Fans Flock to Firefox Flicks

First they reinvented the browser, now they’re rewriting the rules of advertising – Firefox’s guerrilla marketing has gone straight to video, and it’s taking over the web.

The collaboratively written application has hit more than 50 million downloads, spurred primarily by word-of-mouth advertising.

Minus the deep pockets of archrival Microsoft, the Mozilla Foundation relies on an army of volunteer marketers to spread the word — users so loyal they devise their own DIY promotion ideas, from painting sidewalks with the browser’s logo to e-mailing sales pitches to the White House.

The latest tactic for the 100,000 members of the Spread Firefox movement is to make commercials. Funnyfox, three humorous video clips showing web surfers using the browser for the first time, is the slickest contribution to date. Designed to be e-mailed to friends, the videos — one of which shows a user’s head falling off — have proved so popular that extra servers had to be set up to cope with the load.

“We’re approaching 2 million views — it’s amazing to see the campaign spread around the world,” said Paris-based Firefox evangelist Tristan Nitot, who commissioned a French viral-media agency to produce the ads with a crew and cast of seven.

“It all started with a post on my blog, written in French over a long weekend tracking (where viewers were coming from), but I had to stop, it was too time-consuming. Our goal is to spread the word; we want users to talk around coffee machines, bloggers to post about it, to expose more people to Firefox.”

Although Nitot had the ads made as an unpaid advocate of the browser, the success of Funnyfox has led to being hired as marketing manager for Mozilla Europe, an affiliate of the foundation that coordinates open-source development on the software.

But Funnyfox is just the latest in a growing grass-roots drive to raise awareness using promo videos. Some evangelists make less polished, home-brew commercials (.wmv) and tutorial presentations; others write treatments and scripts. A constitution has even been drawn up to govern the content of users’ productions.

Members of the Spread Firefox community, created by Mozilla, are now talking about another mainstream media campaign, in which creative Firefox fans would compete to have their advertisement funded for a prime-time television slot. Last year the group funded a two-page New York Times ad.

Eric Edwards’ video could be a shoo-in. The 30-second spot, made by the 25-year-old broadcast design student using Photoshop and Maya, extols what Edwards sees as the browser’s virtues — strength, simplicity, security and flexibility.

“I created the piece for an Adobe design contest because I noticed the hype surrounding Firefox,” said the Savannah College of Art and Design student. “It has the qualities I illustrate in my ad, that’s why I use it.

“I also wanted to do something more original, as web browsers aren’t commonly advertised with television-style commercials. There is definitely a place for (that) because a lot of people aren’t aware of the problems that a lot of browsers have, and everyone uses the internet these days.”

The distributed nature of Mozilla’s marketing strategy often exposes divisions over the best ideas. While some fear commercials like Edwards’ don’t address a broad enough audience, others criticize the Funnyfox ads for missing the opportunity to proclaim Firefox’s advantages over rivals like Internet Explorer.

What is clear is that video is set to become a greater part of the strategy, with Blake Ross, Firefox’s lead architect, due to start publishing a weekly video diary of his own awareness drive.

“It’s going to be much more shaky-camera, home-video quality than professional style,” said Stanford University student Ross, 19. “We’ve got a couple of humorous and edgy ideas planned — one has us making the rounds on the Stanford campus and spreading Firefox in a less-than-traditional way.

“We want to inspire people to do the kinds of activities we’re going to film. Actually, I want to get into the film industry when I’m done with all this computer stuff, so I’ve done a fair amount of video production and editing over the last couple of years. I’m looking forward to it. It should be hilarious.”

Hilarity aside, online videos may win some fans, but Firefox will never become a market leader without a major offline ad campaign, according to Steve Hall, a Massachusetts marketing strategist who publishes the Adrants weblog.

“If a company’s on TV, they must be good, they must be big, they must be worthy,” he said. “While Firefox could, through a myriad of other channels, achieve reach to potential users, the perception of success television imbues is still hard to achieve through other media.”

But while some of Firefox’s grass-roots commercials are approaching televisual professionalism, Ross said TV was not next on Mozilla’s list of promotion activities.

“Mainstream media campaigns are terrible,” he said. “People know when they’re being force-fed some glossy marketing message, and we’ll never do that.”