Entrepreneurs: Time to Ditch Advertising and Paid Media

Building a socially responsible business requires a strict and regimented budget and careful financial planning. In most cases conducting business in a responsible manner requires higher costs, it is unavoidable. You can't cut corners, use bad materials, manufacture your products in sketchy places or ship your goods inefficiently. This is especially true for start-ups and small businesses with extremely limited revenues in the first place. Furthermore, any small CSR-focused company will never be able to outspend the marketing budgets of their bigger, more traditional competition.

For most small business owners and start-ups the math behind how much to invest in marketing and advertising can be very difficult. Every dollar spent on traditional marketing is one less spent on R&D, staffing needs and sales. What is the entrepreneur to do?

My company, TerraCycle, takes a unique approach to marketing and public relations and is a great example for other lean operations. Even with our extremely limited - practically non-existent - budget we have been able to successfully secure massive amounts of PR and award winning marketing. Any small business, start up or even non-profit can use this model to gain significant media attention, marketing opportunities and eventually additional revenues without needing to invest significant funds (or even any funds at all) into advertising and PR.

The idea is simple: Why pay to sponsor content, when you can get paid to be the content?

Traditionally, a company pays an ad agency for paid placements in various forms of media to get a brand, service or product into the public eye. These investments can have significant up-front production costs and even higher costs when it comes to securing the media buys. Plus, in today's world of "advertising blind" consumers, it does not always guarantee significant publicity or positive brand awareness. Here at TerraCycle, we've never paid for advertising, instead we record an average of about 18 press hits per day. Keeping the press interested in a business year over year may seem impossible, but considering both the frequency with which we are written about on a daily basis, our methods have quieted the skepticism.

The primary idea is to generate marketing content that equally promotes the company brand and, directly or indirectly, creates additional revenue streams that offsets any funds allocated. This is different from typical paid advertising campaigns, as most mediums expect to be paid to promote your brand or company. Negative Cost Marketing is flipping the board on this idea of traditional pay-for-product coverage, and has become an integral part of our business.

It all starts using the company's work and services to create endless PR opportunities. The nature of TerraCycle's work as a socially responsible, young, eco-entrepreneurial venture allows us to be a positive talking point in the media, and a powerful influence on individuals and consumers that are increasingly becoming more sustainably minded. First, we start by developing a good story about anything intriguing we can share with the media about our company. For example, if a local school or business that collects waste for TerraCycle achieves a collection milestone, we will develop an intriguing story around the collectors and pitch it to local broadcast and print media. This leads to hundreds of articles, news stories and blogs about the positive impact TerraCycle has across the globe. But this is just one aspect of our PR strategy, dubbed 'Supply Chain Mining".

To get coverage in major tier-one media, we'll focus on something entirely different, a new business model or innovation. To secure coverage in trade magazines, we look to our process, our R&D team, even our factories or shipping methods. If we want to get an earned media placement in a consumer magazine, we'll pitch a relevant product. For mommy blogs we'll focus on how TerraCycle helps turn moms into local eco-rockstars. What we've learned is we can make our business model, employees, customers, products, facilities - everything about our business - into a PR story. Constantly keeping our story fresh and media relevant and allowing us to cast a wider net than a traditional PR strategy might create.

All of this earned media coverage helps to keep us in the public eye and gives us great exposure in a variety of industries, which allows us to also utilize conferences and award ceremonies to further promote and share our business model with like-minded companies and industry leaders. Awards can be especially beneficial if entry costs are not significant, as receiving one opens additional media opportunities at no cost. We also utilize conferences, speaking engagements, and public presentation opportunities of an equally wide variety as our PR efforts. Our execs can be heard keynoting at recycling, packaging, sustainability, marketing, entrepreneurship and many other types of conferences. Each talk or award helps to grow the brand, creates PR and builds our expert profile, which leads to more 'content marketing' opportunities.

Content marketing makes up a significant portion of our overal marketing model. By developing partnerships with many blog platforms (such as the Huffington Post), we are able to both engage readers and indirectly promote TerraCycle via high-quality, original blogs and articles that get high visibility. Not only is generating blog content free, but some platforms will even pay you to submit content. The key is to make sure the content is not overly promotional, is valuable to the reader and maintains an expert-level discussion.

This brings us to the most exciting part of this new marketing model - generating significant revenue to promote your brand or business. This is truly the heart of the model because not only are you promoting yourself and getting your brand or company name publicized, you are able to make it a viable revenue stream. For example, TerraCycle's CEO and other execs have written three books, Revolution In a Bottle in 2009, and Outsmart Waste in 2013 and just last year a coffee table book about garbage called, Make Garbage Great. Each of these book projects including advances, a percentage of sales and created amazing PR.

In addition to the books, we have also been the subject of two television shows entirely focused on TerraCycle, our employees, and our business model. In 2009 and 2010, our first reality TV show, Garbage Moguls, premiered on the National Geographic Channel. In 2014, we secured a second reality show series with Pivot TV called Human Resources. After two very successful seasons in 2014 and 2015, we are currently filming season 3 right now from our headquarters in Trenton, NJ. Each season of the TV show generates six-figure revenues, creates new business, helps to grow existing partnerships and opens doors to new promotional, PR, and marketing opportunities. The show has been featured in the New York Times, the Associated Press, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, TV Guide and many more. Many companies - small and large - would be glad to pay PR agencies good money for that type of coverage. TerraCycle got paid for a project that also generates hundreds of earned media placements.

The path towards free marketing - or even revenue generation via your marketing - starts with a newsworthy story influenced or generated by our company, which is promoted through the work of our public relations team. Our PR department's budget is practically non-existent, save for employee salaries. Via the relationships we develop with media outlets, we start to "become the content," via blogging, public speaking and awards. This led us to book and even TV deals. While this might seem impossible to replicate, many other companies are doing the same.

Just think about how many family bakeries, hair salons or motorcycle shops have their own reality TV shows?

Adopting this new marketing model will require an initial investment of patience, time and some salary. The effects may not be apparent immediately, but don't all new strategies need a good foundation to get off the ground? But if you are a start-up or a socially responsible business you already face an uphill battle. You'll never be able to out spend the marketing budget of traditional companies. So instead of paying to get your business or brand publicized or covered, why not have someone pay you to do it?