Why You Need a Small Army & How to Build One

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

—Margaret Mead

What does leading a movement, selling a product, or spreading a message have in common? They all require a small army of evangelists.

Small Army Photo
Photo credit: The U.S. Army (Creative Commons)

In our world of uber-connectedness, this is how ideas are spread and revolutions are launched. Consider last year’s riots in Egypt or The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, for example.

They began with a small group of people caring so much about something they were willing to keep talking about it until the world cared enough to act. If you’re a communicator who has a message to spread, you’ll need one, too.

You’ll need to build an army. This is what I do every time I launch a book, roll out a program, or create a product. I assemble a group of “early adopters” who can help me reach the masses. And it works like a charm every time.

Why this is important

In the post-advertising world, we don’t believe marketing. Not anymore. Instead, we embrace messages worth sharing. (Feel free to tweet that.)

We’re inundated with advertising. Our airports and highways and websites are filled with messages, all vying for our attention. All trying to sell us stuff we don’t want. There’s no end to the SPAM. It can start to feel overwhelming.

So how do we find valuable stuff worth our money and time? Simple: word-of-mouth. Reviews, referrals, conversations. That’s the best tool to get heard in a world full of noise.

But if you’re just starting out (heck, even if you’ve been doing this for awhile), you need to help kick-start the discussion. You need to give people something to talk about.

Army-building 101

If you have a message no one seems to care about, it’s time to assemble the troops. Here’s how you do it:

  1. Start talking. This needs to be about something people already care about. It can be a problem or struggle, even a major frustration. Most likely, it’s a point of pain.
  2. Join the conversation. Find a place where people are already gathering to talk about the issue: go to a conference or the mall, join a social network or create one. People are talking; find them.
  3. Create something that solves the problem. It could be an book, a CD, a course, whatever. (Note: this isn’t just for business; a song can solve a “problem” such as despair or depression.)
  4. Build a launch team. This is what I did for my book. You might call it a beta group or a test market, but the idea’s the same. Trade the product (which you give away to the group for free) for helpful, honest feedback. Ask them to leave a review on Amazon, talk about it on social media, and tell their friends.
  5. Encourage word-of-mouth. Do something remarkable to get your launch group talking. Make it scalable so that if they tell their friends, their friends are likely to tell others — and so on. In order to do this, you may need to create what Seth Godin calls a “purple cow” — a truly remarkable publicity stunt or gimmick that others can’t help but share.
  6. Keep rewarding loyalty. Give stuff away to people who talk about you.

The secret to launching anything

There’s a lot of talk about marketing and movements these days, about how to successfully engineer the spread of ideas. The truth is these things never work according to plan.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point, perfectly illustrates this concept. Truly viral ideas spread in the most unusual, idiosyncratic ways. And that’s precisely why they catch on. It doesn’t feel like marketing.

Your job isn’t to force this to happen; it’s to help it. And believe it or not, you can do this. All you need is the most essential tool to getting a message to spread.

It’s not an ad or marketing campaign. Not even a great web design or strong social media presence. Heck, it’s not even a platform. No, it’s something much more simple: People.

That’s what spreads ideas, sells products, and starts movements. People talking to other people. Anything else is hype or someone trying to sell something.

Don’t be fooled by the shiny solutions and guru programs. If you want to start a movement, spread a cause, or sell a product, all you need is a small army of committed evangelists. If you stick around, I’ll show more about how to build one (click here to join my army).

And if you want more specifics on how to build and utilize a launch team, check out this guest post I wrote for DIY Themes: One Incredibly Overlooked Key to a Successful Launch.

So how about it? Are you ready to start your small army? Share in the comments.

Note: I’m pretty sure Chris Guillebeau was the first guy I heard to use the term “small army” when referring to an audience of evangelists for your message.

Disclosure: Some of the above links were affiliate links.

65 thoughts on “Why You Need a Small Army & How to Build One

  1. I start reading and I think “Jeff’s going to give the same old tired spill”  and then you say this: “In the post-advertising world, we don’t believe marketing. Not anymore. ”

    Absolute genius insight!

    PS  Jeff, Your leadership is stellar!

  2. Have you been hacking into my computer and reading what I’m working on? Earlier this month I started writing something that basically said “If content is king, then community is the army…” I’m sure I wasn’t the first person to say that, but I did a double take when I saw your post today. keep up the good work!

  3. Jeff, this is a great post.  I love the image – “small army.”  It is very helpful hearing you reflect on this in light of your recent book launch.  Thanks.

  4. I was blessed to be a soldier in Jeff’s small army. It helped me grow my own book launch arsenal for next year. But I was mostly blessed because I met some awesome people on the launch team! What a great community. Thanks for including me, Jeff!

  5. Great post, Jeff.
    My favorite part is when you tell people to go to the mall and start talking to people. I tried that once… at 6’8″ I think I scared people a little.

    Just picturing what that would look like…

    Me: Hi— will you be in my army?

    Them: No. Do you know where Auntie Anne’s pretzels is located?

  6. I watched you (and participated) as you prepared to launch Wrecked.  I thought I had never seen anything like it before.  And because you give lots of value and benefits to people with your blog, books, newsletters, etc., people flocked to your “banner,” ready, willing and eager to help you.  It was amazing.  Step by careful step you built your “army.”

    Then I realized I had seen this building process before, in a spiritual organization I had belonged to, where the founder worked first with a small group of people, giving great value.  He trained them to work with other people and so on, until it became a world-wide organization.

