This case study is part of our “4 Questions of Marketing” feature, that’s running all month long. At the end of the month, we’re going to send our subscribers some extra case studies, that we aren’t publishing anywhere else. So if you want them, make sure to subscribe… 😉
People don’t like change.
This is true in general, and it’s even truer when it’s about something we use every day.
That’s why email isn’t the easiest space to break into.
We haven’t been using it for all that long (although it’s hard to remember “the time before” isn’t it?), and a lot of people never switched from the original email address that came with their internet service account.
This is true today (I’m looking at you, Aunt Maureen), and it was even more true in the mid-2000s when people were still getting the hang of the whole internet and instant communication shebang.
After all, firstname.lastname@example.org does the job, doesn’t it? Anything else was just for the really technically savvy.
Besides, the alternatives kind of sucked, right? 😉
And Then There Was Google
Back then, Google was just a search engine.
A damn good one, mind you, but a search engine nonetheless.
It’s what they were known for, and it’s even how they got verbed (“Google it”).
People were, by and large, happy with the mailbox that they got from their ISP, and if they weren’t, there were free services like Hotmail and Yahoo! that let you create an account at no charge. Remember 2004? Everyone had a Hotmail account!
Google wanted in on the action, but how would they get attention, and break away from the “Search Engine only” label.
Google was ready for the fight. Their email was better. Waaaaay better.
Email exchanges sorted into conversations (just thinking about non-conversation email inboxes makes me twitchy), almost unlimited storage, large attachment size allowances, and integrated search functionality (“don’t sort, search”) put it head and shoulders above the competition.
So the product was good… but they were still starting with no market share whatsoever.
How would they spread the word?
Email Matters: High Cost of Failure
If something goes wrong with your email, it’s bad.
There’s a high cost of failure associated with it; repercussions ranging from the personal (forget to pick up the groceries, send a birthday greeting to Aunt Maureen, or pick the kids up from the sitters) to the professional (missed meeting notes, looking like idiot at next meeting, and much worse).
Seen in that light, yeah, it’s a little harder to sell someone on a new email service than on, say, a new pizza topping. (Speaking of which: feta cheese with pineapple and broccoli. Try it. You will thank me.)
So not only is it hard to get people to change in general, but it’s even harder when you’re dealing with something so sensitive.
Which means that you need to really hold their hands through the process. Talk them through it. Extol the benefits and virtues ad nauseum.
You get the idea – slick copy and a few videos weren’t going to cut it.
Google needed a more personal touch.
So They Passed the Buck
Instead of putting a lot of time, effort, money and resources into convincing people to try their superior email client, Google just let the customers take care of it.
They did spend some time and money attracting a few early adopters – the kind of folk who gravitate towards the best and love trying new things (all of whom were already super-comfortable with technology and Google) and gave them access to a closed Beta version.
And it let them invite a few people to use it as well, if they liked.
Well, boy, did they ever like!
Once they got to know the Gmail interface, users were more than eager to get their friends and families using it. Being the first to introduce someone to Google was a big deal, because everyone who tried it loved the extra space, better features, etc. And everyone wanted to do that favor for their friends.
After a while, Google uncapped the number of invitations each user could send, but to get an account you still had to be invited. This was true for a very, very long time. Three years. (Technically it was still in beta until 2009, but it was in 2007 that they made it available to everyone).
By recruiting early users to the system, Google was able to access all of their extended networks as well.
Does That Kind of Thing Really Work?
I’ll be honest – I don’t even know a lot of people who don’t have a Gmail account.
For a huge percentage of internet users (especially the savvier ones), Gmail for web-based email service is the go-to choice, just like Google is for search.
Google has since expanded Gmail to integrate with calendars, document editing and sharing, video, maps, images and even search.
(You can even go out and buy a Chromebook – a laptop loaded with absolutely nothing but Google’s free product family.)
Oh yeah, it worked, all right!
As of January 2012, Gmail had over 350 million users and counting, and almost every single one of them is a convert from another email client.
I remember the day I gave up my Hotmail account. Gmail seemed more grown-up (I got my Hotmail when I was 13), and more professional (and I was tired of people saying: “You don’t have Gmail yet?’ with looks of horror!).
Three or four days in, I was sold, completely and (to date) forever.
I wasn’t alone; millions of people say email@example.com and wanted to know where they could get that email address, too. These people weren’t new to email, but rather current users who wanted better service than they were getting from Hotmail or Yahoo!.
Playing “Hard to Get” Gets you Everywhere
There is an undeniable allure in anything hard to obtain. If you can’t have it, all of a sudden you want it a lot more.
By keeping access to Gmail in the early days limited to a select few, Google built anticipation and interest for years before officially opening the doors. When they finally did, there were enough users that @gmail.com was so common, and so well entrenched, that Gmail became a logical choice whenever anyone needed a new email address.
Because they had a better product, people who were “just looking” ending up sticking around, and inviting their friends. The process is ongoing – just a few months ago I created my new Gmail addresses for my parents.
They’d been using the mailbox that their ISP had given them for 15 years.
A Hop, Skip and a Jump from Stealing Clients Away From the Competition
You don’t have to be Google to make the allure of scarcity and quality work for you – almost any business owner can add these elements to their marketing mix.
You’ve probably seen several examples of it just in the last few weeks…
- “Have you heard about our referral program?”
- “Limited space available!”
- “You’ve got to try this – it’s amazing!”
- And lots, lots more…
What you decide to try will depend on your business and your industry, but odds are that there is some way that you can take advantage of word of mouth. Let your customers know that you’re looking for new clients, and give them some kind of great incentive to do it. It doesn’t have to be a cash reward (it wasn’t with Gmail), but it has to be something that they’ll get a kick out of – like helping out a friend!
And if you can make your offer the domain of a select “insider’s club”, so much the better!