The power of nothing: three lessons from Cards Against Humanity and the killing of Black Friday

Has the slow demise of Black Friday already begun?

One business took a pretty interesting approach to this year’s Black Friday shopping extravaganza, and it might just signal a big shift in the way that businesses interact with and market to their customers. 

The game Cards Against Humanity, a self-described “party game for horrible people … [and] as despicable and awkward as you and your friends,” typically sells its original card game for $25, but for one day only the company offered a new product for customers to purchase for just $5.

The product was nothing. Literally nothing. Cards Against Humanity ran a Black Friday sale for customers to receive nothing in return for handing over $5. Customers hoping to purchase a set of actual playing cards couldn’t even do so.

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Here’s just a quick look at the first half of a statement that Cards Against Humanity published on its website post-sale:

“This year we offered our customers the ultimate Black Friday experience – the ability to buy nothing from us for $5. We took our entire store offline, and put up a simple payment form where people could give us $5. 

11,248 people gave us $5, and 1,199 people gave us more than $5 by filling out the form more than once. One enthusiastic fan gave us $100. In the end, we made a windfall profit of $71,145.”

This isn’t the first time that Cards Against Humanity decided to take on Black Friday. Last year, the company sold $6 boxes of actual bull.. uh… poop, and in 2013 customers were able to purchase a $25 box of playing cards for the special Black Friday price of $30. 

Perhaps Cards Against Humanity is onto something this time. Perhaps their ultimate Black Friday experience isn’t a cavalier advertising stunt intended to take show customers the gluttony of their ways. 

After all, Black Friday is probably seeing its last days. Fortune even stated that Cyber Monday is dying because of shifting online behaviors. More specifically, around 57% of consumers begin their Christmas shopping before November starts, according to the National Retail Federation, whereas only 49% of consumers did so back in 2008.

This year was slated to be the biggest year yet for Americans to empty their bank accounts while recovering from Thanksgiving’s turkey-induced food coma.

Adobe Systems Inc. stated that online shoppers on Black Friday would spend around $2.7bn on 27 November 2015 (and take note that this dollar amount doesn’t include in-store sales) which is 15% higher than in 2014. For the second round of events on Cyber Monday, online shoppers were expected to shell out at least $2.98bn, which is around 12% more than last year.

A growing number of people are also shopping online, and they’re especially keen on mobile shopping. According to IBM Watson Trend, 44% of all online sales during Black Friday weekend came directly from smartphones, which is an increase of 65% over last year.

The best sales are, quite literally, sitting in the palm of your hand and can be accessed at any time. There’s no need to wake up early to find good deals. The money you spend on gas and the time you waste waiting for Target’s website to get back in order is just as pointless as giving $5 to a company for no reason.

So how exactly does all of this relate to online marketing? Well, there are a few solid lessons that small businesses and SEO experts alike can glean from Cards Against Humanity’s Black Friday marketing schemes. 

Lesson 1: You can give away the milk for free and people will still buy the cow

Take a closer look at the Cards Against Humanity website, and you’ll see something very curious: a full set of playing cards is available to purchase for $25, but if you want to download the cards and print them out yourself, you don’t have to pay a cent.

There’s no catch; you’ll find exactly the same cards in your free PDF download as you would find in the $25 boxed set. The company even states right on its homepage that you can download the main game for free. 

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So what’s really happening here? The company is still very much in business, so people must be purchasing the cards. But why?

Convenience. It’s as simple as that.

No one wants to bother with printing, cutting out and laminating the entire set of cards when they can be purchased online with a simple click. Cards Against Humanity figured out that the product itself doesn’t have to cost anything. The convenience of purchasing the product however costs $25, and a whole lot of people are willing to pay that.

Conclusion:

Focusing on quality, rather than quantity, is a key aspect of online marketing today especially if you’re focusing on your SEO. Your business needs to be willing to invest in your customers before they’re willing to invest their loyalty in your business.

