With venture capital drying up and consumers jaded by a marketing overdose, it is nearly impossible for a small Web company to make a name for itself.
That is why Internet Financial Network's CEO found himself Wednesday morning in a robe and slippers in the display window of a New York movie theater.
For 12 hours Clifford T. Boro conducted his everyday business and gave demos of his newest product, Infogate, a desktop portal with free real-time quotes and news updates. (Citigroup Inc. led an investment group - including Thomson Corp., which owns American Banker - that put $30 million into the product, which went live in March.)
"The average American is bombarded with thousands of messages a day either from sponsorships or advertising," said Mr. Boro, who is also his company's chairman, in an interview from his perch at the Sony Theater on Broadway and 68th Street on New York's Upper West Side. "I think getting above the noise level is impossible.
"If Moses came down from the mountain he would have to spend $1 million in marketing to get noticed."
Passers-by were invited to step up to the microphone in front of the window and try the "Infogate Challenge," a contest in which they could ask questions about publicly traded companies and Mr. Boro would find the answers using Infogate.
Participants received coupons for a free cup of Starbucks coffee in the morning, a hot dog in the afternoon, and popcorn during the evening moviegoing hours, as well as being entered into a drawing to win $1,000 of the stock of their choice.
Originally the idea was just to have a booth in the display window with Internet Financial Network employees handing out fliers and showing demos. The window was put up July 4 and has operated Thursdays through Sundays during evening hours, when people tend to go to the movies. It is being taken down today.
But Mr. Boro decided he wanted to do something more unusual, so people would remember it.
"We gave the mandate that we wanted guerilla marketing," he said. "We weren't against spending money, but if we were going to spend money, we wanted to be different and do it in a way so that we could get feedback."
Mr. Boro, along with executives at the company's two New York marketing companies, DiNoto Lee and FourFront, Inc., brainstormed about how they could make the display stand out.
"At first they wanted me to sleep here until we had a million downloads," Mr. Boro said. "But I thought that went a little too far."
Mr. Boro wanted to maintain a balance: do something fun without looking stupid or tarnishing the company's brand.
"We can afford me in slippers in a window in New York because Infogate is a serious product," he said. "This will make it fun."
Beyond being unconventional, this kind of promotion plays on word of mouth, Mr. Boro said, and that is crucial for any Internet company.
"Do I think that this in itself is going to get me to compete with Yahoo and Bloomberg? Absolutely not," he said. "The only way we are going to be successful, the only way for an Internet company to make it today, is to get people talking so that they tell their friends about it."
The second advantage to this kind of publicity stunt is that it gives the company a way to gather thoughts from consumers.
"We have gotten a lot of feedback today that is consistent with things we were already looking at as a result of focus groups," Mr. Boro said. For example, a number of consumers suggested that it would be better to be able to look at how stocks performed during specific periods.
During his day on display, Mr. Boro said, the head of an offline company approached him about a partnership, which is Internet Financial Network's main strategy. The company plans to earn its revenues by selling advertising space and by charging money to partner companies. So far its partnerships are with Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette Inc.'s DLJdirect, Wit Capital Group Inc.'s Wit SoundView, and Citigroup's Solomon Smith Barney.
"The reality is that our main strategy is to work best with our partners," he said. "By doing things like this, we learn how to best promote Infogate with them."
John Lister, chairman of New York ad agency Lister Butler Consulting, said it is amusing that online companies are resorting to such promotions to get noticed.
"The irony about technology companies and brand-building is that they have to resort to the most traditional, if not old-fashioned, methods of attracting attention," he said. "It just points out to the ineffectiveness of online advertising."
The challenge for these companies will be to be creative enough to get customers' attention as more Internet companies try these tactics, Mr. Lister said.
"I wish them much luck," he said. "The space is crowded, the funding is low, and there isn't much interest from the average dot-com person. They are up against a very difficult task."