So You’re Wondering How to Go Viral
Stop Googling “how to go viral” as if there’s a magic bullet. There isn’t.
Anyone with a working brain, diligent planning and research, access to a bit of capital, and a data-driven approach CAN achieve viral growth to SOME degree. However, very few actually do to a meaningful degree. This is mainly because most people don’t truly understand the mechanics of viral marketing.
(If you haven’t read my last post on what viral marketing actually is, read that first.)
Here are a few things that contribute to the miseducation of the masses:
- Most resources on viral marketing are actually resources on social media strategy. They steal the term “viral” to make what they do sound sexier.
- Most “viral marketing firms” are actually production companies specializing in the creation of a controversial or funny video or meme that people share. This is NOT viral marketing. It’s a marketing channel that Gabriel Weintraub and Justin Mares, authors of Traction, call “unconventional PR.” This essentially is the purposeful use of publicity stunts to get media coverage.
Some Products Can’t Go Viral
One major reason why most people don’t create viral products is because they can’t. Most business models, industries or site structures are NOT inherently viral by nature. They didn’t necessarily make a mistake – it’s just that the nature of their business doesn’t make things easy or intuitive.
Often times, founders will give up on virality after their product doesn’t instantly take off like wildfire. Many of them get frustrated and shift their focus back to more traditional, linear forms of digital marketing. It’s easier to understand. Dollars in, dollars out. They stop researching how to go viral entirely because since their site isn’t CURRENTLY going viral, they believe it CAN’T go viral.
Sometimes they’re right. Most of the time, they’re just uneducated – but it’s not their fault. Viral marketing mechanics at the product architecture level are not widely taught. They’re not included in any business or technical educational curriculum – so the best education happens on the job.
Who NOT to Learn From
Those who do end up teaching viral marketing only understand a few pieces they’ve witnessed from their own perspectives. In the past, if you wanted the full picture, there was only one true path. One must experience it numerous times on the job AND comb the deep bowels of the Internet. Once they have all the various puzzle pieces, they then must put the puzzle together themselves.
The select few who DO accurately write about viral growth mechanics are NOT trying to teach a Day 1 founder how to go viral. They’re NOT teaching folks to architect a product to encourage viral behavior in users. They’re usually VCs, and use their working knowledge of viral marketing to evaluate potential investments.
These individuals have great blog posts on specific aspects of viral marketing. However, their exposure to the nuts and bolts of virality is often a bit more theoretical than practical. In addition, they’re typically not the ones actually building or optimizing the viral products they’re investing in or advising on. They may have done it once or twice themselves in the past, but they’re rarely in the trenches anymore.
Like any skill, mastery is an ongoing journey – and if you don’t use it, you lose it.
Who to Learn From
A few growth-focused investors do still continue to be hands-on in some portfolio companies. It’s definitely a good idea to read their teachings and allow it to stimulate some thought experiments. Andrew Chen’s blog and Adam Nash’s blog are two of my favorites. I also really like David Skok’s blog, and a series of posts Rahul Vohra made on his LinkedIn.
I’ve admittedly done a poor job at citing when their writings have influenced Viral Hero. As such, I’d like to give them credit here for setting me down this path to put all the puzzles pieces together for myself.
The Chicken and the Egg
For most founders, all aspects of their viral marketing education have come AFTER they’ve created their product. After all, most people start companies because they have an idea. This idea then creates itself in the mind(s) of the founder(s). Unless they’ve already deeply researched viral mechanics, this sort of architecture becomes an afterthought.
What typically happens next is those founders learn a bit of the higher-level theory behind what other folks mistakenly refer to as viral marketing (which is typically content marketing or unconventional PR). They THEN try to build in “viral carriers” (methods of sharing or sending invites such as sharing buttons or referral systems) AFTER they create their site or app.
Most people won’t realize this until after they’ve created a product. In those cases, their products WILL become more viral in comparison to products that don’t utilize viral marketing at all.
Don’t get me wrong – you definitely NEED viral carriers. However, these carriers by themselves will NOT create an exponential, self-driving growth engine.
To do this, there are many other pieces of the puzzle to factor in. Which brings us to why you’re here – how to go viral.
The Self-Driving Car of Growth
Think of cars today. There are cars you drive by hand that you must be in control of at all times. Then there are “self-driving cars” that are at the forefront of technology and innovation. They use things like AI and machine learning to drive passengers around automatically.
- One of these is very hands-on, requiring the participant’s constant attention.
- The other is more hands-off, with the participant subtly guiding things as needed.
True viral marketing is like the self-driving car of growth. Self-driving user growth expands itself without feeding the majority of the growth engineer’s time to the machine. Certain engines – like incentivized viral marketing – can still cost money sometimes, but it’s typically far less than the pay-to-play advertising game.
As a growth engineer, your viral engine will still require you to strategically steer the ship, but if it’s done correctly, your product should do the lion’s share of the work for you. However, it’s important to recognize that viral marketing is NOT a simple feature you can just bolt onto your product. It MUST be built deep within the core of the product. It MUST be sparked by an inherent, value-driven desire your users have to invite others.
No amount of convincing or bolting-on features or widgets will result in making something truly “go viral”. If that’s your plan, you may as well stop Googling “how to go viral” for good. It’s futile.
But fear not – they may help make your site or app MORE viral than it was before. This can still be the difference between a massive crash-and-burn failure and a world-beating success story.
In other words, stop researching how to GO viral, and shift your focus to becoming MORE viral.
