Hey Zealousy

(title is a reference to an old Gin Blossoms song--if you remember it, that makes you old)


A couple of weeks ago, a few of us were having a discussion about customers and their ability to serve as evangelists. We talked about how Apple, Linux, and many others have extremely passionate customers that constantly make the case for them every day. My take was a little unique—I felt some of those customers were borderline detrimental to the product. I divided the customers up into three primary types:


· The passive advocate—They’re the ones who essentially like the product. When someone asks them whether they’re glad that got that specific digital camera, they’ll say “yeah, it’s great. I’ve really enjoyed it”. They’ll then wait for any additional questions as they return to their Cheetos.

· The active spokesperson—In Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point, he referred to these people as “Mavens”. They’re knowledgeable about your product, but they also find it their sense of duty to share this information. When there’s a group of people standing around and someone says “hmm, I need a new digital camera”, the active spokesperson doesn’t wait for the sentence to finish before he or she launches into “Olympus makes the best digital cameras around. Ours has a 32X Optical Zoom, MMC Storage, 7.1 Megapixels, and supports the latest in CCD technology.” This is all followed by a litany of facts and figures that even the marketing people at Olympus can figure out.

· The Zealot—Ahh the zealot, found more in the computer industries than any other around. The one who isn’t interested in counterpoints. The facts are black-and-white and to refute them would be like suggesting the sun rises in the west. They have “I hate Kodak” websites and will flame anyone that suggests that Olympus’ $200 is inferior to $90 Nikon. It’s seems like the bonus for being a zealot goes up if it represents something counter-culture. Linux and Apple both represent counter-culture alternatives to Microsoft. At some point, their advice turned into preaching on a religious cause. I was watching an interview w/John Dvorak where he admitted that he would occasionally write columns to antagonize Mac fans by simply suggesting that their product was not the clearly superior choice. Meanwhile, the Linux zealot often comes one step short of suggesting Microsoft is responsible for murder in the third-world. Chill dudes—it’s only software.


I feel like there’s a analog with sports fans. Fans come in all shapes and sizes and it’s fascinating to look at the range of fans. A team’s passive advocate can probably name a few players and would probably tune in when the playoffs roll around if their team is still alive. They’d go to a game if someone got them tickets or if it was a special outing. With the active fan, you’re keeping an eye on the newspapers or ESPN.com, you’re attending a few games a year, and maybe your eve listening to sports radio. Then, there’s the zealot. I can only think of the character Puddy from Seinfeld in the episode where the NJ Devils played the NY Rangers. Puddy paints his entire body in the Devils colors and screams “WE’RE THE DEVILS” at the top of his lungs to anyone who will listen. OK, at some point, you have to wonder how ridiculous things need to get before you realized you stepped over the line.


Of course, zealots can be important to bring attention to a cause. Certainly, anything that inspires that level of passion is going to make someone curious. But at some point, you almost want to advise the zealots to chill—even if they are on your side. An argument seems far more potent if the person making it seems to be take a rational approach and accepts that the world is made up of many shades of gray. So while I envy a product that can inspire the zealousness that Linux and Apple do, I do NOT envy having to deal with the expectation of infallibility. I prefer the active spokesperson. Rational arguments, enthusiasm, and someone that will keep us on our toes.