Friday, May 27, 2005

Word of Mouth Marketing III: GMail a Case Study in Building Buzz

[Applicable tags: WOM, Local Marketing, Buzz, Gmail, Beanie]

Gmail was one of the best word of mouth marketing campaigns of all time. The Gmail buzz was white hot, but I think that the Tyco Beanie Babies takes the first place prize because of how long they milked their buzz. Of course, both companies used the same basic word of mouth principles to juice the word of mouth marketing into a full-blown frenzy.

Gmail, Google's free web email, was not all that special. It lacked much of the functionality and maturity of existing free webmail from Yahoo and Microsoft/Hotmail. But, what I lacked in functionality and maturity it made up in storage space, providing 1GB and later 2GB of storage, when 10MB was the norm. In addition, Google was, and is a pioneer, and people were naturally intrigued by its new service. Finally, as a new service, the plum email addresses were still available. Instead of you could get

Starting with these characteristics, Google implemented a flawless word-of-mouth campaign.

Step 1: Start Rumors
Google initially started with internal users only. Of course, these people talked about it. Then when they announced Gmail, they did so on April Fools Day!
Results: This created tremendous buzz. Was it an April Fools Joke? That question alone got them 3-5 times more press than they would have received by launching on any other day. The speculation about whether it was a joke or not ran wild.

Step 2: Artificially Constrain Inventory
People want what they cannot have. Google essentially told people it wasn’t ready for launch yet, but during the test phase they could get an account through invitations from friends already using Gmail. Then they limited each user to only 5 invitations.
Results: Almost instantly, everyone was looking for a friend with a Gmail account, so they could beg for an invitation. In other words, the people seeking invitations initiated the conversations, they created the buzz. I like to call this the Golden Ticket principle, after Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where there was a frenzy trying to find the golden tickets in candy bars.

Step 3: Reward Beneficial Behavior
Google did three things: (1) they handed out Gmail invitations to heavy users of their new Blogger software; (2) they randomly placed links to register for Gmail on their homepage, about one out of twenty pages ; (3) when the link for Gmail wasn’t on their homepage, there was a link to register for news about Gmail.
Results: Sheer genius! (1) The got more people to use Blogger, in hopes of getting an invitation, driving up their webstats. (2) They got more people to hit their website in order to find the "golden ticket" invitation. (3) They got future users to provide their contact information. So even though they hadn’t opened the floodgates, they were still collecting future users through this "registration for news".

As a fellow blogger pointed out, Chris Matthews wrote in his book Hardball, "when you've got bad news, get it all out at once, when you've got good news drag I out as long as possible." This is exactly what Google did with Gmail, and in the process they created a frenzy. People were even bartering real goods, services and money to get Gmail invitations, when there were free alternatives. I hadn't seen this sort of frenzy since the Beanie Baby craze. You might remember some of those Beanie collectors who thought they would pay for their children's college tuition with those "rare" stuffed animals…go figure.

Google was fortunate to have a platform for such an effort, by virtue of their wildly successful search site. But these same principles can be applied to any word of mouth launch.

For example, a new restaurant could remain "private" during its first three months of launch. They could invite friends and influential people to dine there free during the first week. This exclusivity will start the buzz. Then at the end of each meal give every party two "friends" coupons for an exclusive meal at 50% off the regular price; all the while restricting access to people who were referred. This will turn the initial guests into word of mouth machines spreading your coupons to their closest friends. When others call for reservations, inform them that you aren't open yet and take their contact info for follow-up (future customers).

I assure you that these activities will cause word of mouth to spread like wildfire. It will be the talk of the town: "Have you tried the new restaurant?" Meaning: Are you in the in crowd? 'Can you get me an invitation?" Meaning: Can you anoint me as being in the in crowd?

As this example demonstrates, you can proactively manage a powerful word of mouth campaign. But you must be able to back-up your word of mouth campaign with a high-quality customer experience. If you provide a great consumer experience then simply follow the principles laid out in this article. Create rumors, manage inventory and reward beneficial behavior. Good luck! More word of mouth articles to come...stay tuned.