viral marketing user experience - Upshare

As I’ve begun to write and speak more about viral growth mechanics, one surprisingly common question springs up. It’s one that even seasoned, successful entrepreneurs have asked.

How much should I be willing to compromise my user experience in favor of viral marketing?

Most of these people have come across sites in the past that they believe have a high viral factor. To the layman, this may simply be a site with a ton of sharing buttons. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Sites like this have compromised user experience for what they’re hoping will result in a bit of a viral boost. (Hint: It doesn’t.) In their minds, if they shove sharing buttons down a user’s throat, they’ll share. This brings us to our first myth about virality.

Myth 1

Great User Experience Must be Visually Appealing

  Sites like Reddit and Amazon have user experiences that are historically the absolute furthest from aesthetically pleasing. In reality, a great user experience is built with behavioral analytics, qualitative feedback, and ample testing rather than artistic design. Reddit Dashboard - User Experience Sites like Reddit (above) and Craigslist have fairly anti-visual design, but they still provide a good experience for users. This disproves the thesis that great UX must be visually appealing.

Myth 2

Focusing on Virality Makes for Worse UX

  Bolting on low-value sharing buttons, poorly-crafted referral programs, weak viral calls to action, and more black and gray hat viral “hacks” definitely compromise a user’s experience. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. If you asked me, I would tell you to shrug off your preconceived notions of what viral marketing is. Great viral marketing does NOT happen IN SPITE OF of your user experience. It ADDS to it. Consider these simple rules:
  1. Visitors become users because they want the value you’re offering.
  2. Great viral marketing is driven by the inherent desire of your user to unlock MORE of that value in exchange for sharing or inviting others.
In other words, they are not doing you a favor. It’s not an obligatory action. They actually WANT to share or invite others because of the value unlocked by doing so. For a viral engine to become successful, the following things need to be absurdly obvious:
  1. Core value the user gets from using your product
  2. Additional value the user gets from exposing your product to others (this is called Viral Value, which we’ll get into more later)
  3. The process of understanding AND acting on both forms of value

Viral Success Story: Dropbox

  Let’s look at the popular file storage service, Dropbox.
  • Prospective users come to Dropbox because people want a place to store their files.
  • Those users refer Dropbox to others because they want to share those files with friends.
  • Dropbox users are more likely to invite others because each time they do, more space is unlocked in their account for free.
  • Users are taken by the hand and walked through both forms of value, and how to act on each of them
Dropbox Viral Incentive Referral Dropbox’s viral growth engine worked so well because their core value proposition of cloud-based file storage is incredibly powerful and widespread. Once uploaded, Dropbox users have a strong, innate desire to share many of those files with others. Those people then often become Dropbox users themselves. The folks over at Dropbox then added an incentive to make users more likely to send more invites on average. This incentive came in the form of unlocking even MORE of the core value they originally came to Dropbox to get access to. In other words, they unlock more storage space. In their early days, Dropbox’s viral marketing campaign was so effective because users signed up and shared for the exact same reason. They were inviting friends and colleagues because it IMPROVED their user experience to do so. It unlocked value that both they and their friends clearly wanted. Put another way, users didn’t feel that they were inviting others to join Dropbox. They felt they were inviting others to access files they knew they wanted. Friends didn’t join out of obligation. They joined because they wanted access to the files. Dropbox was just a vessel to provide them with that value.

Viral Success Story: PayPal

  Let’s take a look at another example with the popular money-transfer app, PayPal.
  • Prospective users come to PayPal because they want a quick, secure way of making real money transactions on the web.
  • Users refer PayPal to others because transactions are a two-way street. They want to send money to and receive money from other people.
  • Paypal users are more likely to invite others because they (at least used to) get a great cash incentive to do so.
PayPal Affiliate Program In summary, PayPal spread virally because users signed up to solve one simple, clear problem. Inviting others to the service added value by helping them solve that problem more easily. Again, this viral marketing campaign IMPROVED PayPal’s user experience. (NOTE: in most cases, cash-for-referral systems are expensive, unsuccessful and easily gamed. However, as a money transfer app, this actually made sense as PayPal’s core value revolved around money.) The point is, viral marketing doesn’t work if it’s obligatory, or if it doesn’t make total sense. If people don’t WANT to spread your product, shoving it down their throats is a terrible idea. It’s not about you – it’s about your users.

A World of Copycats

  In the copycat world we live in, companies will look to what their competitors or similar services are doing in order to decide on their own strategies. While competitive analysis is a part of good research, this is an incomplete approach. In fact, this “it’s what everyone else is doing” mentality often holds startups back from making correct decisions. I’ve been a victim of this myself with past ventures, and often feel compelled to fall down the same rabbit hole to this day. However, this mindset is a dangerous combination of laziness and fear. Don’t let these emotions govern your decision making. Your reasoning for testing and hypothesizing should be generated from your efforts to understand your users and why they do what they do.

Examine the Value in Your User Experience

  What value are you providing users? In what ways could you AUGMENT the value your users get for spreading the word about you? It doesn’t HAVE to be something tangible. It can also be something like:
  • Being seen as an authority on something, or of being “in the know”
  • Making friends laugh and tell stories about the fun they had with you
  • Sparking stimulating conversation through controversial topics
  • A feeling of satisfaction in helping to solve the problem of another person
That said, even when you consciously provide strong intrinsic benefits like these, you can also add extrinsic rewards. These incentives can augment virality by augmenting the viral value. You may try things like:
  • A discount for your product
  • Free samples or gifts that compliment the value users have already gotten
  • Points, badges, or status symbols (a blend of intrinsic and extrinsic)
  • Additional features or access
Using game mechanics to drive viral growth is always a good move IF you’re truly adding more value and not just buying user actions.

User Experience and Viral Marketing Should Never Compete

  Similar to throwing an overabundance of sharing buttons at visitors, buying user actions might give you some nice vanity metrics to show investors or brag about in the press. However, the users you acquire won’t be active because they aren’t there to get value from your product. They’re bonus-chasers. You may as well just buy bot traffic. Ultimately, the business compromised (or sold-out) user experience for the appearance of virality. In summary, user experience and viral marketing should NOT be considered two warring factions. Instead, viral marketing should enhance your user experience. It should act as a seamless way of unlocking more of the value user came to get.

What’s Next?

  It is important to remember viral marketing does NOT look the same for everyone. In fact, it often takes a very different shape for every single product, which can make things very frustrating for the copycats out there. To take you out of your copycat mindset and into a place of true understanding, I’ve mapped out the 12 different types of viral marketing.  


The next section gives you the rundown on all 12 types of viral marketing. You’ll probably come up with ways you can use most of them right away – so hurry up and check them out! 

Travis Steffen
Viral Buttons by UP