What Alcoholics Anonymous Can Teach Us About Marketing For Addiction Treatment
Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism (AKA “The Big Book”) is celebrating its 79th birthday this month.
When Bill W. wrote "The Big Book” in 1939, the world was on the brink of World War II. Phone numbers still had words in them. Private phone lines were a luxury. Nobody had a TV. There were no cell phones. There was no Twitter, Facebook, or Snapchat.
Addiction wasn’t thought of as a “disease,” it was considered a moral failing. Drunks drank themselves to death on “skid row” or were locked up in asylums and it was their own damn fault.
Love it or hate it, Alcoholics Anonymous changed the way we think about addiction in the United States and around the world.
Is AA perfect? Nope. There’s quite a few things wrong with AA, actually. There’s 0% science backing up AA, it’s easy for bad actors to go unchecked in the fellowship, and the court-ordered attendance of up to ⅓ of meeting attendees nationally probably violates the separation of church and state. Women, LGBTQ folks, and people of color don’t always feel welcome or safe in an organization founded by white men, for white men.
AA has failed many people and AA has also helped many people.
Today I’m not going to talk about whether or not AA “works.”
Instead, I’m going to look at how Dr. Bob and Bill W.’s strange little idea became one of the largest organizations in the world—and how they did it without spending a dime on advertising.
Yep—the story of AA has a lot to teach us about excellent marketing. Let’s dig in.
The Origin of AA’s Success is Business Failure
AA is huge.
AA has over 2 million members in over 170 countries around the world. Meetings are held every day of the week in more languages than I care to name. It’s a big deal.
But AA didn’t start out as a mighty nonprofit. In fact, it didn’t start out as a nonprofit at all.
When Dr. Bob and Bill W. decided to launch their program, they envisioned a for-profit empire. They wanted an army of paid recruiters and a national chain of special AA-style treatment centers for alcoholics. Bill W. worked pretty hard on John D. Rockefeller for start-up capital. Rockefeller funded stuff like schools and medical research—so why not throw some cash at alcoholics?
Bill W. almost got his funding in 1940 but Rockefeller’s son, Nelson, shut him down.
Nelson had read "The Big Book." He decided that money would ruin things.
Nelson argued that the group should be self-supporting. He felt that AA’s message is strongest when passed directly from one alcoholic to another—out of goodwill, not financial gain.
Nelson was right, of course.
Suddenly, Bill W.’s dreams of a for-profit empire dissolved into something much more interesting.
On the Surface, AA is a Marketing Nightmare
The first rule of AA is you can’t talk about AA.
Ok, that’s not quite right—but close!
"The Big Book" expressly forbids advertising in the “Twelve Traditions.”
On a similar note, it also requires member anonymity. Members have to remain anonymous as a “spiritual practice” and can’t reveal themselves to be AA members to the press or the general public.
These two requirements—no advertising and no disclosure of membership—place some serious limitations on how AA is able to promote itself. We’re talking no interviews, no quotes, no speeches, no testimonials, no public advocacy, no documentaries, no parade floats—nada. Meetings can’t be filmed, photographed, or live-streamed. There are no appointed leaders, brand ambassadors, or celebrity endorsements.
"The Big Book" sums up the rules about advertising pretty well here:
“Our relations with the general public should be characterized by personal anonymity. We think AA ought to avoid sensational advertising. Our names and pictures as AA members ought not be broadcast, filmed, or publically printed.”
Well, there goes the AA Youtube channel.
Hidden Marketing Gold in "the Big Book"
All is not lost. In the next sentence, "The Big Book" goes on to drop some serious marketing truth. Let’s cut straight to the good stuff:
“Our public relations should be guided by the principal of attraction rather than promotion. There is never need to praise ourselves. We feel it better to let our friends recommend us.”
Wow. You can feel it, right? We’ve just struck marketing gold in "The Big Book."
Let’s take a closer look.
“Attraction” (as opposed to promotion) is one of the key components to an inbound marketing campaign. “Attract” is the first step in the “Attract, Convert, and Delight” model. When “attraction” is working, the lead feels pulled towards your brand naturally. They’re kind of into you.
“Delight“ is the last step in the “Attract, Convert, and Delight” model. “Letting our friends recommend us” describes the natural outcome of the “delight” step. What happens when your customers aren’t just happy with your service, but truly delighted with your service?
They tell other people who might be interested!
And that’s exactly what happened with AA.
AA Spreads Through Textbook Word of Mouth Marketing
As others have noted, AA’s success owes everything to traditional "word of mouth marketing."
The group is built on the idea that alcoholics need to talk to other alcoholics in order to get and stay well. You see this in the meeting model, where members swap stories and listen to one another. You also see this in the sponsorship component of the program, where alcoholics are required, as part of the twelve steps, to sponsor other alcoholics. “Pass it on” is one of the most popular slogans.
These people talk—a lot.
In fact, the 12th step is all about talking: “Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”
This step touches on all the hallmarks of a classic word of mouth marketing campaign. You have qualified brand advocates (sober AA alcoholics) telling relevant, shareable stories to a strategic demographic (non-sober alcoholics). It works now as well as it did 70 years ago. Even today, 93% of word of mouth advertisement happens off-line.
So what makes AA stories so attractive to “leads?” For starters, the storyteller is someone just like them—another alcoholic. That’s important. There is a certain level of trust we all automatically have for people who are “just like us,” and that makes AA’s attraction phase very powerful. Not only that, but the pitch comes from another alcoholic that has something that leads want—sobriety. And it’s not just a recommendation from one person. No, it’s easy to find lots of members all claiming the same level of delight with the program. In marketing we call a collection of convincing endorsements “social proof.” It’s easy to see that AA has tons of “social proof” to offer newcomers!
Familiarity, trust, relevance, social proof—these are all important aspects of word of mouth marketing, but remember, the key ingredient to all this attracting and converting is story. Word of mouth marketing simply doesn’t work without stories.
Story is the main event.
The Importance of Story in Marketing
“The shortest distance between a human being and truth is a story” - Anthony de Mello
This quote is popular with marketers because it gets to the heart of our most powerful tool. Humans have relied on stories longer than any other form of communication. Before the written word, information was preserved through the oral tradition exclusively. The oral tradition's primary format is story. Simply put, our brains evolved to accept story as our best way of understanding the world.
For marketers, that means storytelling is a super power.
There are lots of ways to use story in marketing. Testimonials, reviews, case studies, provider bios, “About Us” pages, newsletter updates, brand identities, blog posts, email marketing campaigns—these are all stories at their core. As marketers, we need to make sure that we are telling these stories in the most impactful and shareable way possible.
Like AA stories, our stories should be the right stories, told by the right person, at the right time to the right target. That’s what built AA and that’s what can build any brand.
Conclusion: AA’s Approach to Marketing “Works”
AA harnessed the power of storytelling and word of mouth marketing to attract, convert, and delight over 2 million people.
Imagine what the power of well-told, well-timed, and well-targeted stories can do for your treatment center or service.
So, work those stories and remember to always leverage the storytelling superpower for your marketing efforts.
Like they say, “It works if you work it!”