The Ultimate Guide to Virality and Building it Into Your Products

The Ultimate Guide to Building Viral Products

Let’s face it; no other marketing channel could ever beat the results a well-conceived viral strategy can deliver.

Because when people tell others about a product, they do more than just inspiring new customers to try it out…

…they fuel your growth engine.

And at almost no cost for you at that.

In fact, when you look at the most revered products today – Dropbox or Intercom, for example – you’ll find virality at the core of their phenomenal initial growth.

But here’s the problem. Virality isn’t something you can just add to a product as an afterthought.

As Andrew Chen points out:

Virality is a business design problem, not a marketing or engineering effort.

To succeed with it, you must embed it into your product deeply. Hell, you should go even further and make it an integral part of the overall user experience.

In this guide, we’re going to show you how to do it.

What you’re going to learn:

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A Quick Recap: What Does Virality Mean to a Product?

Let’s clear up a common confusion first; a belief that virality and a word of mouth are, in fact, the same thing.

Fact, the two share a similar characteristic – they involve someone else in the process of promoting a product or a brand. But they are inherently different.

Word of mouth happens when people talk about your product or company.

But an interesting thing is that these people didn’t necessarily have to engage with you in any way. They might have heard about you through other people. However, because they’ve found your product worth talking about, they do so.

But of course, the strongest word of mouth happens when current and former customers tell others about their experiences with you.

Nonetheless, the above behavior is not virality.

So, what is, then?

Virality happens when people spread the word about a product or service in the context of its use.

In fact, the necessary condition for virality to happen is that customers promote a product by using it.

How, by sharing the result of using the product with other people, for example. By sending their friends a specific visual or a file or anything else they created with a product, they also let them know that it exists.

In doing so, they show their network the outcome of using it and communicate its value.

Take Loom, for example. The service allows anyone to record screencasts. Users can share those videos with others by emailing a link, importing it into Slack or using many other ways.

As most companies using the tool admit, Loom has helped streamline the feedback process significantly. It takes only seconds to show the problem with a video, after all. Not to mention that being able to discuss a specific issue while showing it on screen eliminates potential misunderstandings.

And the viral element?

Every time someone shares their video clip with others, they show them the product in action.

A recipient views the video on the product’s website. Like this:

loom viral product
Screenshot of a Loom video’s landing page.

Note the two Calls to Action the company places there. Both entice them to pick the product up as well.

What’s more, video recipients also see the outcome of using the product – the video clip itself. And in turn, recognize the benefits Loom delivers, without the company having to communicate that in marketing.

Loom’s viral strategy is one of two types of virality promotions companies use.

Loom uses what’s known as distribution virality. The other type is called pull virality.

Let’s go through them in turn.

The Distribution Virality Model

Distribution virality happens when users spread the word on a product by sharing the outcome of using it.

In Loom’s case, they share a video that exposes the other person to the product.

Anyone sending an Ecard product shares the information about the product they’ve used to create it with as well.

Recipients of the below card (sent via JibJab), for example, see a small call to action at the bottom of the card.

virality in a product

It prompts recipients delighted by the card they’ve just received to try out the service as well.

And it works.

The person has already seen the outcome of using the company’s product at work, after all. They’ve received the card. Most likely, it has made them feel good. In fact, they might feel happy or overjoyed having received it.

The Pull Virality Model

The pull virality works in the opposite way. Instead of boosting growth by sharing the product’s outcome, this model relies on existing users to invite new people to the product, to use it together.

In this model, therefore, the virality relies on new users being exposed to the value of a product by using it with others.

Slack incorporates this model in their growth perfectly. The company offers a communications platform for teams. It allows them to collaborate on projects, socialize online, and stay in touch, even if working remotely.

And although at first, it might seem that the product’s viral capability focuses on spreading the product internally only, it can boost a huge viral growth outside too.

Because of the ability to invite external users to their Slack channels – clients, contractors, etc. –companies expose the product to more users. These people learn about the product by being invited (or being pulled) into using it.

Because of this, they experience it, see its benefits too. And in turn, become more likely to implement it in their organizations too.

Another example, Nextdoor.

This private social network for neighborhoods thrives on users inviting other people to use it together. Users come together to keep up to date on recent developments in their area, learn about any upcoming get-togethers, or find a helping hand with an urgent home project.

But Nextdoor can thrive only if users invite more people from their neighborhoods to the platform. In short, it needs virality to grow.

To do so, the company offers various ways for users to connect to the people around them:

  • Sending a physical postcard to their neighbors. Useful for when a person doesn’t have those people’s emails.
  • Email invitations to friends and neighbors.
virality options in a product
Screenshot of Nextdoor’s virality options in the platform.

Nextdoor’s viral strategy relies on users inviting strangers around them to turn the platform into a community.

In doing so, users show their neighbors the value of the product right away. And in turn, convince them to start using it, retaining them as full users.

Which brings us to this…

What Makes a Viral Product? What are the Main Characteristics of a Viral Product?

If you look at the above examples in detail, you’ll notice a common characteristic that defines their virality.

Regardless of what type of virality these products use, it is embedded in their business operations deeply.

Their virality doesn’t seem like something they’ve added on at a later stage. Instead, they carefully built it into their products from the start.

Based on this fact alone, we can identify the main characteristics of a viral product:

Characteristic #1. A viral product requires users to interact with others to deliver the value.

Viral products cannot be designed for isolated use. Instead, their value must depend on some form of interactions between users or other shareholders.

For Loom or JibJab to deliver the value, users must share what they’ve created with others. For Nextdoor, they must use the product with others.

#2. Viral products require users to have connections around the use case.

A viral product’s users must have a sufficient number of connections to recruit to use the product. What’s more, these connections must share the interest and the desire to achieve the value the product promises to boost its virality.