Focusing on “More Viral”
Every site has a certain viral factor. This means that there will always be a percentage of users on average that will invite others to your site or app in some way.
For most sites, this percentage will never reach anything insanely high. But there are degrees of viral growth that can make every other mode of marketing much more cost-effective.
If you happen to create a crazy rocketship of a viral growth engine, fantastic! Drinks are on you. For everyone else, unless you’re creating something like a communication or collaboration tool, you probably won’t go viral. What’s more, unless you’ve already built enough value to KEEP users once you acquire them, you probably shouldn’t.
But can you make your site MORE viral? Absolutely. You’d actually really be screwing the pooch if you didn’t do so as soon as humanly possible. Doing so will allow you to drastically reduce your marketing spend on a per-user basis. It will allow you to create a more sustainable, scalable growth strategy. This, in turn, results in a more successful business.
At which point you’ll be the one buying everyone drinks.
Who Creates Viral Products
As I mentioned earlier, anybody CAN create viral products, but few actually do. Here’s why:
- Why marketers don’t do it: Virality is something that must be engineered by people who know how to architect products from the ground up.
- Why engineers don’t do it: Most engineers can build beautiful, clean, scalable code. However, very few have enough knowledge of (or interest in) how virality works. This interest is a necessity for learning how to build a self-driving growth engine.
- Why new founders don’t do it: Most new founders are so enthralled by their idea that they build it as it is in their head. They rarely, if ever, craft simple and fundamentally-sound viral architecture first, and search for ideas that fit within it.
- Why most experienced founders don’t do it: Most experienced founders have used tactics other than viral marketing to become successful. Rather than educating themselves on a new area, they instead lean on the existing areas they’ve mastered.
A good chunk of people who actually do understand the nature of viral marketing choose to all but completely ignore it. They instead focus on more simple growth engines, such as pay-per-click advertising.
That said, the ease of implementation of these other forms of acquisition have resulted in oversaturated and much more expensive growth channels. With increased competition comes higher prices, making it harder for new founders to find success with them.
Where the Viral Heroes Shine
It’s partly BECAUSE viral growth is more complex and misunderstood that a large percentage of the small few companies with strong viral marketing engines are later acquired for 9 or 10 figures.
Even most of the high-level minds out there, and I’m talking top product architects and VCs, only understand about 50-60% of viral marketing and growth at best. They haven’t figured out how to reduce their risk or validate that a viral engine works before investing high amounts of time or capital into them.
Most VCs only understand viral marketing enough to vet investments. Most product architects only understand viral marketing in the context of the specific product(s) they’ve worked on. Even those who do understand it (which includes me) still often only understand it to a degree. This is largely because of things like the complexity of the reporting of viral growth metrics, and the dramatic variability of use cases.
Accidental Viral Growth
I know what you’re thinking…
There are a number of big-name companies that have reached exponential virality. Was this just an accident?
I believe so, yes – though I doubt they’d ever admit it. Every founder likely believes, or hopes, their product will go viral. Does this make the ones who were correct geniuses? Or were they simply the lucky few?
This isn’t to say these founders aren’t brilliant, and it isn’t to say they didn’t optimize their viral loops after they began to witness users passing on their product. However, it’s not something they likely understood on more than a rudimentary level in the beginning.
Why I’ve Written Viral Hero
As a growth engineer, I recognize the sheer power virality can provide. As such, it’s been my singular focus to gain a much deeper understanding of viral marketing mechanics. I’ve done this so I can use these lessons myself to build companies. My purpose for writing Viral Hero was to put my thoughts down on paper, poke holes in them, allow my own understanding to evolve, and help me put the puzzle together.
I’ve scoured books, research papers, and blogs. I have done countless case studies, and built my own viral products to test what I’ve learned. As I’ve done this, I’ve dissected some of the strongest, most applicable pieces from top founders, brilliant investors, and even top virologists in medicine.
From these dry, academic and jargon-laden resources that are more likely to bore you to sleep than inspire you to succeed, I have begun to piece together what I like to think is a far more approachable resource. (Along with the help of my superhero friend Viral Panda.)
What You Need to Build a More Viral Product
There are TONS of variables that go into perfectly accurate viral growth equations and predictions. To be honest, I haven’t seen or created any such equations that even come close to predicting completely accurate viral growth . . . yet.
But as famed statistician George Box once said, “all models are wrong but some are useful”.
You’ll be happy to hear that unless you’re planning to pitch a strategy on how to go viral to a Fortune 500, you don’t need prediction equations. Like anything, you need the fundamentals. Using only those, you can start making serious progress towards a more viral product.
If you don’t need prediction equations, what DO you need?
- A clear, engaging resource to help you understand the fundamentals
- A working knowledge on how to iterate on your viral engine
- Tools to help you improve, systemize and automate things along the way
- A framework to help you systematically see behavior, hypothesize, build, measure and learn
Sound like a plan? Okay – you’re ready for the next chapter.
Which Wins: User Experience or Virality?
If you’re asking yourself this question, you’re probably destined for failure. The next chapter will teach you how to recognize common flaws in logic like this, and how you can flip it on its head.
Latest posts by Travis Steffen (see all)
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- Viral Infection: How the CDC Can Make You a Viral Marketing Savant - March 4, 2016
- Viral Communication Marketing – How Apple, MailChimp and Hootsuite Used Hotmail to Inspire Explosive Growth - June 25, 2015