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Where's George? A Lesson in Viral Marketing

Stephen Yagielowicz

I've always laughed at those folks who pay top dollar to wear an advertisement for their favorite shoe manufacturer or other corporate entity, as if an expensive sweatshirt emblazoned with 'Nike' or some such conferred a higher level of skill or status upon the wearer, but going one better, I've just found a Web site that has made a 'game' out of advertising themselves, and there are lessons to learn from it:

There I was, minding my own business, finishing up a transaction for the purchase of several sundry items at my local discount retailer, and in the process of counting out a thick handful of 'greenbacks' of varying denominations, when my sharp eyes observed a curious anomaly: One of my crisp, new dollar bills had been stamped repeatedly with a Website's URL, and it also bore a number of 'highlighting' pen marks, both front and back.

I looked at the stamped URL, www.wheresgeorge.com, and the highlighting marks around both the bill's serial number, as well as the series date, and then quickly realized that I had stumbled upon a treasure worth far more than the currency's face value. Obviously, this was a bill that had been 'flagged' for easy tracking. Stuffing the dollar back into my wallet, I deprived "Best Buy" of this treasure, and brought it back home for a closer look:

The Buck Stops Here
"Interesting" I thought to myself while I repeatedly flipped the dollar over, examining the indelible markings on the bill's obverse and reverse. "I bet if I stamped 'pornworks.com' on a bunch of bucks and then passed them around, I'd get a knock on my door from the Secret Service:" Contemplating the legalities of such a bold marketing ploy, I brought up my browser window, and typed in the URL. This is definitely an effective way of garnering hits; but what about the dreaded 'knock on the door?'

After the site finished loading, my first stop was the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) list; I was actually more curious about how they 'got away' with this (especially since their credits list copyright back to 1998), than I was with my dollar's recent travels, and indeed, I wasn't the only one who wondered. According to the site's FAQ: "Where's George? does not encourage the defacement of U.S. Currency. The law defines "illegal" defacement as defacement that renders bills unfit to be re-issued:" Hmmm:

Being the curious type, I had to refer to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing for a better explanation of the underlying legalities, to wit "Defacement of currency is a violation of Title 18, Section 333 of the United States Code. Under this provision, currency defacement is generally defined as follows: Whoever mutilates, cuts, disfigures, perforates, unites or cements together, or does any other thing to any bank bill, draft, note, or other evidence of debt issued by any national banking association, Federal Reserve Bank, or Federal Reserve System, with intent to render such item(s) unfit to be reissued, shall be fined not more than $100 or imprisoned not more than six months, or both. Defacement of currency in such a way that it is made unfit for circulation comes under the jurisdiction of the United States Secret Service."

While I counted 7 distinct markings on this bill, it was not rendered (in my opinion) "unfit to be reissued" although (also in my opinion), 3 marks would have been less 'objectionable' and far 'safer' legally - especially when one considers the fact that after entering the bill's serial number and series at Where's George?, I was able to identify the original 'issuer' of this advertisement, who lists his address as Hampton Beach, NH, which is only a few short miles away from my home in Rye Beach. ...these bills are marked up and passed around by a community of "Where's George?" fans, totaling 1,393,679 users...

Join the Club
And this is where my attention was really focused; these bills are marked up and passed around by a community of "Where's George?" fans, totaling 1,393,679 users, according to the Web site. These users can register for free, provide personal profiles and add anecdotal notes about the bills they have found, and then passed along. Merchandise up-sells and banner advertising cover the site's expenses, and what the site lacks in design, it makes up for in functionality; displaying a variety of currency movement statistics. Really a quite interesting concept, and great fodder for thought about the diverse methods of community-based viral marketing methodologies that can be employed to attract and retain visitors.

Regardless of the effectiveness of this site's viewer / revenue conversions, they have (intentionally or not) found a brilliant way to make a 'game' out of advertising themselves. With over 21,742,075 individual bills carrying their URL, they have found a neat way to make people 'eager' to spread their URL, and that is the key to effective viral marketing. Check out the site, it's a unique concept that you might learn a few things from: ~ Stephen

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