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Crazy Like a Firefox

  |  November 12, 2004   |  Comments

Imagine 25,000 customers who love your product so much, they organize to launch one of the biggest viral campaigns in history -- and pay for your advertising. Spread Firefox may go down as campaign of the year.

Fans of Mozilla's free, open-source Firefox browser make the ardent Apple faithful look like a bunch of slackers. Their community-generated Spread Firefox (SFX) campaign, launched less than two months ago, is already one of the watershed campaigns in interactive marketing history. It's helped generate over a million downloads per day since Firefox went out of beta on Tuesday; registered over 25,000 volunteer marketers; encouraged about 100,000 Web sites to display promotional buttons and banners; generated wall-to-wall coverage in the blogosphere and mainstream media; and raised a quarter of a million dollars for a full-page ad in The New York Times.

"This summer, we saw we were getting comfortable with a 1.0 product," Chris Hofmann, chief engineer at the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation, told me. "We started to kick around how we're going to promote this. It's a nonprofit foundation, a bunch of engineers. So we said, 'Let's use the same model as we've used for the software.' Engineers built the spreadfirefox.com Web site. We just kind of opened the door to come up with a bunch of creative ideas."

Call it open-source marketing, or viral/buzz/word-of-mouth/community/advocacy/guerilla marketing. Some dub it "consumer control," the theme of this week's AD:TECH. Whatever you call it, and as marketers blah-blah-blah about it, it's out there happening -- and the results are stunning.

Love (on the Internet) Conquers All

Firefox really is a kick-ass browser. It's light, stable, and almost infinitely customizable. It also boasts plenty of optional features that are going to scare the bejesus out of marketers and publishers, like ad blocking and an option to integrate Bugmenot to bypass site registration. To its millions of fans, Firefox is a hero, and to many that heroism isn't just because it's open source. But for every hero, there's a villain. In this case, the villain is Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE).

"[IE] put a lot of people at risk. There's a large population of frustrated Internet Explorer users out there," said Hofmann. "Microsoft seems to be unresponsive right now. We're hoping that changes, and they'll view this as they've got to respond to customers who have asked for years for a response to IE."

Everyone you speak with about SFX, the campaign and the Web site, eventually draws a comparison with Howard Dean's grassroots success on the Internet. Turns out that analogy is accurate for a number of reasons. For starters, Hofmann told me spreadfirefox.com actually uses code from Dean's Web site (developed by Civic Space software). A whole bunch of site features will look awfully familiar to anyone who surfed their way through the presidential primaries.

Another Dean similarity is an anyone-but-the-other-guy tone to the campaign. As Jupiter Research (a Jupitermedia Corp. division) analyst Gary Stein mentioned when we discussed this, "There's nothing like a common enemy to bond a group."

Rob Davis, an account director with Haberman & Associates, felt the pain after an IE security hole ultimately wiped his hard drive. A friend recommended Firefox. Grateful, Davis became a volunteer. He's the one who came up with the idea of asking the community to donate money for the New York Times ad.

"It's been an exciting couple of weeks," he told me. "We're really amazed by the response. We actually had an initial goal of 2,500 names. Within 17 hours, we exceeded that 10-day goal. We went back to the drawing board to figure out how many [donor] names we could include in the space and still run the message."

They settled on 10,000.

What's the goal of the ad? "It's thanking the [Mozilla] foundation. It's the voice of the Spread Firefox community. To be kind of a celebratory event for all the developers worldwide who have spread open source. The secondary intent will certainly be that people download and try the product. Market share has grown by 3 percent in the last couple of weeks!"

Of course, publicity generated by the fundraising effort helped lift Firefox out of the tech trades and into the global, mainstream media spotlight.

Davis's shop works on grassroots advocacy campaigns such as the Volvo For Life Awards and Organic Valley Cooperative. He believes SFX's strength lies in being a place for the evaluation of different guerilla marketing tactics and grassroots content creation.

"During the last political session, you saw a nationwide contest to create a 30-second ad," he said, referring to MoveOn.org. "I thought that model would work with Firefox." On the SFX site, campaign ideas are proposed, then vetted, by members. Some haven't worked all that well, like a "send in a picture of you using Firefox" initiative. It resulted in a lot of boring photos of people standing next to computer monitors.

Yet nearly every aspect of the site allows for member ratings and feedback. The prize is glory. There are points for affiliate links; blog post ratings; art work proposals, forum discussions and more, all to further the SFX cause. Members, many of whom are marketing professionals, are pitching everything from Firefox buddy icons for IM clients to creating a sticker for a car in this year's Paris/Dakar race.

"This is only the beginning," Rob vows. "What got people so excited about the Dean campaign was meritocracy among your peers. The neat thing here is you have the confluence of a number of variables: the Internet's first open source product for average people; the pain that IE has not innovated in more than two years and left gaping security holes in the product; and a forum for people to organize.

"Firefox doesn't care about my personal data, about serving ads, or tracking my activity," he said. "They care about delivering the best browser. Microsoft is trying to make a buck, and that buck comes at my expense"

If you think only geeks with too much time on their hands are getting this message, think again. As soon as Rob made the call for donations, money rolled in from Sun Microsystems' COO, Jonathan Schwartz, who also emailed a personal note of congratulations.

Schwartz linked to SFX on his blog: "Speaking of innovation to solve real world problems, I made my donation, did you?"

Even if you don't switch browsers, a visit to spreadfirefox.com will provide enough ideas and inspiration to fuel your next campaign, or two.

Pass it on.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rebecca Lieb

Rebecca was previously VP, U.S. operations of Econsultancy, an independent source of advice and insight on digital marketing and e-commerce. Earlier, she held executive marketing and communications positions at strategic e-services companies, including Siegel & Gale, and has worked in the same capacity for global entertainment and media companies, including Universal Television & Networks Group (formerly USA Networks International) and Bertelsmann's RTL Television. As a journalist, she's written on media for numerous publications, including "The New York Times" and "The Wall Street Journal." Rebecca spent five years as Variety's Berlin-based German/Eastern European bureau chief. Rebecca also taught at New York University's Center for Publishing, where she also served on the Electronic Publishing Advisory Group. Rebecca, author of "The Truth About Search Engine Optimization," was ClickZ's editor-in-chief for over seven years.

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