Seth Godin has said that the difference between word of mouth and viral marketing is that words passed from friend to friend diminish, while viral communications go exponential. This is why if you tell two friends about a great restaurant, they may only tell one friend, and the message ends up dying … but if you bought your kid a Razor Scooter in 2000, soon everyone in the world had one.
Of course, marketers all want to become the next big viral thing so they can generate demand without spending big on advertising. Which poses the question … is there a happy medium? Can we create messages that become self-sustaining, that don’t die out, but continue to slowly grow? Is it possible to achieve marketing perpetual motion?
The answer may lie in religion. Of all the messages from human communication, spirituality is the most sustaining. Put aside your personal beliefs (or disbeliefs) for a second and consider the facts. Of the 6.75 billion people in the world, 87.3% of them consider themselves religious. Christianity, Islam and Hinduism are the three largest, encompassing just over 4 billion people. These messages have been around for centuries, without a lot of marketing, and get passed along primarily by word of mouth. Why? Because the content of the message is very powerful (if you believe, it could save your life), and so this strong idea overcomes the innate friction in word of mouth dynamics.
The religions with the heaviest marketing or public relations tend to grow fastest. Islam membership is increasing in the world today, perhaps due to the PR focus brought to it in the Middle East by the controversial Western presence there. In the U.S., the fastest growing religion is Mormonism, which does heavy marketing including a “sales force” of young missionaries knocking door to door.
What makes religion so growable? Break down its components and you see:
– a clear value proposition (we’ll save you)
– a community of membership (join others)
– some exclusivity (you’re a member but others are not)
– frequent touch points to reinforce the message (church every week)
– reinforcement of the message (small pieces of a broader message are given a bit at a time)
– connection to the consumer’s own life (for example, in Christianity, the Sundays often go through an annual calendar cycle tied closely to the seasons, with Christmas, Easter, etc.)
– co-opting of the local culture (Christianity did this with many holidays, including the December date of Christmas, vs. the consensus of many scholars that Christ would have been born in the spring while the “shepherds were out tending their flocks”)
– switching costs (if you leave, the community will disapprove of you)
– some skin in the game (you often have to give up something, such as tithing or time, to participate)
– a migration of the message from an initial early-adopter radicalism to a more mainstream conservatism (for evidence of a religion’s transition, just look at the altar in front of your church, and ask yourself — what kind of sacrifice was that flat platform originally for?)
– and, perhaps most important, a focus on the consumer’s lifecycle (by engaging them early in their lives and moving them up into loyalty status, through a series of escalating responsibilities).
If you boil it all down, religion offers a powerful message, a powerful benefit, a close-knit club, switching costs, and ties to your broader lifestyle. It has one basic objective: To create a community of loyalists, who work to attract other loyalists. The closest analogy we see in marketing today are the new social networks such as MySpace, Facebook, Windows Live Spaces, Flickr and Orkut, where small close-knit communities mirror the consumer’s own personal world.
We’re not saying any religion is right or wrong. We just suggest that, as a communications vehicle, religion is the most brilliant case study for marketers trying to make their message stick. It has to be, because evolutionarily only the strongest messages can survive for centuries in a world of consumer choice.