How a Magician Made $200,000 in Sales on a $100 Budget
A case study in learning to be bold in your marketing and calling out old legends
In 1902 an unknown card cheat published a book called “The Expert At The Card Table.” The author published the book under the alias S.W. Erdnase, but in the decades since, historians have tried and failed to uncover this person’s true identity. No one with that name ever existed.
Today, to a global underground community of magicians, it is considered “the bible” for learning card magic. A compulsory read for those looking to practice deception using a standard deck of playing cards.
To undermine Erdnase is considered blasphemy.
As a current member of that magic community, this probably isn’t great PR for me, but I feel compelled to share it to show you how you can use similar tactics to promote your own product releases.
In 2017, I was asked to work on a campaign and product launch for a new training set for magicians. The product was called Erdnase x Madison.
The product took the magic industry by storm, but not for the right reasons. To many, it was the butt of a joke they assumed we weren’t in on.
However, the sinister truth behind that negativity is… I manufactured it.
With one bold quote (see image above) and less than $100 worth of marketing spend, the product sold out and grossed well over $200,000 within its first month of release.
But why did it work?
Shock and awe are online media’s bullet train. The fast route to awareness. Marketers rarely ever consider it a tactic. Almost all marketing I see is people throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks.
I prefer to work in certainties, so when this product hit my desk, I knew causing a stir would work.
This is how the plan unfolded.
Step 1. The Quote (Cost =$0)
The main box set is sold out now, but if you’re curious, you can view it HERE.
As you know by now, the piece I knew would grab the attention of hardcore Erdnase fans was the now-infamous “I’m better than Erdnase and I can prove it” quote, which gave birth to the “I’m better than…” trend.
For your own campaigns, you could apply this quote/tactic within the community your product exists in. Do you know of two of your industry titans who could go head to head in the same way?
It has to be said that Daniel Madison has balls of steel. It takes real bravery to put your professional reputation in the firing line intentionally. That takes self-belief and self-confidence in his product that we could only dream of.
He was comfortable enough to be both the hero and the villain. His income, brand, and livelihood were bet all on black… and we span the wheel.
It didn’t take long for us to see we’d won.
People were posting that they were better than Madison all over social media. In the comments, people would ask “where is this coming from?” Others would respond with the link to our product page.
Hook. Line. Sinker.
This resulted in over 42,000 unique visitors to the product page within the first week of being on sale.
Step 2. The Forum (Cost =$0)
The next step was the forum. In this case, the Magic Cafe. I knew the majority of members either disliked or hated Daniel Madison as a character. I also knew that forums are easy to manipulate.
My elegantly simple idea was to write a provocative title and bait users into making fun of me too.
I decided on “S.W. Erdnase vs. Daniel Madison.” Who’s not gonna click that. If you like or hate Madison, it sounds like a magic industry celebrity deathmatch that we’d all like to see. Pure delicious clickbait.
Now a good thread title isn’t revolutionary, I’ll give you that. However, this subtlety is something I’m particularly proud of.
The best way to boost a thread’s presence is having it at the top of the forum page, with engagement (replies). So I decided to post it with the worst description ever. Forcing people to go looking for it, thus annoying them and wanting to take shots at me, or wanting to help out and therefore posting the link for me.
It’s only clever because it appears like a stupid thing to do. Here, you’ll see my apparent forgetfulness in not posting the link.
“Well he certainly has a talent for marketing” might be my favorite response to this. Tim was a pawn in that game and helped to give social proof to a brand new thread.
New users see others engaging, commenting and think “Others are interested in this thread. I’ll take a look too.”
The cycle continues.
Step 3. The Socials (Cost $95)
Being such a bold claim, I knew it could get both positive and negative responses online organically, but even mold needs the correct conditions to grow. To create those conditions, I actually paid some magicians in Ellusionist.com gift cards and free products to pretend to be bothered by the quote.
They wrote status updates like:
“I’m better than Erdnase??? Who does this guy think he is?”
“I’m better than Madison.”
Every single time someone asked what this was about, someone else would again organically post the product page link to help fill them in.
The only problem is that a fuel-less fire won’t continue to burn. Internet flames die off in two days and I knew that before we started. I needed to have a few things up my sleeve to ensure tiny pieces were found or revealed to keep this inferno going.
Step 4. Getting Away With It (Cost =$0)
Pre-launch, I knew we had to have a plan to turn it all around in the end. A way to get everyone back on our side.
You can’t throw someone off a bridge without a bungee cord. Or they’ll die. It’s okay to use shock value and get their attention, but we needed a metaphorical bungee cord.
Thankfully the product was actually great. I knew it would stand up to scrutiny and people were likely to review it well. That gave me an idea.
One of the first things I executed was to leave a customer review using Daniel Madison’s name on his own product. Arrogance like that can’t be ignored, but I knew that it’s where people would start to see the humor in the campaign.
“Oh hilarious, I just noticed the first customer review on the product page is by Daniel Madison — five stars “It’s brilliant.”
For extra fun, I also left a one-star review from his opponent, Erdnase.
Human behavior can be predicted during situations like this. As long as no one gets hurt and it’s just for promotion.
First, shock at what was said. Then, acknowledgement that he’s doing it as tongue-in-cheek or not taking himself too seriously. After that, respect that the end-user is now in on the joke. It was a marketing strategy all along, but they were smart enough to understand that.
Step 5. The Elvis Badge (Cost =$0)
I knew there would be two camps. Those who liked Madison and wanted to defend him for his good product and those who still hated him and wanted to dethrone him for even mentioning Erdnase.
A friend actually showed me a Reddit article about Elvis’ manager selling “I hate Elvis” badges. He made money from fans and haters.
I added a fun element to this by applying it to the campaign. “I’m better than Madison” T-shirts were mocked-up. As well as “I’m better than Erdnase” tees. Then a post asking people to choose a side, with a mock-up of the T-shirts, was shared all over the official Ellusionist social media accounts.
As this was all going on, sales were flying. For contractual reasons, I won’t give you the exact figures, but the Ellusionist was transparent about their stock and you can do the math.
Controversy + Good Product sold for $99 each = ….$FUCK LOADS
People were laughing at Madison for destroying his career, but he probably earned more than five years’ worth of their salary in a week. Care and attention were put into the product and the reviews spoke for themselves.
People were complicity buying history… and they left happy.
The respect phase set in and everyone involved in ripping on the quote or defending him admitted they had fun. And then the internet moved on.
Step 5. Proceed With Caution
Some competitors might see this as a cheat code to success when launching their products from now on. Good luck. 87% of Lance Armstrong’s close competitors were doping too. Having a winning formula won’t guarantee the pole position.
Also, now that the secret is out, it’ll be hard for anyone to drum up this particular attention again, not in this way anyway.
After I did it, a YouTuber called Jibrizy decided to use the same tactic to stir controversy and attention for his own brand. Copying the “I’m better than” model and literally calling people out who are still alive.
It didn’t work out for him and his video engagement with 190,000 subscribers at the time was poor. A quick dip inside his comments section reveals all the animosity against him. He’s damaged his brand irreparably.
This is because he took himself too seriously. He didn’t open the door to let everyone in on the secret/joke.
The often forgotten side of this kind of marketing is that the product has to be good, otherwise any negative press you’ve created just confirms itself and the hype dies away.
Erdnase x Madison was 2017’s best-selling product for the Ellusionist and the campaign brought the magic community together.
By laying this to rest for your entertainment, I open myself up to the creativity needed to develop all-new campaign plans to push myself further and educate the industry enough to demand more next time.
I’ll keep myself moving forward by burning the bridge behind me.