Pyromarketing by Greg Stielstra: Book Review

Pyromarketing by Greg Stielstra was one of the free books I highlighted here, with a promise of a future review.

The future is now.
In Pyromarketing, Stielstra exchanges the mass-market metaphor of the flood and the word-of-mouth marketing metaphor of the virus for one that is much more meaningful and useful: lighting a fire.

Stielstra says that while flooding market with advertising worked during the earlier mass media era when TV was new and choices were few, it is increasingly impotent in a time when consumers receive 3,000 or more messages each day (and sometimes it seems I have that many in my email inbox alone.)

Viral marketing likewise misses the metaphorical mark, because many consumers are immune to your messages, and therefore can’t pass them on. To use a non-marketing example, consider computer viruses. Macs have no appreciable problem with viruses not only because of Apple’s superior system software, but also because Apple has in the vicinity of five percent of the computer market. There isn’t a critical mass of potential carriers that makes it easy for a virus to spread.

As Stielstra analyzed the analogy of fire, he found that unlike other metaphors that break down when stretched too far, what he now calls Pyromarketing has great explanatory power.

“Every fire needs fuel, oxygen, heat and the heat from the combustion reaction itself. Heat excites the fuel, breaking its molecular bonds at the ignition point freeing the fuel’s electrons to abandon the fuel and join with oxygen in the surrounding air. Ignition temperatures vary significantly from one fuel to the next. The reaction gives off additional heat which excites neighboring fuel and causes the fire to spread.”
Just as fire depends on fuel, so does marketing. Just as ignition temperatures vary from one fuel to the next, so do the “ignition points” of consumers. And just as fire spreads, so excitement about products spreads. “In PyroMarketing consumers are the fuel and their ignition points also differ widely. There is money stored in their wallets, but there is a very strong bond between consumers and their money. Marketing provides the heat that excites them and, if it can heat them beyond their ignition temperature, it will cause them to exchange their money for your product or service.”

Here are Stielstra’s Four Steps to Pyromarketing (and incidentally, he practices what he preaches in the “Touch it with a match” step, by offering a free audio download of Pyromarketing):

  1. Gather the driest tinder: Focus your promotions on those people most likely to buy, benefit from, and then enthusiastically endorse your product or service. They are the only ones whose ignition temperature is within reach of your advertising. They light easily and burn hot. The driest tinder is where word-of-mouth wild fires begin.
  2. Touch it with the match: To the extent you can, give people an experience with your product or service. If you want people to laugh, don’t tell them you’re funny, tell them a joke. Experience is the shortcut to product understanding. It touches people deeply and generates more heat than advertising, igniting even the mildly interested.
  3. Fan the flames: Fanning the flames means giving people tools to help them spread your message throughout their social network. People spread messages more effectively than advertising. The fire is hotter than the match. This is why the process that spreads your marketing message must be different than the one by which it began. Leveraging the power of personal influence is the only way to expand your marketing fire beyond its point of origin (the driest tinder and mildly interested) to the masses. By understanding the process you can equip people with tools to exponentially increase their reach and influence.
  4. Save the Coals: Saving the coals means keeping a record of the people you encounter through your marketing so you can quickly and easily reach them to fan the flames or to tell them about new products that match their interests. This allows your marketing to build equity and keep pace with the needs of your growing business.

I believe this book has much to commend it, and the Pyromarketing metaphor has great explanatory value. He uses the examples of the marketing of The Purpose-Driven Life and The Passion of the Christ. His behind-the-scenes look at the Purpose-Driven marketing of both the Rick Warren book and the Mel Gibson movie does give some insights as to how those became mega-hits. Networking with pastors and churches was clearly an important way to gather a critical mass of those most likely to “buy.”

My only issue is that he applies his metaphor to the growth of Christianity itself, which cannot be explained in natural terms. Jesus’ disciples were not “the driest tinder.” They all abandoned Him on the night He was crucified. Saul, before his conversion on the road to Damascus to become the Apostle Paul, was burning with hatred for followers of Jesus. It was not anything inherent in their character, but rather the call of Jesus, that transformed the apostles. He didn’t choose them because they were the right ones; they were the right ones because He chose them. And Scripture says it was an outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost that added 3,000 souls to their number (Acts 2:41).

That’s where I think Stielstra takes it a bit too far, in making the growth of Christianity a case study for his Pyromarketing paradigm. If the goal would have just been gathering excited crowds and “touching them with the match” of Jesus’ teaching, that had happened well before the Cross. Jesus fed 5,000 men (plus women and children) because he had attracted large crowds already; then he said some hard things (see John 6), and most of them went away.

Jesus did not describe the Kingdom of Heaven as a fire, but as a farmer going out to sow seed far and wide (Luke 13.) The job of the church is not to identify target markets effectively, but to spread the Word, and to leave the growth in God’s hands (1 Corinthians 3:6). I believe the missing element of Pyromarketing as it applies to Christianity (and what is missing in many church-growth philosophies) is adequate recognition of God’s decisive role.

According to a couple of stories from 2005 (here and here), there was some controversy involving Rick Warren and his discomfort with having his book mentioned in Pyromarketing… and this led to a delay in publishing Stielstra’s book. Apparently it was published in September 2005.

But Greg Stielstra didn’t set out to write a theological treatise, and neither did I in this blog. I’m sure he means well in sharing his faith naturally, as just part of what he does as a marketer. His Pyromarketing metaphor holds together well and provides a useful framework for understanding many social phenomena and buying decisions, including those for items (such as movies and books) of a religious nature. I recommend you read it for yourself (or listen to it for free). It just needs to be understood in the context of a personal God who wills and acts, and is not bound by human psychology and marketing principles to build His Church (and in fact often acts counter to human wisdom to show His power.)

In a future post, I plan to discuss more areas in which I think Greg Stielstra’s Pyromarketing concept applies, and particularly how today’s technologies make it much easier and cheaper to gather the driest tinder, touch it with a match, fan the flames and gather the coals.

I guess this is a little heavier than my Weird Al posts, huh?

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Author: Lee Aase

Husband of one, father of six, grandfather of 15. Chancellor Emeritus, SMUG. Emeritus staff of Mayo Clinic. Founder of HELPcare and Administrator for HELPcare Clinic.

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