Marketing Rotten Tomatoes

These days, it seems Rotten Tomatoes is everywhere. Steve Jobs spotlighted RT during several Apple keynotes. The Tomatometer is now integrated into Fandango (which makes sense, given that Fandango now owns RT).

Still, there was a time when saying that you worked for “Rotten Tomatoes” often resulted in quizzical looks. Trying to explain what Rotten Tomatoes did was even harder. A phrase like “movie review aggregation” would cause eyes to glaze over. It was a movie review website that didn’t write movie its own movie reviews. Rotten Tomatoes was one of those things where seeing was believing. And once you believed, it became indispensable to helping you decide what to watch.

During those early days, our challenge as a company was to grow without spending any money. The dot-com bubble had popped in spectacular fashion. Remember Webvan? Those were the days when “online” and “viable business” were (mostly) mutually exclusive terms.

Fortunately, Rotten Tomatoes had great word of mouth (the old-fashioned term for “virality”). It was one of those secrets people loved to share once they discovered it. Much of the site’s growth can probably be attributed to its inherently viral nature. For example, our traffic would spike whenever Roger Ebert would reference Rotten Tomatoes in his written reviews or his TV show. Sometimes, a movie’s Tomatometer rating for a movie would become a sensational story itself, like the time the abysmal rating for Gigli during Peak Bennifer resulted in an endless amount of giggling among the movie press.

(An opposite example of the above phenomenon would be Sideways, which generated a lot of media stories because of how this independent film maintained a 100% rating week after week as it continued to expand, generating positive publicity for both the film and Rotten Tomatoes. In fact, we received a random call from director Alexander Payne one morning — he wanted to thank us for helping contribute to the film’s a success!)

Once in a while, however, we had a chance to do actual marketing (remember, without spending money). One example of this was in 2003, when Rotten Tomatoes was a media sponsor for the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. We were already well known in the film community, so the SFIAAFF reached out to us to see if there was a way we could work together.

We quickly agreed to do a media exchange. Rotten Tomatoes would directly promote the festival in the weeks prior to the start by running an ad campaign on the site. In return, the festival would let us run an ad on the big screen before screenings, as wells providing space inside the festival program. The values of the respective media placements were equal, but no money exchanged hands. It was a win-win situation.

So what did we end up doing? As I mentioned, rather than try to explain what the site did in so many words, what we really wanted was for people to just visit because “seeing was believing.” I ended up creating this whimsical ad in Adobe Illustrator.

The Andy Warhol pop culture homage is obvious, if intentionally blatant. To be honest, I can’t say how effective this ad was, since we had no way of directly measuring a response rate. But even after all these years, I still have a fondness for this ad because it was a rare opportunity for us to do “real marketing.” It captured the fun and quirkiness of the site — one that was just beginning to edge into the mainstream — with a healthy seasoning of self-awareness.

These days, social media networks and platforms make it easy to market to millions of people at little to no cost. Back in 2003, before there was Twitter, Facebook, or even LinkedIn, you had to use more elbow grease to do marketing without spending a dime.

What do you think? Do you like this story about “Tomatometer Soup?”