Google's new email service has positioned itself such that it's in a class by itself. What's amazing is how it managed to do that in an already-crowded market populated by larger and more established players.
Let's face it. Web-based free email accounts are ubiquitous. And no one really gets a thrill from opening up a new Hotmail or Yahoo! Mail account. It's one of those things to which one tends not to dedicate more than a moment's thought. Want a new email address? Well, then, you simply go out to the web and get one. No one much cares whether the domain is yahoo.com, hotmail.com or that of any of the several competitors in the space. There's nothing special about it.
That all changed with the "beta" of Gmail. When Google was rumored to be playing with the idea of a free email service that gave consumers an entire gigabyte of storage rather than the usual few megabytes, the tech community started talking. Fueled by rumors, the hype built until Google announced limited testing. Pretty soon, tech nerds began participating in the beta, posting reviews of the web-based client and generally behaving like the first kids on their block to get a new Red Ryder BB gun.
Secretly, many of us envied these first-round testers. Having a Gmail address was a prestige thing, and those of us on the outside wanted in. Big time. Such email domain envy hadn't been seen since the pre-Salon-buyout days of The Well.
It wasn't long before testers began getting transferable invitations to send to their friends. And it wasn't long after that when testers began to turn that Gmail prestige into cold, hard cash by auctioning off their invitations on eBay. According to C|Net, Gmail accounts fetched as much as $61 on the online auction site. Not bad for something that Microsoft and Yahoo! give away for free, huh?
To be fair, Gmail does have some important differentiators that separate it from the competition, but we don't need to get into that in this space. I'd rather write about the marketing strategy.
I received a few offers for spare Gmail invitations from a few friends. At first, I didn't want one. After all, I need another email account like I need a hole in the head. But simple curiosity, as well as the prestige that had become a part of the Gmail brand, forced me to succumb. Well-known online marketing guru Adam Boettiger sent me an invitation and I just caved.
I've enjoyed the benefits of Gmail for a couple weeks now. I like the way the email client elegantly handles things like threaded email discussions, and I dig the fact that 1GB of storage is more than I'll ever need. But again, let's concentrate on the strategy here.
This morning, I logged into my Gmail account to find that I was eligible to send three invitations for accounts to friends - just because I've "been a trusted early tester of Gmail." Of course, given the Gmail prestige, I immediately sent a couple invitations out, thus becoming a Gmail advocate.
Presumably, Gmail could go on perpetuating itself in this fashion, with its advocates spreading Gmail glee to people on the outside who want to get in. Admittedly, the Gmail prestige is starting to wear off, with most eBay auctions listing invitations for just a buck or two, but Google's objective has likely already been achieved. They've positioned their new email service as a prestige brand, they've generated significant hype around the "beta" launch and they've differentiated their offering from that of the rest of the category. I'd call that a success.