One of the major challenges for a marketer or an entrepreneur is to get users and grow for an eternity. Paul Graham would tell you that you ain’t doing it right if you are not growing by a minimum of 5-7% Week-on-Week. And there are plenty of channels one could use to grow, be it the Press, Text Ads or Visual Ads, Partnerships. All of these techniques require money to be spent proportionally to the amount of visits/ click throughs or conversions you are going to get. Wouldn’t it be so much better if we could get hundreds of users for an eternity for virtually no marketing spend. This is where the inherent Virality of products help.
What is Viral growth? Viral growth is nothing but an existing user bringing you new users either through a generic invite sent on any of the platforms the potential user is on or by directly using the product ( sharing a file link on dropbox) or by any means possible. Google with gmail was phenomenally successful in creating a viral growth. Google initially started with a base of 1000 people who were given a limited number of invitations to share with friends/ family. Gmail finally went public in the year 2007 but by April, 2006 Gmail had through viral referrals grown phenomenally to a base of 7.1 million users. Quite incredible. Products like Instagram, Dropbox, Youtube etc grew rapidly to a million users through virality.
As with any product the key to being successful in growing virally is to have a world-class product, a product people would love to use and would love to share with their friends. Word of Mouth is a great, free channel for products to grow. But that’s not the only way to build virality in to your products. Look at products that grew phenomenally and you would understand that they built in and utilized at least one or two incredibly viral features in their products. Let’s examine the various viral features a product could have:
1) Inherent Virality : It’s incredibly difficult to achieve this type of virality in all products. There are certain products and niches where the products are inherently viral like gmail or Whatsapp or facebook. These products thrive on users inviting others users because the user gets no value out of them without his families or friends or someone else. But do understand that the easier you make it for a user to invite his friends or family, the more invitations they send out whereby increasing your virality.
2) Signature Virality : Remember the messages “sent from my Blackberry” or “Sent from my ipad”? This type of virality encourages people to include the messages as signature because they think it makes them cool. Again, you would need a world class product that people would aspire to use to truly achieve this. Could you imagine someone using the signature “sent from my Nokia?” Kidding. But yeah, the point is to spread the message like Hotmail did with a simple “ Get your free email at Hotmail” signature and grew rapidly from a nominal base to 1 million in 6 months and in the next 5 weeks to 2 million. Remember this was a time when there were only 70 million Internet users and in 18 months they had about 12 million users.
Paypal with their autolinks on ebay is another great example. It automatically inserted Paypal logo to the bottom of each of the listings of the sellers who used Paypal. This was incredibly successful in making Paypal grow virally.
3) Incentivized Virality: Companies like Fab.com or Dropbox are great examples of this. They incentivized their users to send invitations to their network for either monetary benefits or extra storage space in the case of Dropbox. It worked and people brought in an incredible number of referral traffic. Think of Affiliates as well. They thrive on this. The company grows and sells products by incentivizing the affiliate marketer to sell more or bring him more buyers. Amazon has achieved an incredible amount of success through their affiliate networks.
My facebook feed is filled with shares from this new to be launched service :Trevolta
Of course one is going to share this with their friends, there is no better thing in this world than travelling around the world on someone else’s money! 🙂
4) Embeddable Virality: The biggest example of this is Youtube. Youtube was not the only video sharing website available during its initial stages but what made Youtube a leader was when they made the videos embeddable. People started embedding Youtube videos on their website and with it Youtube amassed massive views and made itself visible to an incredible number of people. This shifted the balance in youtube’s favor and there was no looking back.
5) Social Virality: In this case, Products depend on Social Network like facebook, twitter, pinterest etc to rapidly spread their base. There is a psychology behind Social virality. The key here is always to give people a set of tools to create something awesome which they would want to flaunt with their social graph. Instagram exploded because they could make photos beautiful and people loved flaunting their good looking self to the world. Services like twitter or Scoop.it grew virally because they allowed people to project a certain persona. Even the content shares that are done on any of these networks is in effect a way for a user to project a certain type of persona. If one could get this aspect right, then the product is a sure shot bet to grow virally. What I like about Twitter or Tumblr is the re-tweet or re-blog option which enables a user to create content effortlessly while actually he or she is curating content. It increases engagement on the platform and also gives a sense of satisfaction to the user that he or she is actually creating content.
I guess it’s easy to understand virality but its difficult building virality in to a product and even more difficult trying to measure it accurately.
For measuring Virality, one needs to understand two components:
- Viral Coefficient
- Viral Loop time
Let’s assume the scenario where:
This implies that each user brings you an additional user within a time frame of 10 days ( the Viral Loop time), which is absolutely incredible if you are able to achieve it! J As we had discussed earlier there are different types of virality and in this case we are assuming a simple scenario where each user is sending out invitations to get their friends in (it could be incentivized or simply because your user loves your product)
Now if we were to look at the growth the product would have by the 20th day:
Understanding Viral Loop time is important because Virality is inversely related to it. The shorter the Viral loop time, the better virality one would be able to achieve. Imagine if the Viral loop time in the earlier case was 1 day, ie, each user invites a set of users and the new user signs up all in a day’s time. That would make the user acquisition 5 times faster than the earlier scenario and your table would look like this:
Let us plot a graph to understand our growth curve in the first scenario:
Assuming a product has a viral coefficient that is equal to or greater than 1, it results in a steep upward growth curve. In reality a product having 1 or a number greater than 1 as its viral coefficient throughout its lifetime is impossible although there might be intervals during which the product shows such a viral coefficient. In reality a viral coefficient of 0.4-0.6 for a product is extremely good. Now let us consider such a scenario where the Viral coefficient is 0.5 assuming the rest of the numbers remain the same from our earlier example.