    The key is to keep the army moving in a positive direction.  Which both the organization and you have done.  I still feel a part of your tribe and not neglected, even though I was not selected as one of the promotion team just before the book came out (and it turns out it was a good thing I was not selected, since I didn’t really have time to do it well).  The army has to be (and has been so far) managed well.

    Thanks for giving us the practice, then offering the regrouping of the practice so clearly.

  7. Another awesome post Jeff! 

    Building a small army/tribe/community/movement whatever we call it, is the key. Connection with people will take you where ever you want to go.

  8. I’m just starting this whole journey. Now that I’ve jumped in the fear is wearing off and I find that I’m meeting great people, sharing big ideas, and generally having a good time!

  9. Great Post! Very important and often overlooked or even taken for granted…people and genuine relationships.

    I am about to launch a blog and what I hope to be a new tribe of people talking about a very important issue!

    Release The APE:  https://releasetheape.com

    I am hoping to catalyze conversation about the roles of Apostolic, Prophetic and Evangelistic leaders in the world! We are really missing these people in the church.

    And as your post points out, you need to have a small army of evangelists to carry out a mission…well, unfortunately, the church isn’t doing a great job of enlisting these types for Jesus.

    The church isn’t propping them up, inspiring them or pushing them out to go viral. Actually, we tend to be embarrassed by them most of the time (some times for good reason).

    It is time to Release the APE into the world!

    thanks for the encouragement Jeff!

  10. Advertising, marketing, the pitch, blah, blah blah.

    Friends telling friends about something they believe in. That’s marketing. Thanks for the step-by-step Jeff.


  11. YES IAM READY.  But it takes a lot of work to get ready.  I mean on the back end.  I’m spending lots of time putting together the About page, and other pages that will be important.  Its hard, but I enjoy it too – so I’m not complaining.  I’m excited about what were doing.  This post is a great reminder to not “sell” stuff, but to pursue “helping people solve problems.”  Our project definitely passes the litmus test. 

  12. Jeff, two things define your approach to “marketing.” Consistency. Generosity.

    As for small army, I’m gathering mine a bit late (book launched in March) but, as they say (and you probably are a part of the ubiquitous “they”), the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best is today.

  13. As the editor-in-chief of a blog called Post-Advertising (postadvertising.com), I can’t help but comment on your tweetable claim that “In a post-advertising world, we don’t believe marketing.” I think you’re making the same point we do when we say “Advertising is dead.” Though I think our definitions of advertising and marketing may differ slightly. 

    Marketing isn’t just the interruptive self-promotional ads we see in print, TV, direct mail, and even in social media. Well, it is, but it’s not only that. It’s also exactly what you mention in Army Building 101. It’s joining the conversation, creating content that spreads, and gaining/encouraging word of mouth. 

    What we (and I think you) also believe is that those aforementioned interruptive means of getting a message out are dying, if not already dead. We don’t answer the phone for telemarketers. We block spam. We fast-forward over commercials and we ignore billboards and banner ads. And more and more technologies are being created like satellite radio, iTunes, Hulu and more where consumers are opting to pay in order to NOT be marketed to. That’s why creating communities and content to tell your brand’s story is so important. 

    This comment may have digressed a bit from your original topic of growing an army, but I was stoked to see someone using the “post-advertising” terminology. 

    1. Thanks, Jon. I agree with the idea that marketing is really just spreading ideas. However, I wrote this from the perspective of most people, which is that they’re tired of push marketing (i.e. advertising and SPAM). I still believe in marketing as the building of communities; I just don’t think the world is altogether useful or helpful anymore. Maybe we can redeem it, though.

  14. Love what you said, but I feel like I’ve known the answer was “people” all along. I guess I’m a big fan of Tipping Point and am fascinated by social movements. 

    But i really liked the steps you put this in. For example, the idea of a “launch group” I found fascinating. I think I’ve tried this, but I don’t really have a “product” to give away. I am not actually selling anything other than a shared value- helping the oppressed/poor. If I have “a product” it is just giving people ideas and resources how to do that. How can I make “launch group” for this value? I talk with others who share this value, but ….

    Okay, I will stop processing your post in the comment section. I am at least thinking through this! Looking forward to hearing what more you have to say!

    (BTW, my computer malware keeps telling me this is an “attack site” as of 8/25/12 and doesn’t want me here because it affected 5 others. I don’t know if its being overly sensitive but just in case you were interested thought I’d at least let you know…)


    1. Elisa, the idea of a launch team works regardless if you sell something or not. Consider the nonprofit Invisible Children, which uses local street teams to spread the word about their advocacy events.

      And yeah, my site was attacked last year and those warning messages should be gone by now. Let me know if they’re not.

  15. I’m drawn to the way you describe marketing. I think it should be intentioned, but without deception. We know the healthy, non-manipulative way to socialize, and if we aren’t doing that in marketing as well, then we’ve got some insecurities that we should address, not only with our product, but with ourselves.

  16. Leading a small army does seem all about relationship building at some level. It’s like the opposite of broadcast advertising, and it seems that for the foreseeable future, it’s here to stay.

    Jeff, if you or anyone in your small army has a desire to weigh-in on Leadership, check out the 

    “Deeper Leader” Synchroblog event that’s running September 10-14. The details are here: http://www.evangelical.edu/deeper-leader-blog/

    It’s a great chance to be a part of a great collection of leaders and those who develop them. Lots to share and lots to learn.

  17. I have a very difficult time promoting myself. But, I love to talk about what I do. Your approach works perfectly for people like me, because it allows us to take the focus off ourselves and put it on the people we are trying to help.
    Thanks for the reminder that even introverts can be good marketers:)

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