viral communication marketing - upshare

Before we dig into the mechanics of viral communication marketing, let’s recap. In the last chapter, we covered:

  •  Inherent Viral Marketing – a product or service that offers zero value unless used with others, and where inviting others is the key to unlocking that value.

That’s the first type of viral marketing and reigns supreme as being the most lucrative form. The only problem is that it is very hard to achieve. A close second, and far more easier method to implement, is viral communication marketing.

What Viral Communication Marketing is Not


Early on, Skype was an exclusive two-way tool. It was a closed system. This means that in order to communicate with others on Skype, both you and whoever you’re communicating with MUST be on Skype.

An earlier example of a closed system, two-way tool was the telephone. To communicate with somebody on the telephone, both parties must have (or at least have access to) a telephone themselves.

This is not a new thing. Inherent viral marketing through closed system products like this have been around ever since written and spoken languages have existed. If you can’t speak or read a certain language, you are unable to communicate with another person who doesn’t speak it or read it themselves, and vice versa.

On the surface, these two may SEEM like they are utilizing viral communication marketing because two people are communicating. However . . .

Viral Communication Marketing is Inclusive


A product using viral communication marketing is NOT necessarily an exclusive two-way street. It’s an inclusive medium. In addition to letting two people communicate with one another, it ALSO touches the outside world.

While this lowers the potential for explosive viral growth as the product reaches ubiquity, it can improve early growth by not forcing people to adopt the product in order to receive communication from those using it. Like Skype did before they let its users call outside telephone numbers not associated with the service.

The key to viral communication marketing is that communication through the product must contain an onramp back to that product.

To see an example of a successful onramp let’s take a look at one of the hottest viral hits of all time.

Hotmail – The Legendary Viral Sensation


In 1995, two friends, Sabeer Bhatia and Jack Smith, came up with an idea for a free web-based email client which would eventually be called Hotmail. Their service worked like a charm, but after exhausting a bit of traction from some niche PR on online message boards, growth slowed.

To stay afloat they raised a small round of venture capital from a Silicon Valley firm called Draper Fisher Jurvetson. On top of providing some much needed cash, this firm also had an idea that would prove very lucrative to Hotmail’s success. Tim Draper, a partner at the firm, suggested the company include an onramp. This came in the form of a small message at the bottom of every email sent by a Hotmail user.

It was quick and simple: “Get your free email account at Hotmail.” And the last word was linked back to the site.

Hotmail Free Email Slogan

Reflexively, Bhatia and Smith pushed back. To them it initially felt like a spammy move, but as they began to run out of options and money they gave in. What happened next was entirely unexpected.

In just two short years, Hotmail became far and above the world’s largest email provider, boasting over 30 million members and selling to Microsoft for $400 million.

Thanks in large part to some brief copy and a hyperlink. (Who says financier’s aren’t creative?)

Viral Lessons Learned from Hotmail’s Success


Hotmail is the classic example of viral communication marketing. With just one simple line of text and a link, they explained their core value proposition, solved a key need in the market at the time, and provided an easy method to learn more and sign up.

As a result, Hotmail’s platform rapidly spread via user-generated communication. Users used Hotmail to send emails to other people, many of whom were not using Hotmail and instead working with sub-par emailing tools that they often had to pay for. When they received the email from their friend on Hotmail, they saw the branding below their message.

Hmm…what’s this? I wonder what this Hotmail thingy is. Sounds cool… *click*

The “Get your free email account at Hotmail” onramp was seen every single time a user sent an email to somebody else. When some of those people clicked the link and became users, they suddenly became another source of referrals for every email THEY sent.

In essence, each user became a sales rep. Each message they sent served as an endorsement. Sign-up rates soured. Bhatia, Smith, Draper, and everyone else involved with Hotmail high-fived their way to the bank.

Starting to make sense?

Where One Succeeds, Others Will Follow


Let’s look at a few quick examples of companies who used Hotmail’s legendary example of viral communication marketing as inspiration for their own tactics:

  • Apple‘s iPhone-based email client includes a default signature that reads “sent from my iPhone” at the bottom of each user email. Sound familiar?


  • MailChimp includes a linked graphic promoting their service at the bottom of emails sent from their free accounts. This allows them to leverage users’ own mailing lists as growth engines for their product.
  • Hootsuite includes a “via Hootsuite” tag next to tweets that were scheduled through their system.


Just like Hotmail, each of these three services allow you to communicate with others in various ways. Each message sent from their platform acts as a vessel that exposes the brand to others in mass quantities – many of whom go on to become users themselves.

Starting to get the picture?

That’s viral communication marketing. Think of it as a network enhanced word of mouth

What’s Next?


The first two types of viral marketing we’ve covered are incredibly powerful due largely to their high branching factor.

However, there are still 10 more types of viral marketing to get into. Not every viral engine revolves around communication. What if you simply want to invite co-workers so you can work together to achieve a common goal?

I’m glad you asked. That’s exactly what we’ll cover next. Let’s dive right in, shall we?


Want to Know How Dropbox Grew So Fast Early On?

Dropbox tried a number of non-viral marketing strategies early on, but most of them didn’t result in a positive ROI. However, their user acquisition graphs kept going up, and up, and up. Why do you think that is? I’ll tell you in the next chapter.



What did you think of this post?

  • Can you think of any other sites that use viral communication marketing?
  • Do you have any apps on your phone that use it?
  • If Viral Panda practiced any martial art, what would it be?

Hit me on Twitter, or comment below.


Travis Steffen
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