Uber’s tried-and-true marketing plan: Let your customers do the work

“Oh my god, I love Uber. I take them all the time.”

If you’re a young, urban, smartphone-owning individual, you’ve probably heard some variation of this phrase from a friend or acquaintance about Uber, the on-demand car service that’s become popular in cities like San Francisco. The app, which allows you to summon a car with the tap of an iPhone (for an elevated price, of course), has spread through word-of-mouth and become known for its popular promotional events, like the on-demand ice cream trucks Uber rolled out this summer to huge demand. But can you measure the created value of a marketing effort like on-demand ice cream trucks? And is such a campaign smart for every startup?

Michelle Broderick, who works in marketing at Uber, thinks you can — but that your mileage with ice cream trucks may vary.

“One of the best things is being at dinner and hearing people talking about the product you’ve worked so hard to build,” she said Thursday at 500 Startup’s unSexy conference in Mountain View. “You need to give them a story to tell.”

Much like the fable of Tom Sawyer’s fence-painting delegation skills, Broderick said the folks at Uber work to get their customers promoting the service for them. This creates a more genuine promotional campaign and usually proves more cost-efficient, she said.

She explained that with the ice-cream truck promotion, you can’t necessarily gain analytics to gauge success as you would with A-B testing on URLs, but you can analyze how many new users you acquired, what it cost to put out the promotion versus how much revenue it created, and what kind of business the new users will bring in over time.

Broderick explained that any startup could stand on a street corner and yell, “free ice cream,” but that rolling out paid ice cream trucks specifically created an experience similar to the one the overall brand promotes — paying more for an on-demand product with elevated experience.

“We deliver an on-demand experience, where you pick up your phone and a car arrives to take you wherever you want,” she said. “You want ice cream, you can pick up your phone, hit a button, and ice cream comes to you. There’s a way to get it in the real world, but this is an easier way to get it, a way that’s a little bit nicer than you’d get it before. People are used to paying Uber for things.”

However, viral marketing campaigns can only do so much if you don’t have a great product, and Snoop Dogg and Ashton Kutcher might be big names, but they’ve promoted total flops. Plenty of excellent brands and companies have succeeded without ice cream truck promos, so startups should consider with caution.

And the most important question: Why ice cream?

“It was the most delicious, by far,” she said.