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STARTUP

These Bars Have Figured Out How to Become More Popular. Your Startup Should Learn From Them

They’re appealing to your sense of community in unexpected ways.

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BY Cameron Albert-Deitch - 03 Apr 2018

These Bars Have Figured Out How to Become More Popular. Your Startup Should Learn From Them

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Two days before the 60 Minutes interview with Stormy Daniels, Mykl Wu received an intriguing late-night text: His boss, the owner of Washington D.C. bar Satellite Room, wanted to throw a short-notice viewing party.

Wu, the bar's social media manager, got busy. He created a Facebook event and announced the party via a Saturday night tweet:

Word spread quickly. When the 60 Minutes episode began, just 21 hours after Wu sent the tweet, the bar was filled to its 200-person occupancy limit. Denizens of all political affiliations watched together, drinking $2 "Dark and Stormy Daniels" cocktails and $3 "deferments" on beers. It was, Wu says, much livelier than the average mellow Sunday night.

Satellite Room's event is one of the latest in a string of offbeat promotions being used by bars around the country to boost sales. Some stunts are unique and spur-of-the-moment. Others are are extensively planned modern twists on classic strategies.

They all share a lesson for entrepreneurs everywhere: If you want to increase your popularity, you shouldn't be afraid to have some fun.

Leverage your community's interests.

Washington D.C. bars are becoming particularly skilled at capitalizing on current events--which makes sense for a town filled with political news hounds. Before the Stormy Daniels viewing party, Satellite Room hosted a packed house for a State of the Union bingo night back in January. Patrons received specialized bingo cards, and bartenders offered cheap shots every time President Trump took a, well, cheap shot at a political opponent.

The puns might have helped attract people. More likely, it was the inexpensive alcohol. Wu didn't expect the event to give the bar a reputation--but it left an impression on customers. When Stormy Daniels's 60 Minutes interview was announced, Satellite Room started fielding Facebook messages from non-regulars asking, "'Hey, are you guys doing anything for Stormy's 60 Minutes thing?"

Rob Heim, general manager of Washington D.C. bar Shaw's Tavern, experienced a similar phenomenon last summer after his viewing party for James Comey's congressional testimony went viral. During Comey's three-hour testimony, hundreds of viewers circulated through Shaw's Tavern--including an estimated 300 people who lined up outside the tavern at 8:30 A.M., an hour before doors opened. Those who couldn't get in formed three-person deep rows on the sidewalk to watch the television on the bar's outdoor patio.

"I think, in one day, we were able to rebrand Shaw's Tavern, which is kind of amazing," Heim told Inc. shortly after the event. "From a normal neighborhood bar to more of a community place where people can come together for whatever's going on in the world."

Put updated spins on old classics.

Not a current events junkie? Don't worry. There are plenty of other ways to attract positive attention. Take, for example, the Grayton Road Tavern in Cleveland.

Last month, the bar finished the first round of a Queen of Hearts raffle that's captivated fans internationally. That's due to the bar's use of technology and social media--the weekly raffle drawings were live-streamed on Facebook, so viewers across the world could participate remotely. It's also due to the round's eye-popping final jackpot: $5.5 million.

The event, which was meant to energize the bar's slow Wednesday nights, wasn't an immediate hit when it began in March 2017. Grayton Road Tavern general manager Jen Natale says momentum built slowly over the first nine months, spreading among the local community through word of mouth alone.

Then, in January, the jackpot surpassed $500,000. A local news outlet caught wind, and that's how the rest of the world took notice. People started flying in from North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and even Canada specifically to buy tickets.

According to Natale, the bar's customers tripled--which led to a corresponding spike in revenue, thanks to the influx of new people. After all, if you walk into a bar, you're likely to buy a drink. Oddly, this became a problem: Grayton Road Tavern's occupancy limit is only 99 people.

In early February, the bar started turning people away after selling 308,000 tickets in a single week. Instead of losing them forever, though, tavern owner Jim Page set up partnerships with two other local businesses, so raffle hopefuls could buy tickets at multiple locations.

The end result was a net benefit for small, area businesses--and the local community that coalesced around the raffle throughout the year. "The game was drawing people into our place, but it was all about Clevelanders coming together and doing something united," Natale says. "It brought people together. It was something people looked forward to every week."

Think before you jump.

Not every concept will pan out, so think carefully before you invest too much money into a wacky promotion. A Chicago pop-up bar inspired by Netflix's Stranger Things learned the downside of viral popularity this past September. Fans of the show took notice of the bar, embracing the themed cocktails, '70s and '80s music, and decorations that recreated locations from the show. The venue's popularity, however, also caught the eye of Netflix's lawyers--who sent the bar a cease and desist letter, effectively shuttering the unauthorized mimicry.

Television studios aren't the only organizations to avoid. The International Olympic Committee, for example, is notorious for aggressively locking down Olympics-related licensing infringements. The last time the Olympics were hosted in North America--the 2010 Vancouver Games--Canadian donut chain Tim Horton's had to temporarily remove all advertisements involving hockey star Sidney Crosby, according to the Wall Street Journal. Why? Because Crosby was participating in that year's Olympics. Even wink-and-nudge references, like Lululemon's limited-release "Cool Sporting Event That Takes Place in British Columbia Between 2009 and 2011 Edition" apparel, were met with public disapproval.

Whether you're crafting a pop culture event or already planning for the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics, tread cautiously. You don't want the wrong kind of attention--remember, you're trying to become more popular, not less.

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