Whether you’re selling a product, a concept, a piece of software, a politician, or a war – the most effective marketing creates the illusion that it’s not marketing at all but rather a spontaneous outpouring of affection or excitement.

Case in point: the new Firefox browser, currently being lovingly welcomed in the popular press. Internet Explorer is dismissed with a sniff – as full of security holes as Swiss cheese! Columnists are having a field day. Reading the articles leaves a lingering feeling of wonder – why didn’t I realize how mindblowingly important it is to have tabbed pages in my Internet browser?

Here’s an interesting article in USA Today about Firefox and its development by a team including Blake Ross, a smart 19-year-old. It’s the marketing that fascinates me.

“Ross has moved on multiple fronts to seize the opportunity. In recent months, he has focused on directing a grass-roots marketing campaign pointed toward Tuesday’s official public release of Firefox.

“Using the Weblog www.spreadfirefox.com, he has recruited 30,000 Firefox “champions” and rallied them round a crusade to see who can do the most to saturate the Web with praise for Firefox and links to Web sites where it can be downloaded free.

“In contrast to Microsoft’s well-paid product evangelists, Firefox champions are true-believer volunteers encouraged to be as creative as possible.

“Last month, when Ross put out a call for donations to run a celebratory full-page ad in The New York Times, he raised $250,000 from 10,000 donors in 10 days. The ad will run sometime between Nov. 15 and Dec. 4.

“Rob Davis, a 29-year-old account executive from Minneapolis marketing firm Haberman & Associates, who organized the ad campaign, likens the grass-roots promotion of Firefox to the online buzz Howard Dean drummed up in his run for president.”

Looking for the truth behind a campaign like this is challenging. Apple gets similar hype from evangelists; its products are far cruddier than you’re led to believe. Howard Dean is a better politician and person than you were led to think (although he would probably also have lost). The Iraq war was sold by armies of commentators and officials, all of them coincidentally making the same points on the same days, and of course it was all malarkey. Sometimes, though, there’s imaginative work done to generate word of mouth about products that are genuinely worth the hype – read about the “alternate reality” game used to create excitement before the launch of Halo 2 last week.

Have an open mind. Firefox might be a genuinely wonderful piece of software. But don’t be persuaded merely by the volume level of the hype. It’s orchestrated.

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