It’s every business’s dream to generate a ton of buzz and sell millions of units without spending a fortune on traditional advertising. It’s also incredibly, almost unthinkably difficult to do. But is is possible. You can create a highly successful eCommerce business with little to no marketing or advertising budget, even in a crowded space, with the right product, the right instincts, and the right strategic moves.
Instant Pot is a poster child of eschewing a traditional advertising spend, and is instead thriving on the power of word-of-mouth. What began in 2010 as a homegrown kitchen appliance business that sold roughly 500 units in its first year became a culinary sensation that sold 300,000 units in one day alone during Amazon’s 2018 Prime Day event.
The company managed to do this by building a better kitchen appliance that was more convenient than the cooking options offered by incumbent manufacturers. The price was right too—it was a product a person could try out for under $100; not a major investment for a kitchen appliance. They were able to grow—without big spending on marketing and advertising—through organic channels to build a lasting buzz around their product. What started through word-of-mouth from chefs, bloggers, and customers simply expressing how impressed they were with the product, continued thanks to smart strategy choices by Instant Pot.
Instant Pot became a market leader in specialty kitchen appliances in a matter of years by embracing the large online communities that sprang up organically. It is an impressive achievement in a space dominated by major name brands with gigantic marketing budgets.
In this post, we’ll take a look at some of the key ways Instant Pot rode word-of-mouth marketing to grab a good chunk of a legacy retail market—and how it became a household name in the process.
Take advantage of natural exposure
Instant Pot built a zealous community of users and scaled rapidly once they had established a loyal fanbase. To do this, they had to generate mass awareness through word-of-mouth marketing and a number of other approaches.
This should almost go without saying but, in order to have passionate fans willing to give you free exposure, it’s crucial to build a great product that people love. You only have to glance at reviews to see how obsessed people are with their Instant Pots. The general consensus among user reviews is it’s easy to use, affordable, time-saving, and space-efficient. And they love that it combines the features of multiple appliances, with temperature and pressure sensors to ensure it’s safe to use. Here’s what one of the more basic models can do:
But the makers of Instant Pot didn’t just appear one day in stores and online. Instead, their product ramped up slowly and scaled appropriately. When Instant Pot first launched, it was sold locally in and around Kanata, Ontario, Canada. With sales crawling along slowly, its founders began exploring eCommerce, listing it through a few online retailers and their own online store. Using Wayback Machine, we can see exactly where you could buy an Instant Pot in February 2011:
While Instant Pot did not see a huge sales burst out of the gate, they recognized they had a good product at an attractive price. And it wasn’t long before they got some validation that, yes, things were starting slow but they were headed in the right direction.
As people bought and tried Instant Pot, they liked it—a lot. Instant Pot began to develop name recognition and exposure online from customers and food writers. At this point, they certainly could have adopted traditional (and usually effective) eCommerce marketing strategies to grow online sales, such as SEM or display advertising.
But Instant Pot’s owners decided to find ways to encourage other people to talk about how great their product was instead. They recognized how powerful of a growth engine word-of-mouth marketing and online reviews could be, and let them do the heavy lifting.
By late 2010, the company had already created a page on Facebook, and was soliciting testimonials, recipes, and feedback.
As word of mouth grew, the company also generated product interest (and earned new passionate fans) by running contests and giveaways from its website.
What started with interest and excitement from customers soon evolved into another business strategy for the company. They noticed they were getting a lot of traction from groups of people in specific niches—including people on a vegan diet, people on a paleo diet, and busy parents. They were also getting reviews from some food bloggers, like this December 2012 review from Hip Pressure Cooking.
Instant Pot seized on this opportunity to grow through similar exposure. To generate more of this type of marketing, they sent out 200 review units to celebrity chefs, cooking instructors, and food bloggers (mainly in the niches where they were seeing lots of traction). This led to a lot of high-quality and diverse online exposure for the product.
