Mozilla Firefox is a powerful, open-source web browser that I’ve mentioned before. Since its version 1.0 release, it has been downloaded 22,000,000 times. Want to find out how Firefox acheived such popularity in a market utterly dominated by Internet Explorer? Read on.


At times, the web can seem like a very close-knit community. The so-called “blogosphere” has contributed to this small town feeling—when a popular blog features a link or story, other weblogs across the net link to or mirror the content. Soon, a single page story becomes an internet phenomenon.

An Example

“All your base” is a prominent example from the internet’s past. “All your base are belong to us” is a poorly translated phrase from a Japanese video game called Zero Wing.

Screen shot from Zero Wing

Amused fans created a Macromedia Flash “All your base” movie and distributed links to it. The original humor made the movie an instant hit, and soon every web site imaginable referenced the “All your base” movie.

So what about Firefox?

Firefox isn’t a humorous spoof on a poorly translated video game; yet it is far more popular. The underlying answer is brutally simple: a good product will attract willing advocates.

The Firefox browser has won over many tech-savvy internet users through sheer quality. Its features, streamlined interface, and pop-up blocking were enough to make it an instant hit. However, its true success is a direct result of its users’ endorsements. Leveraging this force was the brilliant idea that brought this browser to the masses on a shoestring budget.

Spread Firefox

SpreadFirefox.com was developed as a community marketing blog—a way for Firefox enthusiasts to discuss how best to inform others about the browser. The website offers several branded banners for easy download and placement on web sites, as well as interesting incentives for its users.

Each sfx (Spread Firefox) user receives a free blog along with her account, and a unique affiliate ID. An sfx user will then place a link to getfirefox.com on his web page. Each person that clicks through to the Firefox website generates a point for that sfx user. Top-ranked users are displayed on an honor roll of sorts. Additionally, each visit to the sfx web page will show you the most recent referral at the top of the page.

For example, clicking on the following button will add sfx points to my account:

Get Firefox!

sfx points are mainly provided for bragging rights within the community, although top point accumulators are linked from the SpreadFirefox main page (a valuable reward), and some are awarded sfx e-mail addresses, t-shirts, and iPods. Apparently this is incentive enough; there are tens of thousands of sfx users, according to the SpreadFirefox.com web site, and more joining every day. The download count (since November 9th) speaks for itself. Clearly, Firefox’s team has hit upon a simple but powerful way to drive community-based marketing.

SpreadFirefox download counter

Applying the principle

How can Firefox’s success be matched? What are the requirements?

1. Provide a useful product or service.
It’s hard to get a community to rally behind something pointless. Many of sfx’s users are weary of typical advertising, and distrust what they are told to like—a common trait in the online community. This is not surprising given the barrage advertising a person sees while browsing the web, watching TV, walking outside, or reading a magazine. Overuse will dull even the sharpest knife.

2. Involve the customer.
Too often products and services sales form a one-way relationship: the customer receives goods for money and is rarely asked to give anything else. Unfortunately, such a child-like role can make individuals feel powerless—why would the company listen to them?

SpreadFirefox is successful because every “customer” has a voice. Each person can contribute their own ideas with an expectation that they are being heard. This is a difficult feat to accomplish. In traditional marketing, the testimonial or case study is an attempt to show “involved customers” and address this issue. After all, if Joe Regular from Peoria likes product X, then it’s good enough for me!

This tactic is no longer effective. People are becoming jaded; it’s easy to imagine Joe Regular in makeup before the shoot, being carefully primed to say exactly what the target market wants to hear. People want recommendations from real people.

3. Provide means of communication.
Involved customers and a quality product mean nothing if it is not discussed. SpreadFirefox.com is an excellent example of using cutting-edge tech (the blog) to spread a controlled idea (Firefox is a good browser). The natural solution is a web site with some ties to the user community. It may be moderated by the company, but to a minimum degree.

Trust is crucial here; if potential customers believe they are being tricked by intentional censorship or omission, they will form a strong, negative opinion of the brand. The person to person bond must be maintained.

4. Offer incentives.
Every product will have advocates. However, people are increasingly busy. Few happy customers are willing to donate hours of their time promoting their brand of laundry detergent—unless there is incentive.

Some people genuinely want to help each other out. A good product or service is worth sharing with friends and acquaintances; however, this will not become a priority unless there’s a reward system in place.

sfx has up-to-the-second stats tracking for each of its members. Users can see exactly how many people clicked on their web page button, or read their blog entries. Points are earned, and may be redeemed for prizes, drawings, or website traffic (a valuable commodity). A website that provides utility to the promoter as well as the potential customer will serve the best of both worlds.

In fact, potential customers may wish to become advocates themselves. The snowball effect in action; building an internet phenomenon, even on a small scale.

Summing up

Well, I’ve written more than I intended. SpreadFirefox is doing all the right things, and has successfully brought Firefox to many, many people: through the website itself, a full-page ad in the New York Times (funded by donations!), and the recommendations of satisfied users. Uniting a product’s backers using technology is a brilliant idea with corporate distrust on the rise. Therein lies the power of the community: people are much more likely to take a friend’s (online or otherwise) word over that of a print ad. The trick is to encourage existing customers to become willing brand advocates.

Community power combined with the technological power of the internet can create a truly awesome force. These are not the days of the 1-800 comments line printed on the back of a box; this is the era of the community website.