A tale of a ridiculous billboard

| June 23, 2011

If you drove up 101 North in California between Palo Alto and SFO in the month of April, you probably saw our billboard. Then you probably thought: did this stupid thing actually work? How much did it cost? Should my startup get a billboard? Here’s what we learned.

Billboards are expensive. In the SF Bay Area, they can cost upwards of $30k/4 weeks depending on location and availability (Apple pays almost $50k/4 weeks for theirs and have them leased out all year). Those prices were out of our range. But like any scrappy startup, we figured we could outsmart the system and get big impact for relatively little money. I had a theory that sometimes billboards get booked, but for whatever reason the buyer backs out or doesn’t get the artwork done on time. The only thing worse for CBS than selling a billboard for cheap would be having a big blank billboard. I asked our CBSOutdoors rep to ping us if this happened. It only took a few weeks before they needed to fill some space.

Our billboard’s info:

  • Size: 12’x40′
  • Run time: 4 weeks
  • Total cost including art work and taxes: $6,999

The design

I had just a few days to finalize the design and get it off to the printers. We had a big decision to make. As a relatively low-profile company, should we clearly present our value proposition? Point out our competitors many weaknesses? The problem with billboards is that your audience can take very little action. They have to actually see the billboard, remember the name, and search for it when they get to their final destination. We thought that if we could get some press and buzz online, people could click through to our website resulting in far more actual visits. Crazy billboard was the way to go.

We’re big fans of the online community Reddit where users make “Rage Comics”. They’re crudely drawn characters developed by the community that are used in comics that any user can create and share. We used one of our favorite characters, the Y-U-NO guy for our billboard. He basically just asks why people aren’t doing something (like using HipChat).

The response

The response far exceeded our expectations and continues to pay off today. Just to be clear, we didn’t tell anyone about it. We didn’t submit it to Reddit, Digg, or any news site. Shortly after it went up, it was all over the place: Twitter, TumblrFAIL Blog (in the “Wins” category), and every startup’s dream, TechCrunch. It also caused a ridiculous rise in searches for “hipchat”. The billboard has been down for weeks but when we’re wearing our HipChat t-shirts, we still have random people come up to us and scream “Y U NO USE HIPCHAT” in some sort of confused Spanish/Italian accent.

Most importantly we got a lot of new, happy customers (the actual goal of any advertising campaign).

There was also a slightly negative reaction. People thought that we were a huge company and that our marketing team was ruining an internet meme. The reality is that we’re just three guys that thought it would be really funny. Although it made us sad that the Reddit community didn’t like it, we know that the overall title of a post dictates how people will react to it.

What happened to the billboard?

I’m actually not sure. We were told they’d be able to use it again if we contracted another billboard. I was hoping to get it fleece-backed and use it as an enormous blanket.

So, should your company get a billboard?

Maybe. You have to be really confident that you can come up with something crazy enough to create buzz, online and off. A helpful exercise if you do get a billboard: drive up and down 101 looking at existing billboards to see which are the most effective.

Here are my observations:

  • Don’t overdesign – You’d think that if you’re making something 40 feet wide, it better look great. This isn’t the case for most billboards I notice.
  • Use big, sans-serif fonts – You have just a few seconds to get something across. A name, an idea, a feeling. If you need to use text, make sure people can read it.
  • Dark text on light backgrounds are the easiest to read. Avoid using a blue background, it blends in with the sky.