Here’s a sampling:
- My new kitchen buddy: Instant Pot electric pressure cooker review, by Lani Muelrath, “The Plant-Based Fitness Expert.” This food blogger, who focuses on “Mindful, Active, Vegan Living” extolled the virtues of the appliance, even as someone who wasn’t “a pressure cooker virgin.”
- Which Pressure Cooker Should I Buy, by Dad Cooks Dinner. This food blogger (and pressure cooker evangelist) wrote of Instant Pot that “there can be only one” choice when buying a pressure cooker, and compared at length the pros and cons between electric and stovetop models.
- Instant Pot Pressure Cooker Giveaway and Review, by Barbara Schieving, Pressure Cooker Today. In her initial post celebrating the Instant Pot, Schieving explored the benefits of the device and gave away a free Instant Pot.
- Instant Pot Is the Best Electric Pressure Cooker, by Mother Earth News. The blog, dedicated to “real food and seasonal recipes,” gave Instant Pot a glowing review.
- Beef Roast One-Pot Meal in Instant Pot Electric Pressure Cooker, by Laura Pazzaglia. This early YouTube video was made by a food blogger in late 2013, and took a popular, common meal that could be made in a fraction of the time with the Instant Pot. The video has reached more than half a million people since.
As people fell in love with the convenience of the machine, they simply wanted to write about it and spread the word about how revolutionary it was in the kitchen.
Keep customers engaged and encourage evangelism
Instant Pot had hit the blog echo chamber. It almost seemed like an Instant Pot review was a requirement for any food blog with its eye on the trends. From there, the company enabled further growth by focusing closely on customer needs, the passion of its followers, and creating content that would help people use the Instant Pot frequently and fanatically.
It’s worth noting that Instant Pot gained popularity at a time when more and more people were choosing to prepare food and dine at home. In 2017, 82 percent of meals were made in the home, and, on average, Americans ate out 185 times in 2017, compared to 216 times in the year 2000. This alignment wasn’t a coincidence: The device was aimed at people looking to save money, eat healthier, and optimize on their time. The idea of Instant Pot manifested from its owners’ frustration with never having enough time to cook and finding they were feeding their families too much fast food.
Unlocking this latent need and following through on the delivery certainly helped Instant Pot take off in the fashion that it did. But the company had to be savvy far beyond this to ensure it wasn’t steamrolled by a large competitor with greater resources. This is where it chose to differentiate itself by engaging with customers on a deeper level—so it could form loyal, long-lasting bonds.
Instant Pot’s Facebook community
In 2015, the company created the Instant Pot Community on Facebook to support their online fandom and provide a place for enthusiasts to meet. It existed not as a sales destination (at least, not explicitly or primarily), but as a way to help organize, build up, and nurture a community.
The group exploded—it has nearly two million members today—and Instant Pot enthusiasts began to dub themselves “Potheads.” The company-run Facebook group focuses on content that is uncontroversial, lighthearted, entertaining, and fairly predictable—all of which serves what their audience is looking for.
- Group members discuss their experiences, ask questions, and share recipes.
- The company frequently posts to the group (sometimes multiple times a day) with recipes, announcements, links to sales, tips on choosing the right model, and more.
- A learning center designed to help new members “advance and enjoy using your Instant Pot, from getting started to learning the pro secrets.”
The community also serves as a place where customers can post their own reviews, recommendations, and tips. Instant Pot engages with many of those posts, but also gives the community breathing room to discuss and debate on its own—aiming to be a part of the community, not an overlord.
Instant Pot puts a lot of energy into other social media platforms, too. YouTube is used for how-to and recipe videos. Instagram and Pinterest are leveraged as a place to share (and elevate) appealing and photogenic recipes from chefs, food bloggers, and customers. Similarly, the company retweets and posts recipes from food bloggers to their Twitter followers, along with user experiences, success stories, and other entertaining content.
