It’s not enough to plaster ads all over the place to get people’s attention. Marketers have to engage their customers, and one particularly powerful way to do that is through grassroots marketing.
But what exactly is it?
It’s sponsoring community programs, managing local events, sending out teams to talk to people, giving away samples and much more. Grassroots is all about is establishing a deep relationship with local communities, making them aware of the brand and hopefully connect with it.
And that’s something most traditional ads just can’t do.
We sat down with Marc Zwerdling, president and CEO of Generation Z Marketing, to talk about what grassroots marketing is, why it’s important to brands and what it takes to execute a successful campaign.
Zwerdling’s NYC-based company is a sports marketing agency that focuses on grassroots and experiential marketing programs — mostly in youth sports — and works with some big name brands like Chevrolet, SNY, Topps and Sports Authority.
Here’s the interview (edited for clarity and length):
Photo: Generation Z
What are the strengths of grassroots marketing and why should companies bother with it?
I think the biggest thing is that it cuts through the clutter of media today. You have a million websites, a thousand TV stations. People in local communities don’t feel like brands reach out and engage them, and that’s what grassroots marketing does. It gives a company, a big brand, the opportunity to create a local feel and engage their core consumer at a passion point for them.
And why is a local presence important?
Well, that’s their consumer. To me, that’s the biggest thing. Being able to reach out and engage with the people in your home town goes a long way. If you’re a Chevrolet dealer or whoever it may be, to be able to go out and shake somebody’s hand and say, “Hey, if you’re ever looking for a new vehicle, I’d love to have you come in and we’d love to talk to you,” that changes the dynamic.
Everything is so impersonal these days. You’re getting e-mail blasts, you’re reading things on Twitter, Facebook, whatever people are advertising on, or commercials on TV—the lost art of shaking someone’s hand and saying “Hey, we actually care about you and your family”—it’s gone. To me, you’re really bridging the gap there.
What’s the key to a successful grassroots marketing campaign?
Knowing how to activate it. A lot of people go out and just try to do a large media blast through it, try to do an email campaign, but most of the people in any kind of grassroots marketing campaign, they’re volunteers, so you need to go the extra mile to make sure that you’re reaching out to them and reaching out to them directly.
They want to be affected, they want to feel like you care about them at the local level. Just sending an email blast out or putting a commercial on TV is not going to resonate, you need to establish something in the local community.
What’s the hardest thing about actually facilitating a good campaign?
Everyone’s a volunteer. These are people who are working or already have a full-time job, and running some kind of youth sports or local community group is another full-time job for them. So, you can’t call people 9-5, a lot of times you’re calling people after 5 o clock after they get home from work or on the weekends. And again, they’re volunteers, you can’t force them to do anything.
So, those are some of the challenges that anybody faces when they start a grassroots marketing campaign. The big thing for us is that, because we’ve been doing it for so many years, we have relationships, and people know we’re bringing them good programs and they’re more likely to act on them. And that’s the other thing: whenever we run a program, we make sure to sit down with our client and establish that we know what works, what doesn’t work, and we give them the best guidance on that.
What are the limits of grassroots? Can you base an entire marketing campaign solely on grassroots?
I don’t think you can spend a total media budget on just a grassroots campaign. I still think that you do need to advertise through the major means. A lot of times they’re two separate entities: a community marketing initiative is one thing, and that’s one segment of the budget, and the major media stuff is a totally separate entity within a company. A lot of times, they don’t even talk. And some of that is you need to create some integration between your major campaigns down to the grassroots level. Chevy does a great job of that with their Chevy baseball. If you watch any of the Fox or ESPN telecasts, they always mention how they support youth baseball in communities.
How has technology changed your field in the 10 years you’ve been doing this? Do you use the Internet to help facilitate your grassroots marketing?
It’s interesting: most of the people again, they’re volunteers, and there’s a lot of people who are not web-savvy. We have some people who don’t have email addresses. But we do do most of our correspondence over email, that has definitely changed. People are more likely to read their email and do things. But, we still have to call and follow up. Some people we send FedEx, mail down.
We see more people using Facebook; Facebook’s probably the biggest thing organisations have taken to. It’s a great way for them to communicate with other members, they do send announcements and things like that through Facebook. Twitter is getting there, but not quite 100% with that. Slowly but surely, people are starting to become more technologically advanced, but they’re not to that level where you can communicate a full program through social media.
Do you exclusively do marketing through sports?
We have been mostly exclusively sports. We’ve done other experiential marketing things, whatever kind of grassroots effort that might be, but for the most part we focus on sports. It’s a great touch point: people have come to us with different ideas, whether it’s doing something with a dance school or something along those lines.
But you need a brand who wants to spend in the space, and brands are willing to spend in the sports space, specifically baseball and soccer, a little bit in football, but those are the places that brands are really excited to spend their money. There are opportunities to activate grassroots programs in different areas, but you need a brand to be interested.
So what do you think the advantage is in using sports to do these things?
It affects everybody in the community. I mean, so many kids play youth sports, it’s such a great passion point. We don’t care about the elite athlete who’s going on, even if it’s high school, maybe college—we care about the kid who just loves to play baseball and wants to go out there, maybe isn’t the best player in the world but they’re playing right field and they’re getting a bat or two a game. But they love it, and their parents love that they’re active in it, and it’s a great socialisation opportunity for kids, so that to me is a core audience. The people who go on to play in championships and things like that: it’s terrific, we love to be a part of things like that, but that’s not the focus of what we’re doing.
What do you think the next step is? What other places can you go besides sports to facilitate this kind of connection?
I think there are community organisations out there, whether they be Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts. Maybe some schools, eventually schools, because they’re looking for so much funding—they’ll eventually really start taking corporate sponsorships. I think that’s going to happen, I know high schools are starting to adopt that in a big way. Just like the way municipalities have started selling sponsorships, I think schools eventually will—but that’s going to take some time.
What’s next for Generation Z?
A couple of categories that we see: insurance, a lot of people really want to be involved in grassroots. You have so many insurance agents out there, all the different offices, and again, how do they differentiate between their competitors. QSR is a big one. We’ve actually had a lot of people talking about CPG companies coming to us, a tie-in retailer to some of these programs. Whether it be a laundry detergent and Wal-Mart or something along those lines. Convenience stores is another big one, making the convenience store kind of the premium postgame destination. Hardwood stores and hotels, travel.
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