What Is a Grassroots Marketing Strategy?

Hero Images/Hero Images/GettyImages

Grassroots marketing is a low-cost approach to spreading the word about your products by engaging customers to help spread the word. There are many low-tech grassroots marketing strategies, such as sampling and referrals, but creating shareable online content is an especially effective strategy.

Like a grassroots movement in politics, a grassroots marketing strategy builds brand awareness from the ground up. Instead of paying outside companies for expensive advertising, a grassroots approach grows customer support organically through word of mouth and good old-fashioned credibility. A grassroots effort can take longer to catch on than an expensive, targeted advertising campaign, but it will undoubtedly cost less for the results you achieve, and the customer loyalty you generate will be genuine and long term.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

A grassroots marketing strategy is based on spreading the word about your products and services through customer engagement.

Some Grassroots Examples

  • Sampling: The easiest way for customers to make a real connection with your products is to experience them firsthand. If you run a food business, offer free tastes. If you manufacture skin-care products, give out sample size packages. There's no doubt you'll run into some customers who are just looking for freebies, but you'll also reach your target market in tangible, visceral and memorable ways.

  • Word of Mouth: When you advertise or promote your own product, your customers have to take your word about its quality and appeal. When potential customers hear about your offerings from their friends and family, they're more likely to believe what they hear because these recommendations come from sources they already trust. Although word-of-mouth marketing can happen without your input, you can also foster it by offering discounts or free products as rewards for referrals or simply making a heartfelt plea to customers who genuinely want your business to succeed.

  • Social Media: Basic Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts cost nothing, and when used well, they can be effective ways to reach the people who will buy your products and support your business. Grassroots marketing through social media is most effective if you don't just remind your audience of reasons to buy but rather provide useful content that creates an emotional connection with your brand. If you own a home security company, for instance, you can post information about low-cost ways to keep homes safe. If you service heating appliances, you can make suggestions for low-cost ways to weatherproof and insulate.

Advantages of Grassroots Marketing

If you're savvy and creative, you'll never run out of ideas and opportunities for grassroots marketing. The possibilities are virtually unlimited, and they come from both inside your company and outside, as satisfied customers give your company's reputation additional momentum, and synergies develop between the messages you put out and the reception they get from engaged stakeholders.

Grassroots marketing is inexpensive, especially compared with the cost of paid advertising, which requires ongoing repetition that saps your marketing budget. Many grassroots marketing techniques, such as referrals and online shares, don't cost anything at all. Having a limited advertising budget may force you to rely on grassroots marketing strategies, but you can build a repertoire of techniques that will serve your business well even if you can afford other marketing options.

The authenticity of a grassroots effort makes it convincing and compelling, especially when your customers do the work for you, such as spreading the word about your offerings via referrals. In a marketing landscape crowded with loud and busy messaging, a quiet and sincere voice can especially stand out and resonate with the right audience.

Disadvantages of Grassroots Marketing

Grassroots marketing takes time. No matter how well you treat your customers or spread your message through social media, you probably won't be able to reach a large group quickly unless your content goes viral, an outcome that you can't possibly predict or control. Your grassroots marketing campaign will require patience, so this is not an effective approach to use if you need to quickly recoup a large investment in research and development.

Although you can control many of the ways your grassroots marketing messages reach your audience, some of the outcomes of this approach are beyond your control. Referrals are powerful and effective, but negative reviews gain at least as much traction as positive ones, and you'll probably have some dissatisfied customers no matter how well you treat your clientele. Social media campaigns can be carefully planned and researched, but tastes and trends change rapidly among social media audiences, and your content may start to feel stale.

Grassroots marketing can also have limited effectiveness if it is the only strategy you use. Because it is so difficult to predict which grassroots approaches will be effective, it's prudent to combine these efforts with some traditional advertising if you have the budget to do so. The messages will reinforce each other and create synergies as customers learn about your brand through multiple channels.

Grassroots Marketing Online

Although grassroots marketing is a modern term for an outreach strategy that has been around since the first marketplace vendor relied on a customer to refer his friends, the world of online media has transformed the field, creating many new opportunities and challenges. The internet makes it possible to reach a virtually unlimited audience at little or no cost. At the same time, the sheer volume of information available online makes it especially difficult to craft a message that cuts through the noise and reaches the right people.

To develop a successful online grassroots marketing campaign:

  • Know your target audience. Understand who they are, what they like and where they look for information. Develop a profile of your prototypical customer, including demographics such as age group and geographic location, and psychographics such as what type of music they enjoy and what they do for fun. The more specific and detailed your profile, the better you'll be able to identify avenues for reaching your audience.

