If you’re expecting a ‘Blue Peter’ style tutorial on how to turn a squeezy liquid bottle, some sticky back plastic and some felt into your very own cuddly unicorn, then I’d better explain (sorry if you know this already!) that a unicorn, in business terms, is a start-up that has managed to achieve a valuation of more than $1 billion.

They’re called unicorns because they are rare beasts indeed – there are around 260 or so in the world, mostly from the US and China, but with about 22 of them based in the UK. You’ll know some of the UK names – Deliveroo, Just Eat, and BrewDog, for example.

While many unicorns are pure tech companies (like DNA sequencing specialists Oxford Nanopore Technologies), a lot of them use tech to create on-demand service-based companies – Uber is a classic example. These kinds of start-ups reinvent an existing industry, often using tech, like smartphones, to connect the end user with the supplier directly. In many cases, they aren’t suppliers themselves – they don’t need to be.

Now the company I run, StreetPR, part of Crowdify Global, has actually worked with a number of on-demand service provider start-ups (including a couple of the UK unicorns mentioned above), providing brand ambassadors and acquisition marketing strategies to promote and explain their services to their target audiences.

That may sound odd – why would a tech company use face-to-face marketing to reach consumers? – but in fact it makes perfect sense. What a lot of these start-ups need initially is an education and activation campaign – this is what we do, this is how we do it, this is how easy it is for you to use, this is how it will change your life for the better, and here’s a voucher off your first try…

Traditional mass marketing – even when it’s online – is very wasteful for start-ups like this. They need something cost-effective right from the start. Brand Ambassadors, on the other hand, can be incredibly targeted.

Using temporary marketing staff to deliver high-octane, high impact face-to-face campaigns also means start-ups can get the most bang for their marketing bucks, without the costs of setting up a permanent marketing department – they can also respond quickly to new opportunities by putting more feet on the street if they need to.

Maybe you’re a new company that has created a mobile app for college students to keep on top of their bills or perhaps you have an on-demand service that lets busy City types (lawyers and bankers, say) arrange for their laundry to be collected, cleaned and delivered back to them, at times that suit them (sorry, accidental pun there).

Then you need to target your audience where they are. For example, leafleting around campus may be a good way to alert students to an activation; setting up a stall with a demo works even better – so long as you have good wi-fi connectivity! Or you want to hit major London train and tube stations at morning and evening rush hour and major food hubs at lunchtime, handing out leaflets offering discounts and demoing the service.

By the way, face-to-face staff aren’t just for recruiting consumers – we’ve worked with a number of start-ups which have used our people to recruit local shops to act as agents for them (like Danish left-luggage service provider, LuggageHero) or to sell their products in to bars, clubs, restaurants and gyms.

This isn’t rocket science – but it can provide a much-needed, cost-effective boost to your launch or your UK growth plans.

On-demand services are increasingly filling a series of business niches, revitalising service sectors that had become stale by creating platforms that take away the middle-men, allow user and provider to communicate directly, and cut costs at both ends.

But like I say, it is incredibly difficult to get the benefits of an on-demand service across in a newspaper or magazine ad; TV and radio don’t work that much better; and online marketing is great – if the only people you want to reach are stuck in the office eating a sandwich ‘al desko’…

The point is, if you can engage your target audience where they shop, eat, play and live with something tangible, then you’ll get much better take-up.

Trust me – I may not look like someone who believes in magical mystical creatures, but I’ve worked with more than one unicorn in my time…

By James Rix, CEO of Crowdify Global

Photo by Wilmer Martinez on Unsplash