The Big Flea Thrives on Word of Mouth

The fifth annual MV Big Flea was held last weekend in Alexandria, Virginia.  This year the annual flea market raised an impressive $30,619 from nearly 2,000 attendees.

Since 2007, the MV Big Flea has raised $93,481 for the Mount Vernon Community School PTA. Not bad for a public elementary school where 2/3rds of the kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.

But what’s even more surprising is the role word-of-mouth communications have  played in the Big Flea’s success.

“We don’t have a big advertising budget,” said MV Big Flea spokesperson Maria Getoff.  “We’ve spent less than $1,000 on advertising, and about $7,500 total, to organize and promote the event since 2007.  Instead, we’ve relied on inexpensive grassroots and word of mouth communications tactics to spread the word.”

Local community listservs are the MV Big Flea’s primary means for reaching thousands of potential donors and event attendees.  Organizers do their best to to make the messages “sticky” so they have staying power and spread throughout the community (see here and here).

Organizers rely heavily on other online resources: Craigslist to sell items (and promote the event), Freecycle to get rid of the leftovers, a WordPress blog for a website and targeted Facebook ads to raise awareness in the week before the event.

Old fashioned tactics like personal meetings with community leaders, yard signs and photocopied flyers also help spread the word.  As a result, despite a very limited presence in the local media, the MV Big Flea is widely known in Alexandria and attended by thousands each year.


2010: Top 6 Successes

Last year we published a post highlighting our top accomplishments of 2009.  It’s been getting a lot of traffic recently, so I figured that it’s about time I make a similar list of top successes in 2010.

(1) Parity for HD – In 2010, we worked with the Huntington’s Disease Society of American to persuade 155 Representatives to cosponsor the HD Parity Act (HR 678).  We also persuaded 180 candidates for Congress to complete and return our candidate survey in support of the HD Parity Act and funding for HD research.

(2) Get Seizure Smart! – We reached 2.25 million Americans through the Get Seizure Smart! campaign.  Organized with the Epilepsy Foundation, the campaign had a simple call to action: Distribute the Get Seizure Smart! quiz to family, friends and coworkers.  More than 2,000 people responded and 95% said they’d do it again.

(3) Shaking the Tree – We created a corporate and foundation sponsorship marketing plan for National Geographic Education.  We focused their messaging on “reach, results and reputation” and created an off-the-shelf corporate sponsorship package that will help the NGE team raise bigger bucks in 2011 and beyond.

(4) Generating Media – We generated significant media coverage, print and online, for the Hanover Investment Group and established them as economic “thought leaders.”  Placements include Bloomberg News, The Economist and the Financial Times while interviews with the Wall Street Journal and Reuters may lead to future coverage.

(5) Get the Bug! – The annual MV Big Flea charity event raised a record $25,665 by selling items donated by members of the community.  By being interesting and using low-cost word-of-mouth communications tactics, we’ve also generated 50,000 visitors to our website.  Not bad for an elementary school PTA fundraiser.

(6) Congress Responds – The PAD Coalition is seeking better coverage to test for atherosclerosis of the legs, also known as clogged leg arteries.  In 2010, we succeeded in having a key provision included in the Affordable Care Act (health care reform).  We also generated a letter from 15 Representatives in support of our key policy directive.

Grassroots = $50K Raised

In 2007, Mount Vernon Community School PTA parents created a fundraising event. Called the “MV Big Flea” the idea was to collect items from members of the community, sell them and keep the proceeds. Donors would receive a tax break and the PTA would raise much needed revenue.

Parents are now working on the fourth Flea and poised to reach a historic milestone this year: $50,000 in total money raised.  Effective grassroots communications and word-of-mouth marketing has been key to the MV Big Flea’s success.

“The community listservs on Yahoo are great,” says Big Flea Communications Czar Joe LaMountain. “We can quickly and easily reach more than 10,000 people about donating items or buying things on our website (”

In addition to Yahoo Groups, Big Flea “Curator” Cynthia Webster routinely posts items for sale on Craigslist.   In addition to making pre-event sales, and reducing the need for storage space, Craigslist postings also generate website visitors.  Nearly 30,000 people have visited the website since it was created in 2008. “To get so many visitors, for what is essentially a local event, is amazing,” LaMountain said.

While grassroots communications is typically thought of as a political activity, there are many applications for fundraising, which is obviously essential to any charitable cause.  The success of the MV Big Flea is a great example of how a charitable organization can effectively use social media tools to disseminate their message and raise funds.

2009: Top 6 Successes

Now that the new year has begun, I’ve started taking stock of what we accomplished in 2009. While I feel like we had a very successful year, six specific items come to mind.

(1) Mimi Wins! – After four months of campaigning, Mimi Carter was elected to the Alexandria School Board on May 6, 2009. The Friends of Mimi Carter campaign was built on grassroots communications, from email blast and phone banks to participating in one-on-one conversations with voters. Thanks to the help of many volunteers, Mimi secured 2,228 votes and won a three-year term on the board.

(2) From 0 to 69 Cosponsors – In 2009, we spent many hours working with the Huntington’s Disease Society of America in its efforts to generate support for HR 678. This bill would make it easier for people affected by HD to obtain medical care and disability benefits. Through a variety of grassroots communications tactics, we persuaded 69 Representatives in Congress to support the bill.

(3) Operation 435 – More than 12 million Americans have COPD and building a patient movement is a primary goal of the COPD Foundation. In 2009, we created Operation 435, a campaign to mobilize COPD patients in every single congressional district. In November, we generated more than 500 advocate communications with state health officials and positioned the Foundation to succeed in 2010.

(4) Just Call me Professor – Teaching a graduate level course on grassroots communications at Georgetown has been a major highlight of my year. It’s been challenging, but my students have been fantastic and we’ve had great discussions about how to build effective grassroots and word-of-mouth marketing campaigns. I’m looking forward to continuing and expanding my public speaking and teaching skills in 2010.

(5) Big Flea Keeps Rollin’ – Even though I was less involved with the 2009 MV Big Flea, I still rank it in my top 5. Thanks to Facebook, Craiglist, Ebay and a WordPress blog, we generated tons of word of mouth conversations about the event. As a result, more than 1,000 people attended our third-annual event and we raised $10,724 for our school’s early childhood education programs.

(6) Putting PAD on the Map – Everyone knows about atherosclerosis and how clogged chest arteries can lead to heart attack, stroke and early death. Far fewer know that leg arteries can also clog with the same results. Working with the PAD Coalition, we educated congressional and administration officials about PAD and laid the groundwork for future efforts to increase the number of high risk Americans screened for PAD.

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