Lesson 2: Consumers are more conscientious

Cards Against Humanity certainly isn’t the only company to protest the consumerism of Black Friday. In fact, you probably didn’t even hear about their $5 deal because you were too busy reading about the outdoor retailer REI and its “#OptOutside” campaign. When REI closed its 143 brick-and-mortar doors on Thanksgiving and Black Friday, it encouraged consumers to go enjoy the great outdoors instead of falling into a winter peacoat blowout sale.

As a result, its online sales increased by 10% on Thursday and 26% on Friday alone. Plus the company got a ton of free advertising through so many #OptOutside tweets, Instagram photos, and news articles.

After all, you can only spend so much time on Amazon’s Lightning Deals page snapping up $25 iTunes gift cards for $20, DIY Soda Machines, and jumbo family packs of 100% wool socks. Eventually, a sense of shame takes over, when you realize that you’ve been staring at a glowing screen for hours on end.

This is exactly why #GivingTuesday became a thing four years ago.

As TIME explained, #GivingTuesday functions as “an antidote” to the feelings of gluttony after eating three Thanksgiving dinners and spending $900 in one sitting, but it has produced “spectacular results for many non-profits” too. In just four years, over 30,000 organizations in 68 countries have participated in the digital event, and thousands of dollars have been raised for important causes.

Many consumers are now wondering if we need an antidote to Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping. An antidote which ironically requires us to spend even more money. Is it time to dial things down a notch? 

Maybe it’s excessively ironic that a card game marketed to “horrible people” is the very game that emphasized the gullible consumerism of Black Friday this year. But like it or not, consumer spending is increasingly influenced by subtle glimmers of conscientiousness, and businesses have to acknowledge that.

Conclusion:

Customers still want to get good deals when they’re shopping for Christmas gifts, but it’s not enough to offer discounts if you want to keep customers coming back. Instead of marketing products to consumers, successful businesses market the alluring brand behind their products. Whether this brand is serious or silly, it needs to convince customers that they’re purchasing more than just items on sale. 

Lesson 3: Have brand, will travel

Let’s take a quick look at the second half of the statement that Cards Against Humanity released for its unmissable Black Friday sale:

“Cards Against Humanity is known for our charitable fundraising – since 2012 we’ve raised nearly $4m for organizations we love like Worldbuilders, the Sunlight Foundation, the EFF, DonorsChoose.org, the Wikimedia Foundation, and the Chicago Design Museum. We even started a $500,000 full-ride scholarship for women getting degrees in science. 

There’s been a lot of speculation about how we would spend the money from Black Friday, and we’re happy to announce that this time, we kept it all.”

Cards Against Humanity does give a lot of money to charity, and that’s an awesome thing for a business to do. But keeping the Black Friday revenue for themselves was actually pretty smart. The money was actually distributed to employees and each employee listed exactly how they intended to spend their share. Lists included everything from a new Roomba to thousands of dollars’ worth of donations to animal rescue groups, women’s health centers, and community shelters.

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The employee profile isn’t so much about proving that the money is going to a good cause; it’s about showing the real personalities and passions of those who work for Cards Against Humanity. It’s a level of transparency that few companies are able to reach anymore, and it lets customers know how big of an impact so many $5 contributions can make.

In one fell swoop, Cards Against Humanity managed to combine the fleeting impulsiveness of Black Friday deals with the healing nature of #GivingTuesday, thereby solidifying its brand as a business that perpetually gives back, even when it doesn’t have to.

Conclusion:

A business’s brand should govern its online marketing strategies, and these marketing strategies need to connect with customers. The importance of making a sharing the “business persona” is exactly why social media campaigns have taken the content marketing industry by storm; sometimes the simplest posts can generate the most audience engagement. This is also why Cards Against Humanity is successful at marketing. 

Many small businesses believe their budgets are too small to work on branding or have a business persona, but this is untrue. A clear vision of why the company exists should be present, no matter its size. The brand, and all other outreach campaigns, should clearly communicate the business’s mission, its purpose, even its personality, whether it’s a one-person shop or a multinational corporation. Having this solid grounding is essential to attracting the right customers, employees, and vendors. 

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