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The Amazing Vans

The following is an excerpt from the book “BALLS! Six Rules for Winning Today’s Business Game.”

When Lonnie Benson started a small local telephone company in 1987, he had no idea that it would end up as a player in the direct marketing industry ten years later. Lonnie’s metamorphosis began in the middle of 1996, when his Seattle-based telco jumped into the wireless market.

He quickly discovered that marketing cellular telephony wasn’t much different from marketing landline telephony: most of the dollars spent on marketing seemed to go nowhere. Lonnie was never one to accept the status quo. He was determined to find the most cost-effective way to market his cellular phone services. Direct mailing wasn’t the right approach. TV, radio and billboards seemed too expensive. There had to be a different way.

Lonnie thought it over. It’s important to explain right now that Lonnie’s thought processes are not linear. He has attention deficit disorder, which makes it difficult for him to perform some of the straightforward tasks that you or I might take for granted. He can’t play chess, read 1,200-page Russian novels or sit through three-hour business meetings.

But Lonnie has learned to honor and respect the flashes of inspiration that illuminate his brain like bolts of lightning on a dark summer’s night. In this instance, Lonnie’s idea involved assembling a fleet of wildly decorated vans to advertise his company instead of paying other people for space on their regular billboards. Some of the vans featured huge pictures of tropical fish. Others were adorned with pictures of giant keyboards. Big and bold was the only rule. Some of the designs were assembled from ultra-reflective sheets of plastics that could be seen at night, from miles away.

Simultaneously odd and irresistible, the vans appealed to Lonnie’s maverick sensibilities. “I also liked the fact that you could build equity in the vans and that I controlled everything. What other kind of media lets you do that?”

Wally Rex, a burly man with a big smile, was hired to unleash Lonnie’s fleet of 60 vans on Seattle. Wally recalls how Lonnie added an extra, last-minute detail to the plan:

“Lonnie decided to put a different toll-free number on each van. We could do that because we’re a phone company. I’d go out and park the vans all over town. Or keep driving them around until we found an area that would get some calls. If a van was generating calls, I’d leave it parked where it was. If the van wasn’t generating calls, I’d run out and just keep driving it around until the calls started. Pretty soon, we knew exactly where to park the vans for maximum impact.”

Every night, Wally would log onto the company’s billing system and carefully analyze the pattern of calls from the toll-free numbers on the vans. Over time, the ad hoc plan turned into an extremely effective marketing technique for Fox Communications. But another bolt of lightning was about to strike.

“At the time I really didn’t care who was making the calls,” admits Wally. “I was happy to know which vans were delivering returns on our investment and which weren’t. To me, the vans were just big movable billboards.”

One night, as Wally reviewed a day’s worth of calling records, Lonnie walked past his desk. Then he stopped and turned around. In a flash, Lonnie realized that his van-based ad campaign had the potential to become much more than just a one-time business tactic. It could be the basis for a whole new enterprise, and maybe even a whole new industry. He suddenly had the answer to the age old question, “I know half of my advertising is wasted, but the trouble is, which half?”

“Lonnie saw immediately that if we could track the response to the ads on our vans, we could do the same thing for other companies,” says Wally. “And he saw that the technique wasn’t limited to vans. It could be applied to marketing everywhere, for any business.”

Following his flash of insight, Lonnie transformed his company from a telco into Who’s Calling, a sales and marketing solutions provider.

In five years, Who’s Calling was generating more than $60 million in annual revenue. Who’s Calling also opened a new path for direct marketers. Who’s Calling enables direct marketers to routinely monitor and measure the impact of their ad spend across multiple media, in real time. Direct marketers and their clients now capture every inbound lead generated by their campaigns. They can respond to leads within minutes, instead of days. Best of all, they know to the nickel which campaigns are driving business and which aren’t.

By now, you’re probably asking: What’s all this got to do with BALLS!? I met Lonnie in 2000. Back then, Who’s Calling had no marketing plan, no marketing department and no marketing budget. On a hunch, Lonnie decided that Who’s Calling should exhibit at the National Automobile Dealers Association’s annual convention in Las Vegas.

If you haven’t been to a NADA convention, you haven’t tasted fear. Seventeen thousand car dealers and their significant others descend upon the host city like a pack of lions — and they are all King of the Jungle. For four days they own the city and they take no prisoners.

Attracting the wandering eyes of car and truck dealers in this type of festive atmosphere — and holding their attention long enough to make a sale — is a challenge of truly epic proportions.

My assignment was simple: Put Who’s Calling on the map and get its sales team in front of as many automotive dealers as possible. I decided to give them all balls.

With Lonnie’s blessing, I spent twenty thousand dollars on little blue rubber balls with tiny red lights inside that flash when you bounce them. Like the vans, the balls carried toll-free numbers so we could accurately track their impact as marketing tools.

I loaded up each Who’s Calling sales rep with as many of those little blinking balls as they could carry in their pockets. Whenever a prospect passed by the Who’s Calling booth, the sales reps would begin bouncing the balls. The balls would blink, and as if by magic, every dealer would stop and ask if he could have a ball. While the prospect bounced the ball, the rep pitched. Invariably, the dealer would ask for another two or three balls, depending usually on how many children he said he had.

To make a long story short, our blinking blue balls were the smash hit of the NADA convention. We gave away all ten thousand of them. We kept getting calls from our balls for more than six months after the show.

Most important, the sales force sold over $400,000 of business in just four days, more than all the sales they’d done in the entire previous year of business.

Since then, I’ve spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars on blinking blue balls. I can state categorically and undeniably that the phenomenal success of Who’s Calling depends largely on its balls — and on our ability to track their performance.

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