How Hotmail went viral without spending so much as a $1.

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Countless brands have looked to billboards to make the cash register ring.

( Chipotle, a brand that has always been bullish in the outdoor advertising space, once used a 16-word billboard to tell the planet about their locally sourced ingredients.)

So, naturally, when Hotmail launched back in 1996, this is exactly where their founders looked first… billboards.

Fortunately for the history of email, there was a savvy investor by the name of Tim Draper that talked some sense into the upstart.

Aware of the fact that Hotmail was selling a free product, he didn’t think it was a good idea to pour a small fortune into billboards.

So, he planted a seed in the founder’s skulls…

Like a mini-billboard of sorts.

He continued…

At first, the founders were hesitant to run with the idea, afraid it might fuck up the customer experience. But, eventually, they came to their senses and ran with Draper’s advice.

We didn’t start the fire.

Six months after adding the email signature, they had a million users.

Just five weeks after they passed the million user threshold, they had two million.

And, by 1997, roughly a year after they had launched, Hotmail had 10 million users and was acquired by Microsoft for $400 million.

Now that’s Stranger Than Fiction.

Sometimes the best marketing is free marketing.

There is something fascinating that happens to upstarts on a college budget (and perhaps those that have smart investors like Draper to set them straight)… they’re forced to keep their marketing cheap and clever rather than expensive and cookie-cutter.

While Super Bowl commercials do wonders for stroking marketer’s egos, they’re not always as “effective” as taking the cheaper more creative approach like AirBnb’s cereal boxes, Away’s coffee table book, Dollar Shave Club’s $4,000 viral YouTube video or CD Baby’s customer confirmation email.

Sometimes, it’s as easy (and as cheap) as saying…

P.S. I love you.

But, I digress.

By Cole Schafer.

Stranger than fiction by Honey Copy is a curation of stories about bat shit crazy marketing ideas that have made brands some serious cheddar. If this story made your mouth water, why not let me tell you when I write the next one?

Originally published at on June 15, 2020.

Written by

I write pretty words and sometimes sell things.

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