Is Your Site Really Viral? Viral Branding Versus Viral Action

by Andrew Chen

This chapter is a free excerpt from The Viral Startup: A Guide to Designing Viral Loops.

June 7, 2007

The PayPal alumni's viral successes

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June 7, 2007

The PayPal alumni's viral successes

Just came on this article in the YC News front page, called A Gold-Plated VC’s Billion-Dollar Secrets. I’d encourage you to read it, even though the title is completely at odds with the guy who they’re covering. (Think humble, not gold-plated!)

Anyway, there’s a great analysis about viral marketing and the fact there’s actually several variations of it these days. Broadly speaking, you have two categories:

  1. Viral branding
  2. Viral action

Let me explain the two categories below.

Viral branding

Most people, when they talk about viral marketing, are in fact talking about viral branding. That’s the philosophy of: do something REALLY cool and people will tell all their friends.

In the article, they explain it like this: Many people think the word "viral" is interchangeable with "word of mouth" – implying that the product or service is so good that people are compelled to talk it up with their friends.

Here are some examples:

Another variation of this is the types of things people do on their blogs, where they try to write something genuine or interesting, or attention-whoring or controversial, and people pass it around to all their friends.

This is really great and has its place. In fact, whole books have been written about it, like “Purple Cow.” In fact, books like “Tipping Point” are also really about it. So if you find yourself reading books about "breaking through the noise" and "identifying influencers" and other soft-skill marketing strategies, then you are reading about the viral branding industry. Another good way to benchmark this is how many of the examples are based on offline word-of-mouth examples versus interactive media.

Viral action

There’s another segment of viral marketing that is really about direct response marketing. That is, the entire focus of the PRODUCT (not marketing, but deep down into the product) is getting more people to use it. That means you are ultimately focused on one issue only:

Do something that’s REALLY easy to spread to other people

In this case, you are focused more on the mechanism of viral transmission than you are the content of what you are transmitting. For many products, this means you are making it highly efficient to take over their communications media to spread your message.

This is the quote from the article: "Word of mouth is when I tell you to shop on Zappos because I think the service is great," explains Botha. "It becomes viral when you have to be ‘in the system’ to use it. For example I can post a video on YouTube but then you would need to go to the site in order to see it."

What are examples of this?

  • Plaxo taking over your Outlook and making it easy to spam 50 people at once
  • YouTube giving you the code to easily copy-and-paste videos to other sites
  • Slide asking for your social network credentials to make it easy to embed slideshows

In these cases, they are not simply depending on making something really cool to have you spread it. They are making it automatic, something built into the product rather than as a marketing afterthought.

Furthermore, you end up focusing more on metrics than in the branding case. You end up measuring and optimizing things like:

  • Sources of traffic
  • Landing page views
  • Percent of users that register
  • Percent of users that send out invites
  • Number of invites sent out, per user on average
  • Percent of invites delivered successfully
  • Percent of invites read by users
  • Number of virally added users, per user on average

And of course, you’d want to A/B test the hell out of each step of the way.

The viral equation?

Obviously, one cannot live without the other. It makes me think that there’s a very short checklist of things you need to do in order to make your site viral:

  1. Make it EFFICIENT to spread your site
  2. Give people an INCENTIVE to send it to their friends
  3. Have a GREAT product that keeps people around spreading it through time

I think these are the three things you need to create an enduring viral site… just don’t get too sucked into the branding/soft-side of it without addressing the stuff around your product.

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