For the last six years, marketing teams and Web services have pointed to GMail's invite-only approach as on of the most successful examples of driving user demand in a time of scarcity. At one point, GMail invites were so sought after that account-holders were selling off their spare invites on eBay. In fact, that's where I bought mine, as well as a never again used account ID for Orkut, way back in 2004. Today, at SXSW, we learned the move to make GMail an invites-only platform was not a marketing strategy, but instead one driven by fear from engineering, who thought they might not be able to scale under tremendous potential demand.
As is well-known, Gmail's debut on April 1, 2004 was not a massive April Fool's joke that promised a gigabyte of Web-based e-mail at a time when competitors like Yahoo! offered a comparatively measly 50 megabytes. Combined with a new Web-based interface that echoed the quality of desktop apps, and integrated anti-spam, the team thought potential customer demand for the new platform could outstrip available resources - and the engineers pushed for the invite only system.
"People were selling their souls on the Internet for invites," said Arielle Reinsten, Product Marketing Manager for GMail, at SXSW Interactive today. "But it wasn't a marketing idea at all (to offer invites). We were worried about capacity. It was an engineering decision that was seen as marketing."
With GMail now having passed the initial time of scarcity, open to all, the company now focuses on how they can leverage word of mouth from happy customers, and push for activities like viral videos and fan-building activities. Reinstein did say GMail was advertised widely in 2007, in part of a wide push to highlight it's built-in spam protection, but "it was a drop in the bucket compared to the organic growth and the viral growth GMail is known for," she said.