Missionary marketing – what is it and why you might consider it


I can’t recall exactly when I first heard the term “missionary marketing” but it was years ago when I was an active entrepreneur trying to raise capital from VCs.  Most likely it was from a VC explaining to me why he didn’t want to invest in one of my startups. But the term is just as relevant to startups today as it was decades ago. Translating from
VC-ese, “missionary marketing” means that you – the founder – will have to spend considerable time and money educating customers. Tying up capital and founder’s time explaining to customers why they should buy their product and how to use it for business advantage seems like a poor case of resource allocation.

Certainly the best way to educate customers is “peer education” rather than “venture education.” I don’t have data to support this supposition, but I wager that many users of apps that have grown virally have benefited from friends showing friends how to use newly discovered apps like SnapChat – notorious for its opaque and confusing interface. One of the best quotes from Antonio Garcia Martinez’s book Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley is “… marketing is like sex, only losers have to pay for it.”

The disclaimer I’d attach to this quote is that while it certainly applies to consumer markets where if you haven’t built virality into your product you will go broke paying customer acquisition costs, it doesn’t apply in the hyper-competitive enterprise software market. I assure you no corporate IT staffer would be caught dead teaching a fellow IT person at a direct competitor how to use an enterprise program like Salesforce  – that would be a sure way to get fired. What some founders don’t seem to understand about the consumer market is it is a non-competitive market – consumers don’t try to keep their discovery of great apps secret, on the contrary, they can win social points for alerting friends to the latest hot app as Instagram was only a few short years ago. That’s the secret to what is now called viral marketing but used to be called simply “word of mouth.”

But on the contrary,  what if you are in a B2B market where customers will rarely talk with each other for fear of giving up competitive advantage? That’s where of necessity you will have to do missionary marketing. While cloud computing is the IT trend du jour today, just a few years ago the pundits all thought it would never fly. What company would entrust its IT functions to some startup’s servers? Salesforce was probably not the first SaaS application, but it’s certainly one of the oldest and most successful. If we used the Internet Wayback Machine we might be able to find examples of Salesforce’s marketing of it’s cloud based application. Check out the Salesforce website from March 7, 2000. Great list of benefits!

What lead me to think about missionary marketing was noticing this graphic from the article Rethinking Guided Reading to Advantage ALL Our Learners, which I noticed when browsing Flipboard.


A friend of mine has been marketing math education software to schools for years and we have often talked about the learning model in primary education. But what caught my attention was the middle column of this graphic. It looks a lot like how you would educate a corporate software buyer: first demonstrate your product; then provide customer testimonials and references to enable your prospect to share the experiences of satisfied customers; the provide hands-on system setup and training before finally letting the now-educated customer to use your product on their own successfully.

So while corporate business and IT executives are unlikely to warm to the idea that they are the students and you are the teacher that is the reality if you are launching a new and truly different product. And if you aren’t doing that then you are going to have to compete on price – good luck with that!



Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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