Marketing on $700 a Year

Last month, Intuit, the personal finance software firm that owns Quicken, paid $170 million in cash for, a two-year-old personal finance site with 1.6 million users. That corporate embrace comes after much frustration on Intuit’s part. At one point the company wrote Mint a letter demanding “substantiation and evidence” of the rival site’s rapid-fire growth. Compounding the vexation was the cost of acquisition for those consumers, whose numbers are currently growing by more than 130,000 each month: virtually nothing.

Donna Wells, Mint’s CMO and a former exec at Intuit, is a veteran marketer used to the big media budgets she had in previous jobs at Charles Schwab and American Express. At Mint, however, she may well represent a new breed of CMO who is spending very little on brand building and bypassing advertising in the process. Thanks to new social media and communications technologies, partnered with adept PR strategies, Wells showed that building a so-called Web 2.5 brand doesn’t need to cost much these days—and the experience is liberating.

“We built this brand on the cheap. In two full years at Mint, I spent what I would have spent in two days at Expedia,” laughed Wells, who was previously svp-marketing at the travel site. “Mint was my fourth startup, and the tools that are available to me now, even since my last startup in 2000, offer amazing reach and adoption through places like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, MySpace and iPhone apps. It’s a phenomenal time for a marketer.”

Mint’s start kicked off with a well-read, popular blog—launched in March before the site’s product launch in September 2007—and key exposure when Mint launched at TechCrunch 40 and won top honors. Wells created a Facebook page where Mint now has more than 36,000 fans and attracted a following of 19,000 on Twitter. Free applications like WordPress power Mint’s blog while another free tool, the user-friendly Google analytics, lets staffers track site traffic. Mint does pay for some other off-the-shelf services for its site, spending all of $700 a year.

Wells estimates the marketing costs at Mint over the past two years to be around $2 million. That amount primarily includes salaries for the marketing staff which now numbers five, including herself, and out-of-pocket expenses like hiring an outside PR agency. She also experimented with search initially, spending about $50,000.

“The idea that you need a huge amount in marketing and advertising dollars is simply not true,” said Laura Ries, president, Roswell, Ga., consultants Ries & Ries. “That was a major fallacy in the dot-com boom where companies went out and spent millions and got no benefit. Companies like eBay and Amazon did it by being first at something, by standing for something and having a credible strong idea that generated the PR and word of mouth necessary to get into the minds of consumers.”

As a free money management tool, Mint obviously has a compelling appeal in the current economic climate. But Ries also noted the site’s quirky name and compelling blog, which in a world of forgettable corporate blogs won the award for best blog at the Online Media Marketing and Advertising awards last month. That communiqué reinforces an identifiable voice with the brand that initially attracted 20 and 30-somethings, Ries said, particularly in contrast to the older-skewing Quicken, with a less-defined image given the number or products associated with the brand.
Wells admits she will modify her marketing strategies as Mint goes more mainstream under Intuit but, even with new financial resources, vows to keep using the cheap tools that launched the brand and keep nontraditional media at marketing core.