Because we all love free money, startups should try marketing with a @HiddenCash scavenger hunt

A Los Angeles crowd goes in search of 36 plastic Angry Bird orbs stuffed with cash. Photo courtesy of Time.

A Los Angeles crowd goes in search of 36 plastic Angry Bird orbs stuffed with cash. Photo courtesy of Time.

@HiddenCash combines two of the things that people love most: free and money. Through that Twitter account, American entrepreneur and multimillionaire Jason Buzi posts clues to the location of money he has hidden. He then encourages his Twitter followers, which now number over 700,000, to go in search of the cash drops, effectively turning his Twitter feed into a treasure map.

The Asian gene for game shows

Generally speaking, you don’t have to be an FBI cryptographer to figure out where the money has been planted. The winners are normal Americans:

Though Buzi’s motivations do not relate to entrepreneurship – it seems this is his own, new-age version of philanthropy, if it can be called that – an enterprising startup in Asia should import the idea as part of its marketing scheme. Why? There’s one undeniable fact that no research can dispute, nor report reclaim: Asians love game shows.

I only need to present one picture as proof:


Photo courtesy of Giant Bomb

Only true artisans of zany puzzles can be imaginative enough to find a way to insert people into Tetris and be skilled enough to pull it off, shiny silver suits and all. @HiddenCash, of course, is in a sense a game show. It has a host: Jason Buzi. It has a set: wherever Buzi chooses to hide the money. It has a pool of contestants: whoever shows up to an area willing to dive into bushes and shimmy up streetlamps in search of dollars. @HiddenCash even has the cameras – whenever a mob of people show up, smartphones in hand as they scour the area like crime scene investigators, the media is never far behind.

And that’s why an Asian startup should copy this concept: Whatever money they stash away as prizes will pale in comparison to the amount of media coverage that this will generate. In some Southeast Asian countries, you can even calculate this will be cheaper than the usual way to get coverage – bribing a reporter or blogger. You’ll get a full-on media blitz from all three layers of the defense – print, digital, and broadcast – at the fraction of what it would cost if you were to go into corrupt, evil mode, on just the effort of stuffing a few envelopes, chucking them all over a park, and describing what you just did in fewer than 140 characters. Trust me, I’m a media guy. I know what launches news vans, and on this scale @HiddenCash is a Helen of Troy in a Michael Bay movie.

See: I’m a walking encyclopedia of growth hacking tactics, ask me anything (AMA)  

The morality of growth-hacking with @HiddenCash

Some entrepreneurs may see the marketing value in such a stunt, but demure because it’s not of their own design, still falling into the false pursuit of the “original idea.” These men will knock the @HiddenCash concept as the stuff of copycats and bandwagoners. Well-versed in crowdfunding news, they might cite Kickstarter darling, the potato salad, and the glut of not-so-darling imitators in macaroni salad, egg salad, and cookie salad. Projects like these may get funded – the bar is usually set fairly low (in more ways than one) – but they will in no way receive the same kind of attention as their potato salad progenitor did.

No disrespect intended against the imitators of potato salad, but what they did is exactly what I recommend you don’t do. Though you’re importing the idea of @HiddenCash, it’s not as simple as bringing it from point A to point B – you should not adopt the concept wholesale, which is was cookie salad and company were all guilty of: they got the look and structure of potato salad crowdfunding correct without realizing that doing so would deflate most of the humor out of the thing. Any spiritual successor needs a legitimately good twist to make it its own. Surprise, surprise. This means it’s not all copying. There is thinking involved.

You have to twist the @HiddenCash model in the way that makes the most sense for your startup. This may be hard to do. Since the @HiddenCash formula is already proven, you may be naturally inclined to avoid messing with it too much, lest you lose the secret ingredient. But experiment you must if your goal is to draw eyeballs to your company and its products or services, rather than sacrifice money to the wind in a botched publicity campaign.

For example, you may need to use something other than cash for your Easter eggs. Someone, or some people, in San Francisco, California, are already doing this. In this campaign, executed via @sfhiddenbitcoin and billed in the bio line as an “educational experiment”, cards with the private keys to a Bitcoin wallet are scattered about the city.

They even left one at Mark Zuckerberg’s house. Say what you want about the ethics of walking up to someone’s private residence and leaving a prize for random strangers from the internet to find, but you cannot deny that it was effective. Just think about all the people who found interest in the articles written on @sfhiddenbitcoin simply because it invoked the image of a hoodie-wearing character that we all in a way – by glint of his fame and communicating through his brainchild on a daily basis – seem to know intimately. Or backtrack further: think of all the bloggers and journalists who wrote about @sfhiddenbitcoin because our good friend Mark was intimated, even if it was only his house. Whenever @sfhiddenbitcoin steps out from behind the curtains, he, she, or they – whoever they are – will have successfully motivated some people to begin using Bitcoin.

The Asian startup wise enough to import the @HiddenCash model will need a similar stroke of ingenuity. Perhaps you can even seek to reverse some of the criticism leveled at @HiddenCash after a mob stampeded through a local park like a pillaging Roman army (with all the destruction, minus the armor). Early reports indicate more than US$5,000 in damage to the park, bringing with it a very vocal contingent against Buzi and @HiddenCash.

So if you were to launch a scavenger hunt for your carefully considered Easter egg, you could capitalize on the Asian reputation for order by making it the most disciplined incarnation yet. Participants would have to line up to enter a closed-off area, where the search would take place and be thoughtfully refereed for any foul play. Participants would be allowed to walk, but not power walk, around the venue, and they must stop to politely greet the cameramen there to record the excitingly muted spectacle. You can even stage these at your local cultural landmarks – a Great Wall treasure hunt, anyone? – and market it as a funner way for citizens to reflect on their nation’s history.

Would such a stunt help a startup find more users or sell more of its services? The answer is not mine to determine. It’s yours. But I would think that it’s hard to look at a grown man combing through a bush in search of something you planted, knowing it’s not there (it’s two bushes over and one bush to the right), and not feel that you as an entrepreneur are winning in some deep and profound way.

Editing by Steven Millward
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