Whether you were tidying up with Marie Kondo, sleeping under a weighted blanket, participating in the bottle cap challenge or some other #challenge on TikTok, chances are you’ve been part of a viral loop. For marketers, the idea of going viral is the holy grail but most think it’s some kind of magic or that some get lucky and others don’t. While there is uncertainty, there are things that you can do to increase your chances of striking viral gold. Brands like Uber, Dropbox, and Pinterest didn’t grow by marketing to individuals one at a time. They leveraged virality to let their early adopters and network effect do the work for them.
There are several reasons you may want to go viral. It could be your product that you want to promote. And, to get your users to talk about how great your product is, your product must first be something people actually want to use and talk about. Once they love it, getting them to talk about it and share it with friends will be much easier. Peloton is an excellent example of a company using virality to grow rapidly. Once one class ends, users are provided with recommendations for classes they can take right after. Stretching, meditation, you name it.
Creating content is another way marketers use virality. Because of the sheer amount of content out in the world, not all content goes viral and in fact most won’t. So what can you do to increase your odds? When it comes to content virality, it’s all about timing and opportunity. Hitting the right users at the right time and in the right places.
In addition to product and content virality, the most popular or commonplace to think of “going viral” is on social media. A viral post or meme is almost the origin of the term and is still the first thing we think of when you hear something has gone viral. While it seems like the most logical place to promote, because of the intense amount of competition, it has become one of the most difficult spaces to go viral in. You may need to enlist the help of influencers in your market to help with this.
It almost goes without saying, but having a really deep understanding of your audience is at the root of virality. Knowing where they’ll be and when they’ll be there and then building a certain amount of shareability into is critical to promoting virality.
The Psychology Behind Why Things Go Viral
To understand why people share some things and not others, it’s important to break down the psychology behind why humans feel the need to share at all. In a recent study done by the New York Times, they unearthed the motivation behind sharing online content and it basically came down to these 5 reasons:
- People want to better the lives of others (94%)
- People want the content to reflect their online identity (68%)
- People want to grow and nourish relationships (80%)
- People share because they like the feeling of having others comment on it and engage (81%)
- People want to spread the word about something that they believe in (84%)
Now that we understand why people share, it’s much easier as a marketer to leverage. As you probably know, virality isn’t purely a marketing play. It must be built into the product itself right from the get-go. Once you have that perfect product, there are 5 types of product virality that you can leverage, according to expert growth marketer Josh Elman.
- Word of Mouth
- Incentivized word of mouth
Word of Mouth
This is the best and easiest type of virality and happens naturally when your product is so good, unique, interesting, entertaining or any combination of these adjectives that people actually want to tell their friends about it. Did your friend tell you to watch The Fyre Festival documentary on Netflix? Or maybe someone told you that CBD changed their life so you tried it too. These are all examples of word of mouth virality.
The key here is having an easy to search brand. A brand name with missing vowels or double letters isn’t necessarily going to come up when someone tells their friend to “Google it!” If you haven’t optimized your name or description to be searchable, odds are not in your favor that it will go viral by word of mouth.
Incentivized Word of Mouth
Better described as a referral program on steroids, incentivized word of mouth virality is giving your customers a little something for talking about you. Robinhood, a brokerage app, gives its users a free stock for referring friends and has been tremendously successful in building out a viral referral loop.
This works best when both the referrer and referee are incentivized. Breakout women’s footwear brand Rothy’s did an A+ job of this with their incentivized referrals with their “Give $20, Get $20” program. Not only are their shoes super comfortable and stylish, so they have an element of word of mouth virality, but they incentive both sides of the transaction. This is one of the only viral strategies that will cost you actual money as it requires you to discount your product or service, so make sure that your offer is in line with what is actually feasible for you to deliver.
Did you or your kid have a fidget spinner (or three) this year? Chances are you saw someone using one, thought it looked fun and then wanted to try it too. When we see people using something that interests us, it is human nature to want to be in on the action. This is how we define demonstration virality.
Seeing a lot of photos with floral crowns lately? Filters on Instagram Stories or Snapchat work in the same way. Once users start to pick them up, they spread rapidly as everyone wants to look like the next Beyoncé.
Uber was one of the best at this strategy as it is innately built into their service. I bet the first time you saw your friend order themselves a black car from their phone while you ran to the nearest street going in the direction you were going to flag down a yellow cab, made you want to download the app asap.
Josh Elman describes this one delicately as, “when one user is ‘infecting’ another with the virus.” Now stay with us here, this is about using invites as a way to leverage exclusivity. The classic examples here being Facebook and LinkedIn where a user invited you to be their friend or connection and then you went on to make your own friends and connections.
Being invited to a product can feel exclusive if done correctly, but if someone goes through their entire friend list inviting everyone, it suddenly isn’t as special. By forcing an invite, infectious virality isn’t a great fit for every brand or product, so use this strategy with care. While it seems to be the origin of virality because we associate it with the oldest and largest social networks, the invitation system can be really limiting and is more impactful when used for a social network type product. If this isn’t what you’re trying to do, use one of the other viral strategies.
