At times it feels like the ad industry is constantly besieged by bad news: Budgets are getting trimmed, mass audiences are splintering into niches, display ad click-through rates are at all-time lows and no one has figured out the social-media equation just yet.
Couple that with an increasingly cluttered and information-saturated marketplace and it's no wonder advertisers and agencies are constantly looking for new strategies and approaches.
Funny then how few have looked to Mozilla and Firefox for guidance. The tiny nonprofit Mozilla Corp., whose open-source Firefox web browser has 22.51% of the market and is the second-most-popular browser behind Microsoft's Internet Explorer, practices grass-roots marketing at its finest.
Mozilla competes against Microsoft, Apple and Google -- arguably the biggest and most valuable brands in the world -- and it succeeds with no traditional advertising (or big budgets) to speak of. It may have taken Barack Obama's historic political campaign and election to alert the ad industry to the power of grass-roots marketing, but the ongoing success of Mozilla's Firefox marketing efforts are more relevant for most.
Last month I had the opportunity to meet with Paul Kim, Mozilla's VP-marketing, and some of his team to discuss Firefox's unique approach to marketing -- one where T-shirts have more cultural currency than 30-second spots and where the accomplishments of the Obama and Howard Dean campaigns are far more admired than the latest efforts from Nike or Apple.
Here's some of what makes Mozilla's Firefox grass-roots marketing efforts work:
At the core of Firefox's efforts is SpreadFirefox.com, a digital hub for the Firefox community and all of its related marketing activities. There are three core components here. Users can join the community to participate in projects and chat with others via message boards; they can contribute by becoming part of an ongoing global project, such as "come up with and execute campaigns around '100% organic software' messaging"; and they can "spread," which enables users to join the Firefox affiliate program by getting and posting buttons.
Mozilla Labs furthers the participatory nature of Firefox community beyond coding and distribution. Here users of all stripes can preview, play with and provide feedback on new features. Recent successes include "Personas," which is a prototype extension that allows lightweight personal "theming" for the browser, and the "Concept Series," which is focused on soliciting opinions and design directions for not only Firefox but the entire web. It's heady stuff.
Mozilla Community Store
T-shirts are the lingua franca of the Firefox fan base. As such, the Mozilla marketing group created an "open source" store. Like Threadless.com, users can either create their own designs and upload them to the site or simply browse from what's available and purchase whatever strikes their fancy. There are 124 designs to choose from.
Mozilla Campus Reps
Mozilla found early success with Firefox by targeting and reaching college students well before reaching the mainstream. To help formalize and accelerate adoption the company broke new ground by creating the "Campus Reps" programs which helped foster strong word-of-mouth and activities on Facebook and Twitter.
This summer, to help promote the release of Firefox 3.5, Mozilla created a site to solicit user-generated videos promoting the speed of the new browser. The effort is similar to a previous campaign, Firefox Flicks, which sourced an array of dynamic 30-second spots from users across the globe. This time, a cute spot from the world's fastest clapper, Kent "Toast" French, starts things off.
And there's much more. This year Firefox will launch a Creative Collective, which will attempt to further organize and build Mozilla's visual-design community, and Mozilla Hacks, which will highlight the features of Firefox 3.5 with 35 days of demos. This is all in addition to providing ongoing tools and materials for users to host their own events, participate in guerilla marketing efforts, advertise and blog, tag and use social networks.
Ultimately all the marketing that Mozilla does on Firefox's behalf is to encourage community participation. From affiliate programs to crowd-sourced viral videos, each action Mozilla takes is focused on fostering a sense of ownership by the community and reinforcing Firefox's authenticity in the marketplace.
Of course, it could be argued that Mozilla is so unique that its grass-roots marketing programs can't be replicated. Firefox is an open-source software product: It's free and it has a massive and devoted global developer community to leverage. It's not as if Mozilla is trying to sell soap or burgers.
But that's a shortsighted perspective. Grassroots marketing, it turns out, is perfectly suited for our digital, networked world. New players such as T-shirt company Threadless and the micro-finance company Kiva.com have built businesses through these tactics, as have a few more established companies such as Amazon (which built its business through an affiliate marketing program), PayPal, Zappos.com and even Google. Let's not forget about Barack Obama either.
As the ad industry starts to look beyond traditional advertising formats (both digital and analog), Firefox's grass-roots success can't be ignored.
Despite the collective nature of Mozilla, there is still a robust, savvy marketing department at work, albeit a much smaller one than that Apple or Microsoft. And, like any good advertiser or marketer, Mozilla's marketing team is explicitly focused on driving adoption, creating an image, inspiring our imagination and moving people to identify, evangelize and -- ultimately -- choose their product.
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Garrick Schmitt is group VP of experience planning at Razorfish and the agency's global lead for user experience. He publishes FEED, Razorfish's annual consumer experience report, and writes and edits the Razorfish Digital Design Blog. In his spare time he flails about on Twitter @gschmitt. Audi and Levi's are Razorfish clients.