Josh Elman has led growth initiatives and product teams at some of the biggest unicorns of the past two decades including LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. He is now a partner at Greylock, where he invests in entrepreneurs building the same types of consumer and social products that he has helped scale throughout his career. At last year’s SCALE conference, he gave a gripping talk on product virality with examples from his own portfolio as well as lessons from the trenches.
Virality = Inception + Motivation
When someone hears about a product for the first time, it “incepts” in your mind the function of that product, which motivates you to try it, and when you do, you love it so much that you’re motivated to tell others about it as well. For example, the first time you heard about LinkedIn, what were your thoughts? A professional social network that helps to advance your career. The product is easy to understand (inception), and the value is immediately apparent (motivation). This is the overarching formula for a viral product.
Word of Mouth Virality
This could, in many ways, be considered the “holy grail” of virality. When people can’t help but tell their peers about your product because it is so incredible. Google is one great example of word of mouth virality. There were dozens of search engines in the late 90s, but Google created a simple product that was easier to use, and produced better results. So when anyone would complain about search engines back then, inevitably, someone would speak up and say, “Hey, have you heard of Google? It’s so much better.”
Here are a few of Josh’s tips on what you can do to set your product up for virality:
Incentivized Word of Mouth Virality
This is just what it sounds like: adding an incentive, often monetary, for people to refer their friends to the service. For instance, PayPal offered a $10 deposit into anyone’s account if they referred a new user to their service. Airbnb offers $100 credit to any user who refers a paying customer. But there are numerous ways you can offer incentive based on your product. Take Dropbox for example. They offered extra data storage space in return for new user referrals. In any case, these companies incentivized their current users to spread the word and ignite a viral chain.
It’s important to remember that this specific viral tactic is not economically viable for all product types. If you have a transaction-based monetization strategy (i.e. Airbnb, Uber, PayPal, etc.) it can be a very powerful method to onboard lifetime users. But for companies like Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit, the cost of acquisition is likely far too high to justify this type of incentivized virality.
This occurs when people observe a product in use, and are motivated to find out how the user was able to accomplish the task observed. It creates curiosity by demonstrating a new type of value that, in turn, causes intrigue in those who are not yet using that product. Josh gives several great examples of companies who have mastered this viral tactic, but best of all is perhaps Prisma, an app that generates artistic painting-like portraits from from regular photos. When people on Instagram or Facebook see these images, the original poster often would be inundated with comments asking “How did you do that?” And on top of that, each picture is tagged with a small Prisma logo in the bottom corner, making it clear to anyone who sees it, that that picture was created with Prisma.
Invitations are key to conquering this type of virality. Products that can benefit from infectious virality tend to work better when more people are using them, so users have a tendency to invite their friends. If your product carries mutual benefits when a user’s friends join, you can catalyze this infectious virality by making invites seamless and optimizing the timing and tactics for encouraging users to invite friends.
This is probably the most difficult type of virality to manufacture, but if you can pull it off, the results will blow you away. Everyone knows when a viral outbreak is occurring because everyone is talking about it and using the product all at once, often out of nowhere. Josh uses Pokemon Go as one of the most apparent examples of an outbreak product. Within one day of launch, it was hard to find anyone who hadn’t heard of the game. Pokemon Go took off because: 1) It was the first mobile game of its kind. And 2) It generated excitement through nostalgia for its user demographic.
Now, we all know creating an app so unique and groundbreaking that it sets an entire generation into a frenzy of elated hysteria is about as likely as hitting the jackpot in the super lotto. But, the second reason Pokemon Go took off is a relatively actionable tactic to achieve outbreak virality. By hitting your potential user base with a product (or feature) that speaks to them on an emotional level, that brings up fond memories or captures their imagination, you may be able to leverage that nostalgia to go viral.
But be warned, these types of viral products tend to disappear as fast as they appear if you aren’t carefully thinking ahead at the time of the outbreak. Pokemon Go is doing alright now, but it certainly doesn’t have the same sort of hysteria that it was known for in its first few weeks.
The Viral Loop
Your viral tactics won’t make any difference if your app/product is confusing or frustrating for new users at the signup page. The ultimate goal for any startup is to create a viral loop, and that loop hinges on a smooth onboarding experience coupled with a great product that satisfies expectations. If you can tighten up those sectors of your viral loop it will inevitably create an experience that users will want to share with others.
Virality can seem like voodoo magic, but when you see people like Josh Elman who have pulled it off multiple times with different products, it starts to seem more like science. So, watch the full video to learn from a master scientist.