When a product, app, service, etc. seems to be everywhere virtually overnight, we classify it as outbreak virality. It is similar to word of mouth virality but spreads more rapidly and with more momentum. Did you go into your office one regular morning in 2016 and find all of your coworkers catching Jigglypuffs and Charmanders? Pokémon Go is the perfect example of outbreak virality.
Why does this happen? No better answer than, because it’s fun! Sometimes there really are good, funny, smart, or interesting things that people just naturally want to share.
Creating content is another way marketers use virality. Because of the sheer amount of content out in the world, not all content goes viral and in fact, most won’t. So what can you do to increase your odds? When it comes to content virality, it’s all about timing and opportunity. Hitting the right users at the right time and in the right places and providing them with something shareable. In relation to the psychology we learned earlier, it’s important to remember that when you are creating content, you must first think about how it will help users connect with each other and not just with your brand.
In addition to an emotional connection, it must reach the desired target audience at a time and place where they are ready to digest it.
Remember The World Record Egg? It was originally created to challenge social media with a goal to get more likes than Kylie Jenners record-holding post (18 million). It beat her handily with now 54 million likes. The egg went on to sell a capsule collection with DJ Kahlid (who else?) and is now a spokesegg for mental health. What came first, the content or the egg?
Audience Targeting is Key
Like all other forms of virality, getting something to go viral on social media requires you to have a deep understanding of your audience. Not only who they are and what they like, but what channels they hang out on. With so much data out there, there is no excuse not to understand your market and getting this first fundamental step correct is very important.
Provide Something for Your Audience to Connect to
Once you know the who, what, where, and when of your audience, the next step is to give them something to care about. Make them laugh, make them cry, just make them feel emotionally connected to what you are trying to provide. Make sure you are focusing on high-quality content that your audience will actually benefit from in some way.
Promote User-Generated Content
Not sure how to do this? Look at TikTok, who are the absolute masters of getting users to generate content for brands. Burberry, a company always at the forefront of technology, especially for a luxury fashion brand, was one of the first to create a TikTok #challenge. They asked users to make the Thomas Burberry logo with their hands and share videos, just as the brand was releasing a new logo focused collection.
Although you can find other good examples of companies who were successful with this strategy in our TikTok Marketing Guide they aren’t the only platform where user-generated content is doing well. Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook are all great channels for your customers to post their own content to.
Netflix does a great job of this. Some marketers have even suggested that the streaming company created fake twitter accounts to share memes of its movie Birdbox just after it was released. Users quickly picked up the trend and there are now thousands of Birdbox memes on the internet today.
The most critical thing to remember here is that if you want users to create for you, you have to make it worth their while. This could be through social validation or some sort of giveaway. No matter how you incentivize, the more you can get users to generate, the more involved they will connect with your brand and the more the loop will continue. This is putting the power into the hands of your users.
How to Measure Virality
It’s important when we talk about virality to cover how to effectively measure it. We wouldn’t be growth marketers if we didn’t want to put some concrete metrics behind success!
When measuring virality there are 2 critical pieces, the k-factor, and the viral cycle. The k-factor is a term that actually comes from the medical world and was created to measure the number of people infected by one other person. In our use case, it is how many customers or users are created from one other customer or user. The viral cycle is the time period we are measuring. If you have true virality, the shorter your viral cycle is, the higher your k-factor should be.
Product Virality Formula
There is an actual formula that you can use to measure and calculate the probability of your product or app going viral. Here is our take on what David Skok of the great entrepreneur website forentrepreneurs.com has mastered.
The most important thing to calculate first is the Viral Coefficient. What does that mean? Simply put, it is the number of new customers or users that each existing customer is able to successfully convert. The formula for this is in the chart above and asks you to multiply the number of invites sent by the conversion rate.
Why is the viral coefficient so important? Growth depends on it. If we use the example numbers in the chart as our friend David Skok did, our initial 10 customers will send out 10 invitations and convert 20% of them (2 each) to new customers. So the total customers after the first cycle will be equal to the initial 10 plus the new 20, which equals 30.
As you can see, the potential for virality increases with each new customer and with their ability to send out invites that convert to more new users. The other critical factor that impacts measuring just how viral your product or content is going to be is the amount of time you are able to convert these new users. Of course the shorter the cycle the more likely you are to go viral.
If you are really into the art of the math behind virality and want to download your own version of the excel chart, we recommend you take a look at the detailed strategy put together by David Skok.
Virality vs Stickiness
Although it is easy to confuse the two, there is a difference between virality and brand stickiness.
Brand stickiness is when a customer repeatedly goes back to a brand and is marketer speak for when a company has really loyal customers. Reasons that a brand might be sticky can range from it’s free, it’s fun, it’s easy to use, or even it has new and entertaining content or products. Some recent examples of exceptionally sticky brands are Apple and Starbucks. Stickiness is something all brands should aspire to achieve, but it does not equal going viral.
You can think of Pokémon GO as a great example of virality that did not have stickiness. They were able to grow exponentially within a very short period of time but were unable to retain the bulk of their users.
Interested to learn more about how you can use viral loops for product growth? Check out our guide to growth acquisition loops and discover why the pirate funnel isn’t necessarily best anymore, especially if you want to go viral.