The Gold Rush is often romanticized. I should know – I grew up in Gold Rush country, where we have museums dedicated to how we demolished the hills with water cannons desperately trying to find gold. And while a small few did find massive wealth in the California foothills, the little-mentioned fact is that, although many tried, most of the miners ended up making only a modest profit or actually losing money*.

We see these gold rushes in marketing all the time. The first companies to the Apple App Store. The first companies to build tools with Twitter’s API. The first apps on Facebook’s app platform (remember that?). Hell, the first companies to build tech for the burgeoning civilian space flight space.

Instagram logoThe sign of a smart company is that they hop on these opportunities when they can – but also build sustainable companies that will survive once the gold rush is over. MySpace was part of the social gold rush, but they lost their way and alienated their users (as I outline in my 2010 presentation on customer understanding at Failcon). Instagram entered the app store when there was plenty of competition, especially in photo editing…but they designed an app to delight users and focused on serving them – in fact, their 5th employee was a community/customer service hire.

So the takeaways are:

1) It’s absolutely valuable to look for marketing opportunities. Get your app on the Windows Phone store in case it becomes huge, hit up David Leary to get on the Intuit App Store, experiment with the latest social network (though make sure to measure what you’re doing to see if it’s actually valuable).

2) Don’t bother to do these things if you don’t have an organization designed to retain customers.

If your app doesn’t have a way for your customer to contact you, expect 1-star ratings in the App Store (a great way to kill your viral momentum). If you aren’t listening to customer suggestions, don’t be surprised if someone eats your lunch with a similar-but-improved app.

If you’re a customer service or community management professional reading this, you probably know this stuff. But forward this to your founders. It’s easy for them to focus on one avenue of growth instead of thinking long-term, and it’s your job to help them see the value of caring for customers.

PS: Want to put your customer service right in your iOS app? Check out UserVoice for iOS, which allows you to easily embed your knowledge base, feedback forum, and customer service contact form into your app.

Gold panning photo courtesy of Arcady Genkin.

Instagram photo courtesy of Addam Hassan.

* Many of the people supporting the miners made much more money. In the (excellent) Californian history exhibit at the Oakland Museum you can see that launderers made amounts per week that are insanely massive if adjusted for inflation.