  • Use your knowledge of your audience to craft effective content. Do your homework so you know what types of language, music and cultural references are most likely to get actionable responses. Use humor and don't be afraid to make your content a bit edgy, especially if you're trying to appeal to an irreverent crowd.

  • Create emotional connections. People will be much more willing to share your content if they relate to it emotionally. Skilled storytelling generates empathy and moves people to action. Pictures and videos create a stronger emotional connection than words. 

Company-Driven Grassroots Marketing

To some extent, you can take control of your grassroots marketing campaign, crafting a strategy based on meticulous research. You can create a schedule and hire professional content writers to draft original content based on the information you've gathered. If you're relying on face-to-face grassroots strategies such as soliciting referrals from clients, you can devise appealing incentives to encourage customers to spread the word.

These approaches rely on perseverance, foresight and savvy as well as a willingness to invest the necessary time and also the required funds if you choose to work with professionals or dedicate some of your own payroll hours to your campaign. These intentional approaches to grassroots marketing can be quite effective, and they also allow you to synchronize your production and distribution schedules with your promotions.

If you know you're going to aggressively plug your products through a well thought out social media push, you'll also need to make sure you have enough product on hand to meet demand. If you generate demand without having a sufficient supply of your offerings, you'll miss out on opportunities, and you may even alienate potential customers. Similarly, you'll need to coordinate your grassroots marketing efforts with the retailers who carry your products by communicating your marketing strategies to them so they can be sufficiently prepared.

Customer-Driven Grassroots Marketing

Business owners dream of content going unexpectedly viral and generating a big rush of orders. Such events are notoriously hard to predict and control, however, because they are driven by customers rather than by your own strategies and efforts. In his book "The Tipping Point," Malcolm Gladwell writes about a sudden unexpected surge in sales of Hush Puppies shoes in 1994 and 1995 with no input or effort whatsoever on the part of the shoemaker.

The Hush Puppies event didn't come about because of a deliberate grassroots campaign, but the brand's surging popularity certainly came from grassroots sources. The phenomenon has elements in common with grassroots marketing campaigns that become suddenly and wildly popular out of the blue. Your business can put serious and concentrated effort into bringing about an outcome through a grassroots marketing campaign, but some powerful examples of grassroots marketing success defy traditional wisdom.

An unexpectedly successful grassroots campaign is an opportunity and a gift. It opens up remarkable possibilities, often larger and more far reaching than what you can achieve on your own. However, a viral video or a customer-driven fad can also tax your business to the limits. You may be unprepared for the sudden popularity, and the quality of your products and services may suffer as a result.

Successful Grassroots Marketing Campaigns

Many companies have created viral grassroots marketing campaigns by launching an idea, creating catchy, shareable content and then relying on their customers to spread the word. These campaigns required the initial investment of brainstorming and refining the concept, lining up the infrastructure to set the campaign in motion and then relying on customer audiences to spread the word. Like most successful grassroots marketing, this approach integrates both company-driven and customer-driven elements.

  • WestJet gift giving: The Canadian airline created a campaign that received over 44 million YouTube views by asking boarding passengers what they wanted for Christmas and then scrambling to buy and wrap the gifts so they would be ready and waiting when the passengers landed. The company filmed and posted the requests followed by the gift giving, creating engaging stories that were warmly received and widely shared.

  • Dove Real Beauty: The personal-care product company created online ads showing a sketch artist creating drawings from women's descriptions of themselves and also drawings based on other people's descriptions of these same women. The pictures drawn from other people's descriptions were consistently more appealing and beautiful than the ones created from the women's descriptions of themselves, calling attention to the fraught nature of body image issues. The ad resonated deeply with a wide audience and received over 66 million YouTube views.

  • Affordable Care Act: When Barack Obama's signature health care legislation had initial difficulty gaining traction with a younger audience, the president appeared on Funny or Die with Zach Galifianakis, providing information and making a humorous plea. The clip was shared over 12 million times and increased traffic to the government's health care website by over 40 percent.

Preparing for Success

There is probably no way to truly prepare for viral grassroots popularity, but you can control some of the process by proactively gathering information about what is driving customer demand. The sooner you recognize that your brand is gaining traction, the better you'll be able to prepare and adapt. If you're able to shift gears gracefully and leverage the attention your brand is getting, you'll be able to make the most of the opportunity and even use it as the basis for future company-driven campaigns.

References

About the Author

Devra Gartenstein founded her first food business in 1987. In 2013 she transformed her most recent venture, a farmers market concession and catering company, into a worker-owned cooperative. She does one-on-one mentoring and consulting focused on entrepreneurship and practical business skills.