JibJab users send cards to friends, family, coworkers. These people are likely to reciprocate or want to send messages to people in their networks.

Slack brings professionals together around the common use case – easier communications. And so, its ideal users are the people with sufficient internal and external networks to invite to the app.

#3. Viral product benefits from the user’s existing connections

Finally, virality relies on a person having an extensive network of connections. Even for Nextdoor, a product that connects neighbors who, potentially, don’t know each other, the connection is living in the same area.

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How to Build Virality into a Product – The Four Factors to Consider

We’ve already established the need to include virality at the core of a product. So now, let’s discuss factors you must consider when doing so.

And in short, you need to answer four questions:

  • Why would someone send an information about your product?
  • What would they be sending?
  • What would entice them to do so?
  • How what they’re sending would inspire others to try out your product?

Let’s go through them in turn.

Factor #1. Why Would Someone Send Information About Your Product?

For Loom or JibJab the answer is simple. Users share what they’ve created with the product. In fact, such sharing is inherent in product usage.

The whole purpose of recording a Loom clip is to explain something to others, after all. And that’s impossible to do without sharing the video with them, right?

The goal of creating an Ecard is sending a message to someone. It could be a thank you note, an invitation or anything else, really. What’s important is that the only way they’d receive the message is if you send it to them first.

But the situation might be different for other product types.

A single person could use a marketing analytics platform, for example. They wouldn’t have to build a network or rely on their existing connections to succeed with the product.

They’d just need to import all the data they need and use it to inform their strategies.

So, how do you make them meet the virality requirements we discussed in the section above?

I admit, for some products, achieving virality might prove impossible. They rely on an isolated use and output nothing that a user could share with others.

But for many others, many opportunities exist to build a network around the use case.

For a marketing platform, it could be reporting across the organization and beyond. Other project shareholders, external vendors, contractors, and clients could form a sufficient use-case network to allow the company to grow through virality.

Including the product’s brand on reports could provide the pull necessary to boost viral growth.

Intercom, for example, attributes a lot of their phenomenal growth to this strategy.

Intercom growth through virality results

(image source)

And all they’ve done, really, was including a link to their product in the little chat widget users placed on their sites.

Intercom widget

TripAdvisor, a travel review site, created a rating system and badges hospitality companies could place on their websites to boost social proof.

The result, raising an interest in TripAdvisor among their visitors.

Factor #2. What Would They Be Sending?

You’ve seen how Intercom and TripAdvisor ensure users see their brand already.

Here are some other examples of embedding virality:

Wordable asked users on a free plan to place a statement like “I use Wordable to import my GDocs drafts to WordPress” at the bottom of each blog post.

Many other apps include their branding on low-tier price plans, exposing their customers’ users to the product as well.

whitelabel option to boost virality

And so, the question you must ask is how users would spread the word on your product while using it?

Would they share what they’ve created with it? Invite others to use it together? Expose them to your brand in some other way?

Unfortunately, as you’ve seen from the above examples, there is no single way to do it. You must consider how people use your product. And how you could bake your brand into that experience.

Factor #3. Emotional drivers for sharing.

Once you’ve established your virality type and decided how would users spread the word on your product, you must then consider what would make them do so in the first place.

In short, what are the emotional drivers that would make them want to share it?

And these reasons could vary from boosting self-esteem (“I feel great because I sent my family a lovely Christmas card and they think highly of me now.”) to genuinely feeling good about oneself (“I raised $5,000 to help my uncle pay a medical bill.”)

Answering this question requires taking a deep look at your users to discover the psychological motives behind their actions. And then, using those to entice sharing the product with others.

Factor #4. How what they’re sending would inspire others to try out your product?

The final consideration revolves around what would make the end recipient of the viral message act on it.

Because, although a person might have seen your product or the brand, it doesn’t mean they’ll want to click on your call to action.

Many, most likely, will just ignore it. Particularly in the distribution virality model.

That’s one reason why the requirement for a network of connections around the use cases is so critical to viral success.

The people who receive the information about your brand must have at least some need for such a product or service. This way, they’ll be able to understand its value right away.

Closing Thoughts: 4 Things to Remember When Building Virality into a Product

You’ve learned quite a lot about building virality into a product. You’ve discovered how such virality works, what characteristics make a product viral-worthy, and what you must consider when embedding a viral strategy.

And to close it off, I want to remind you of the four most critical things to remember about virality.

First, virality is not a feature but a business principle. You cannot add it as an afterthought. However, you could embed it in your product later. To do so, though, you might have to amend your business model and the product design.

Second, in virality, users’ needs must come first. Your goal for a viral strategy is clear. You want more growth. And you want users to fuel it. Simply.

But for the strategy to work, it must deliver on the users’ needs first. First of all, your virality must be embedded in the user experience deeply. In fact, most customers shouldn’t even realize that they fuel your growth engine.

Secondly, it must deliver on their emotional needs to share your product with others. And again, you must design it in a way that they don’t realize it.

Three, virality must integrate channels the audience uses already, not the ones you’d like them to use. Otherwise, you’ll make the task too complex to complete.

And finally, it must provide a seamless sharing experience. It should never interrupt the person’s actions or make them perform any unnecessary actions.

Take sharing via email, for example. If your customer has to switch between their Gmail tab and your product to copy and paste emails of the people, they want to send what they created with the product to, then, unless it’s critical they do so, they won’t.

But if they can access and import their address books natively in your app, then nothing stands between them and completing the task.

If you’d like to see how Nextdoor uses CloudSponge to achieve this, jump to 3m30s in the video below.

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Jay Gibb, CEO/Founder at CloudSponge

Follow @circuitfive


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