Posted by: nickgerlich | February 13, 2008

Good Gnus

In the New Testament of the Christian Bible, Jesus is recorded in his final days to have said, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, [even] unto the end of the world. Amen.” (MT 28:19,20 KJV). The result of this passage is the practice of evangelism, which literally means “I bring good news.” And evangelism meant spreading the message, the “Good News,” to the ends of the earth.

For 2000 years, Christians have had a monopoly on that word. Evangelism was something that was (and is) done in the spirit of disseminating a story, to ears that have never heard, as well as to those already familiar with the theme.

EvangelismBut savvy marketers have now co-opted the word, lifting it from its original religious context, and applying it to customers spreading product information like kids spread germs.

And while our spiritual leaders may not approve of my comparison to infectious diseases, the simile is apropos. Customer evangelism is one of the biggest buzz phrases of the century, and wise marketers are leveraging techniques used by the Church for millennia to great effect.

I am surprised it took us this long to see the value of this model.

Consider the exponential growth of Starbucks. While the Seattle coffee vendor has now reached a plateau, it did not reach its height of caffeinated supremacy by good coffee alone. No, it happened primarily because there was something unique about the experience. The sociological phenomenon of a “third place” became synonymous with Starbucks, and people told other people. The result was a Starbucks on every corner, and a cup in every hand.

While coffee has now become commoditized, and roughly 80% of all Starbucks business is now through the drive-up window (something the company vigorously avoided until recently), the notion of customer evangelism is still viable and vital for 21C marketing.

Consider the growth of Google’s G-Mail, technically still in Beta, but for all intents and purposes, spreading like a grapevine. How, you might ask? By invites. Once you are “in the club,” you can invite your friends to get their own free email account. It is really little different from the explosive growth of Hotmail in the late-1990s. I confess to being a G-Mail evangelist myself; I love the fact that I can store and file emails forever, use it as a “parking lot” (or is that data cloud?) for files I need to access while on travel, and use G-Mail as a launchpad to a host of other free Google services.

But it gets even simpler than that in the realm of e-commerce businesses. It is now the norm for sites to have sharing features built in, such as for forwarding email newsletters, as well as recommendations to friends to visit the site.

How else can you explain the astronomical growth of MySpace and Facebook? Pity the poor person who has no “friends” on his MySpace page. It’s kind of like the first person to own a fax machine. It wasn’t much good to have one, unless you could convince others to buy one, too.

So what’s a marketer to do these days? Pretty simple. Encourage word-of-mouth (WOM), which is really nothing new, it’s just that the process is amplified and accelerated. Take notes from the early Church. Recruit evangelists, and commission them to the ends of the earth. Give them the electronic means to scatter the seeds of interest and intrigue.

After all, in 2000 years the Christian Church has grown from a handful to 2.1 billion people. While there are many other large world religions as well, I find it a bit ironic that one of the cornerstones of successful modern marketing is actually the foundation of spiritual institutions.

And that’s good news to me.

Dr “Gnu and Improved” Gerlich

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