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Take a Risk! It doesn’t have to be risky – how to do it

“Risk” really is in the eye of the beholder. Oftentimes what seems risky is just different than what other people are doing and isn’t really risky at all.

As marketers, it’s our jobs to constantly be thinking about effective new ways to reach our target market. But, we compete against each other in a noisy world, so rising above that noise can be extremely challenging and it means sometimes you have to take chances - more edgy, more attention. But that comes with the risk of turning off your prospects and not pleasing executive management.

I’m going to give you a real example of how you can take pretty sizable risks without it being risky. Case in point, Greg the Architect. I’ll skip to the success identifiers and then back fill the story. Greg the Architect was launched as a video mocking the over-hyped TLA (three-letter acronym) “SOA” and the vendors that pimp it. When all was said and done, over 90,000 people viewed the first video, it was featured as a case study in the bestseller Groundswell, has been talked about in the WSJ, InformationWeek and all over the blogosphere and won several awards including the American Business Stevie Award.

Greg the Architect started as a nascent idea when I was running corporate marketing at TIBCO. One of my team leads, Dan Ziman had a fantastic idea. The idea was simple, yet poignant and sounded something like, “How about this, there’s an architect who gets pitched by so many vendors and all they can talk about is SOA. Toward the end of the day he can’t take it anymore so he runs to the bathroom and throws up, but what comes out it the letters S O A.”

We didn’t know how the story might manifest itself, but among the creative vendors we were working with, we thought only one had the edginess and capacity to turn it into something real (and we could afford them). That of course was a firm based out of Kentucky called Big Fat Brain. After doing Greg the Architect for us, they did the hugely popular “You Suck at Photoshop” which yielded millions of views. They were soon featured in Time magazine and we became one of their little customers very quickly. Back to the story. Dan led the charge and had Big Fat Brain come in to pitch various ways to bring this architect to life. We had cartoon versions, we had claymation, actors and then dolls. We went with the dolls and a goal of having a 2-3 minute video (it ended up being 3:05) that was both funny yet very authentic. It was important to have people in our market see it and realize that the people that did it really knew the space. Big Fat Brain supplied most of the comedic elements, although they threw in some great technology references and Dan and I spent the time on making sure the other reference were realistic and would resonate. The script had to be edited numerous times and then we took the leap of faith.

But, I knew there would be a big hurdle to deal with. Associating our brand with an edgy video where the main character pukes had multiple inherent risks not only to my career but also to the image of my company. Even though the agency, Dan and I knew this was funny, timely great stuff, the reactions could have been very diverse. It was either pull the plug or de-risk the project. There were several people in our office (including a few execs) that didn’t know what to think of it – it had been so out of place in the enterprise software world that we literally got a few “I don’t know what to think” reactions.

So, I came up with a way to have our cake and eat it. TIBCO had been sponsoring an online journal called SOA Now. We made sure there was a distinction between editorially independent content and advertising and we knew we wanted to build up the subscriber list. So, we attached Greg the Architect as a promotion for SOA Now (ejournal). As a promo for the journal rather than our company, it would face far less fire if people didn’t like it. In fact when you watch the first two video, you’ll see a promotion for SOA Now at the end of it (even a jingle). Greg the Architect got big enough on its own that we switched to promoting

The videos got so much good publicity and positive customer feedback that even our CEO presented it at a Credit Suisse Disruptive Technology Conference as an example of the company being in touch with the market and having creative flair. We even made a special “internal only” Greg the Architect for the global sales kickoff where the head of sales was portrayed. I’m told that the video can never be viewed again.