They decided to take, what was then considered an unproven approach, and leverage social media to reach out to their core audience and entice them to help introduce Comic Con to the rest of the world.
Thinking outside the box isn’t something new to most entrepreneurs. Brandenburg’s creative use of social media netted Salt Lake Comic Con results even Superman would have been proud of. Before a single dime was spent on traditional advertising media, they’d sold half a million dollars in tickets. By creating content their audience would share for entertainment value on Facebook and Twitter, they basically sold more tickets than any first time North American Comic Con in history.
Comic Con isn’t a Lendio customer, but the story should resonate with small business owners all across the country. In an interview with Brandenburg a few days ago, I asked why he thought it worked. His answers shed light on what other small business owners can do to amp up excitement for their products or services—particularly when access to capital is a challenge and every dollar needs to be maximized to make businesses successful:
“Comic Con had never been in Salt Lake City before,” he said. Any entrepreneur worth his or her salt will tell you it’s important to be first to market if you can. That said, you might argue, “Comic Con has been around for a while. This wasn’t the first Comic Con.”
And, you’d be right. Brandenburg and company took an already popular event into a new market. Although Brandenburg correctly gives credit to the fact the event was in a new venue, there have been other first-time Comic Con events that didn’t have the same level of success. Although being first to market is important, there are just as many wildly successful entrepreneurs who will tell you the way you go to market is just as important as being first. Sometimes doing it better than those who have gone before you is an incredible strategy for success.
”My partner Dan Farr created a potent roster of celebrity guests,” he said. No matter how good your marketing machine is, you’ve got to have a killer product—something that is one of a kind. Farr took a ‘Moneyball’ approach to getting a cost-effective, highly marketable line-up that had something for everyone. He then leveraged his contacts and reputation to bring in a powerful platform to launch a brand new event.
“We created our own brand within the space,” he added. Not content to simply be aligned with Comic Con, Brandenburg wanted to make sure his audience knew it was Salt Lake Comic Con. Because his audience was in Utah, he wanted to make sure they all knew the event was for comic book and sci-fi fans in Utah. William Shatner, Lou Ferrigno, Adam West, and Stan Lee (to name just a few) were coming to them, in many cases, for the first time in history.
No small business owner wants to be the “me too” guy. Brandenburg and Farr were able to establish their event as a unique and individual brand in a space that most would have suggested is already defined. Not one to sit on their laurels, his next event, a Comic Con Fan Experience (Fan X) will include Norman Reedus from the Walking Dead, many of the crew from Star Trek The Next Generation, and even the DeLorean from back to the future to name a few.
“Did you know on social media there are really only about 4-1/2 degrees of separation from you and everyone else in the world?” he asked. I didn’t . By giving his core audience a reason to share information about Salt Lake Comic Con within their Facebook and Twitter stream, he was able to exponentially increase the reach of the advertising dollars they did spend promoting the event. By Brandenburg’s calculations, leveraging social media saved him upwards of $5,000 to $15,000 in advertising dollars a week.
It’s just not a good idea to ignore the “kapow!” of paid and organic marketing efforts working together. After all, who would Batman be without the Boy Wonder? Well-crafted, strategic, and shareable content can take your paid advertising efforts to the next level.
“We created content we felt our core audience would want to share,” he added. Brandenburg wanted to make it easy for fans to share info about his event, so he and his team created very shareable content. Even though there is a lot of great imagery within the comic book, geek and pop culture universe, Brandenburg wasn’t content to simply post pictures of Superman, Zombies, or Darth Vader. He added a sense of humor that gave his audience a reason to share.
“Know your customer inside and out,” he says. “Understand their needs at a deep level. We did a lot of listening—nobody listens.” He also suggests they found success by entertaining instead of selling. In other words, if all your customers hear is, “Gonna buy?” they probably won’t.
“Social media allowed us to have a conversation with a million people a week within 600 miles of Salt Lake City,” said Brandenburg. “You’d think it would be Business 101, but if you’re going to have that many conversations all at once, you’ve got to listen to your customers, understand their needs, and come through in the end.”
Most small business owners will never organize an event for over 72,000 comic book and sci-fi fans, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to learn from Captain Kirk or the Incredible Hulk. Pulling off Comic Con is a serious endeavor that required Brandenburg, Farr, and their team to look at what others had done before and learn from tactics outsiders used to market their products and services. Then they architected a strategy that engaged comic book fans and movie fanatics to laugh, have fun, be entertained, evangelize and ultimately become customers.
Maybe Brandenburg and Farr deserve capes after all.