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Thursday, July 01, 2004

The gift that keeps on giving

Why does it feel so damned good to give a Gmail invite? It’s clear why getting one would make you feel good… but to answer this basic question about giving is to reveal the brilliance in Google’s Gmail marketing campaign.

A close friend, who also happened to be the Rabbi in our old synagogue in Connecticut, once gave a wonderful talk about the mechanics of giving. He suggested that, like any kind of physical activity, the act of ‘giving’ was a painful and difficult task for those who did it seldom or not at all… and effortless, or even enjoyable for those who did it often. He said that the practice of handing children a few coins each day so they could give charity would build up their ‘giving muscles’… so that by the time they were adults, the act of giving would be second nature.

The connection is quite apt if you think about it. The people in any community who are involved in large-scale philanthropy are almost always the one’s who grew up in an environment of modest, but regular giving. Like comparing a weekend jogger and a marathoner…the physical act is the same, but the scale of possibility is exponentially expanded through proper practice and training.

Whether by accident or design, the folks at Google seem to have stumbled upon this concept. Obviously part of the cachet of Gmail is the fact that it is not available to everyone…you have to be ‘invited’ into the club by someone who is already a member. However, if you think about it, the idea of gradually, and incrementally releasing their e-mail client by making it a ‘giftable’ commodity was pure genius.

Like a parent handing coins to a child, Google has essentially enabled its ever-expanding circle of beta-testers to experience the small joy of giving without any of the pangs of loss that sometimes accompany giving.

Of course, it was inevitable that not everyone involved in the process would rise to the altruistic heights that Google envisioned. For instance, a web site called www.gmailswap.com quickly appeared on the scene, offering the Gmail-less ‘hordes’ a forum to barter or buy an account from people in possession of the of invites. Basically, upon realizing that there might be some intrinsic value to the ‘coins’ they had been handed, thousands of people gladly accepted everything from web-design services to sexual favors (I kid you not!), in exchange for their unearned bounty.

In a somewhat less-chilling display of avarice, it has become quite common to see bloggers holding impromptu essay contests with themes like “What have you done to deserve a Gmail invite?” or, “What is the most disgusting thing you would do for a Gmail account?”.

To my way of thinking, this is like a parent giving a child some coins, and then the child making some bum (excuse me… ‘urban outdoorsman’), dance, or bark like a dog in order to receive the charity. Not a very pretty picture when you look at it like that, eh? You might say it takes some of the ‘awww isn’t that sweet’ factor out of the whole jr. philanthropist concept.

However, my faith in the system was restored when a fellow blogger unexpectedly dropped an invite on me. That surprise invite seemed like such a generous gesture, that as soon as I was given my first batch of invites, I immediately went about offering them to anyone I knew (or read) who I though might enjoy an account. I must admit, it felt really good!

When Google started sending me invites faster than I could find good homes for them, I tacked a couple of codas onto the end of my posts letting everyone know that the invites were there for the asking… and again, giving them away felt really, really good.

I’d really like to think that this is what the folks at Google had in mind. It would be really great if most of the people who have handed out Gmail invites with no strings attached have experienced that same good feeling. Who knows, maybe, from this simple act of pang-free giving… just passing out the 'coins' we’ve been handed… we will all become a little better at doing other, more important kinds of giving.

Posted by David Bogner on July 1, 2004 | Permalink


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First...reading your article was a pleasure, because of its positivity.
I think I belong to the camp of the ever-uber-critics, because something inside tells me google had not in mind to shower virtual reality with joy through giving.
I want to think that for them [or rather, their marketing professionals], the effect of giving was the key to their success. Not more than a marketing tool to them, they got us at a weak point. What is more tempting and appealing than belonging to a circle of a "few" chosen individuals? Google sure knew about this. Also, rather than distributing beta signups into the wild, they could somewhat rest assured that through invitations the number of potential misuse could be limited [well, just a quick thought].
I think this strategy is so successful because it works in both ways - those who are invited get to "be in it too" [the concept of 'elite' in some way], and those who are allowed to invite are in the position to chose who gets to be "in it" [concept of 'power' in some form]. We respond to those signals like a bear to honey, especially when we forget to ask what, as gmail users, we are ready to give in exchange [which is quite justified to do when you're about to share a great deal of your privacy]. I have learned that marketing seldom has a 'soul' [even Dilbert knows it], it's cold, hard business.
But since you were kind enough to give me the chance to test that out, I may have an answer some day...or will have to revise my thesis :)

Posted by: mademoiselle a. | Jul 1, 2004 8:14:40 PM

When I received my gmail invites, I did go to the gmailswap site. The unsavory nature of a lot of the dealings really turned me off.
As always, your analysis of even (what some would call) trivial matters is a joy to read.

Posted by: Lisa | Jul 2, 2004 4:00:52 AM

I really have to agree. I was given my gmail invite by a satisfied user of my open-source library, when I asked how he liked the service. I have received one invite so far, and handed it over to a co-worker. I will be very curious to see how this progresses as gmail comes out of beta.

Posted by: Russ Gold | Jul 2, 2004 4:55:52 PM

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