And on Instant Pot’s blog, they share recipes, give tips, and assist with frequent problems or questions people have when using the device. These posts show Instant Pot’s followers that the company is listening. They also educate folks who might be considering buying one, and often reference the official Facebook Community to drive users towards the central hub for all things Instant Pot.
Cookbooks, other Facebook groups, and fan-driven content
Hundreds of other Facebook groups have popped up since Instant Pot started its own, like:
- Instant Pot Vegan Recipes
- Instant Pot Low Carb and Keto
- Instant Pot Vietnamese Food Recipes
- Weight Watchers with the Instant Pot
The product’s popularity has grown offline, too. Over 2,000 Instant Pot cookbooks have been written since the product took off in 2016, and they cover a wide variety of culinary styles and dietary needs: from The Essential Indian Instant Pot to Low-Carb Instant Pot to The 30-Minute Vegan Instant Pot.
There are many companies that crack down on unauthorized use of their trademarks. Instant Pot doesn’t stop these fan-made Facebook groups, cookbooks, blogs, or anything else. They recognize them as another step in their free marketing machine and embrace them as a way for their biggest fans to keep evangelizing for the brand.
Easy-to-use affiliate program
While Instant Pot gets a lot of unsolicited recommendations from fans online, they also have an easy-to-use affiliate program so fans and influencers of all sizes can actually get paid to promote their products.
An affiliate program is a solid win-win situation with such a popular product. When these chefs and food bloggers gain more exposure, they in turn support Instant Pot further, and continue posting how-to videos, recipes, and more—with affiliate links to encourage their readers to buy the appliance.
Listen to your customers
Instant Pot’s founder, Robert Wang, stays actively engaged with the online community and sees it for what it can be: A live, honest, real-time focus group. He seeks out criticism, trying to read every review or piece of feedback he can find online (there are over 30,000 on Amazon alone). He then iterates on the product to improve its features and functionality, based upon what customers have struggled with or wish for; such as technologies that connect the cooker to the smart home or retain as much of the nutritional value of ingredients as possible.
For example, when customers complained about the volume of the appliance’s beeping…
…the company added the ability to turn off the beeping was added in 2016. And when customers requested a browning feature…
…that feature was added in 2012.
It’s crucial for a company so reliant on word-of-mouth marketing to take reviews so seriously. It shows they’re listening to their fans, which, in turn, makes those fans more loyal and engaged. Plus, Instant Pot is iterating based on what the customers really want, which leads to an ever-improving line of products that turns those customers into repeat customers.
Major incumbents like Breville and Cuisinart have followed Instant Pot’s electric multi-cooker lead in recent years. But thanks to the way Instant Pot has cultivated its loyal fan base and organically built up its rock-solid brand recognition, the bigger companies haven’t been able to elbow it out of the market. And Instant Post achieved that stronghold through a series of very smart business and marketing decisions.
► Capitalize on a great product
Obviously you want to feel like you’re selling a great product. And if your early reviews agree that yes, you are, that means there’s a lot of room for word-of-mouth marketing. When you start to see customers talk positively about your product in public, lean into it and find ways to enable and encourage more conversation.
► Identify where your fans are
Instant Pot recognized early on it was getting traction in some key niches, like vegans and busy parents. So they looked for influencers—not name-brand, celebrity influencers, but targeted micro-influencers—in those niches and sent them their product to encourage reviews.
► Build a community—and listen to it
Instant Pot started its own Facebook group as a central meeting place for its fans. This allowed the company to keep a very close eye on the sentiment from their fans, to interact with them, and to help them get the most out of their product. They also listen deeply to the feedback they get, consuming as many reviews as possible, and use that feedback to iterate their product.
► Take steps to encourage evangelism
Instant Pot allows fans to start their own Facebook groups, launch social media accounts, and write cookbooks because they recognize the value in spreading the word. They also have a simple affiliate program which incentivizes bloggers and other influencers to keep promoting their product.