And if we were to plot this on a graph, the growth curve would look something like this:
The growth curve flattens out after a particular interval. It’s important for growth hackers and marketers to understand that in reality for most of the viral product this is how the graph would look like if they only depend on user acquisition through virality. So it’s important to plan out the metrics in such a manner that you constantly boost up user acquisition from other channels as well to have a steep growth curve which a product requires to be successful. Remember Paul Graham and his number for the ideal growth rate for a startup? Utilize not just the virality of the product but also other channels like Press, Market Places , Creation of Viral Content, Paid Advertising or anything that boosts traffic and discoverability of your product/ service which drives conversions in order to maintain an upward trending growth curve.
Now if I were to simply consider the scenario earlier described with users sending ‘n’ invites and x% converts from them giving us a Viral Coefficient of K=n*x%, then the User Base at any particular point of time would be (considering only viral growth):
User Base (t) = User Base(0) * (K ^ (t/vlt +1) – 1) / (K-1)
(where vlt is the Viral loop time)
[Reference: David Skok’s article]
The above is not a comprehensive model as there are various things we have left out which includes:
- The sending invitations process is always staggered. We have just assumed it to happen in one go. If I were to give an example – Imagine dropbox, you will always end up inviting people in a staggered way as you interact with them and share docs with them. It does not happen in one go. And If I were a user of dropbox and If I were to stop using it all together one fine day, then dropbox loses out on any referral signups from me.
- The churn your product will have as it affects the above mentioned parameter.
- We have not considered virality across the many channels and the different forms of virality.
- We have also not included the saturation of a particular channel. If I were using a platform which has a total base of 10Million as the target base for sending out invitations, once I cover the entire user base I can’t rely on the formula.
The Viral Loop
The viral loop highlighted in the diagram is what can be called as the single viral loop. It’s important where it’s possible to have a double viral loop to fasten your user acquisition. This is possible especially in case of Social networks. Like we discussed earlier, retention is a key component that defines the Viral Coefficient. An increased retention will result in increased Viral Coefficient and hence a faster user growth. There are simple techniques one could do to improve retention and engagement on the platform. This forms part of the double viral loop. Re-connection always increases engagement and retention and hence it’s important to re-connect people by prompting them as well as by making it easy for them.
For ex on LinkedIn, after we sign up, it prompts us to export contacts from our address books and re-connects us. This removes the friction normally people will have in searching for people and then connecting with them. Also, it helps in retaining dormant users. This is a technique employed by many of the Social networks to bring back dormant users on to the platform. Notifications on follow improves your chances of brining back dormant users.
This simple step resulted in an increase of 16% in the number of invitations sent. Check the stats below:
Or in case of twitter they take you step by step through the various things one can do on twitter and by it helps you in getting content on your feed and making you follow a few popular people on login itself. It alleviates any friction the user will have initially to engage on the platform and also interacting with the popular users sets the context for them to get active. In doing so Twitter achieves more invitations and requests sent to users and prospective users and also re-connections and engagement between existing users. That’s a double viral loop.
Similarly, it’s important for any marketer to understand the viral loop of their product, one would have to iterate and measure to understand in detail the parameters and the best possible viral loops.
At Zoomdeck, we are creating a platform for making photos interactive. A User can spot anything interesting inside photos to ask a question or add notes or add spots to highlight an interesting story or experience about an element inside photos, then make it much more engaging by linking the spots to audio, video, products, people, places or any link relevant. Users would be able to discover and share the stories and elements in photos using interactive spots and have contextual conversations around each spot. We have a web version, an iOS app and an embedding option which along with viral content shared across various Social Media sites would be a key driver of traffic and user acquisition for us. When I look at the various channels of virality for Zoomdeck, I have:
- Embedding: Bloggers and Publishers embedding Interactive Photos on their website. Similar to how Youtube utilized embedding as an important element of their Viral growth.
- User joins Zoomdeck, takes photos and makes them interactive by adding spots. Shares it with their friends and family (Invite). ( This will have a longer Viral Loop time) Similar to how Instagram or Pinterest built their viral loop.
- Directly recommends the product to their contacts through the invite option in the app or in person.
- Sharing of Interactive Photos they find interesting on Zoomdeck( Content) on Social platforms ( Facebook, twitter or Pinterest). Their network discovers, finds it interesting and shares with their friends. ( This will have a much shorter Viral Loop time) The advantage of having content that is viral in nature is the Viral Loop time significantly reduces as you are providing ready made things for people to share and not asking them to create which is always time consuming and requires an effort and hence would always have friction. A Youtube or Twitter is a great example of this.
The four basic viral loops in the case of Zoomdeck as mentioned above would each have different conversion ratios. While the first option and the fourth option would enable Zoomdeck to reach a much larger base of audience and that too multiple number of times, the conversion percentage is going to be a lot lesser than the second and third option where in our chances of conversions are much higher. Similarly, the Viral loop time for the first and fourth option would be much lesser than the VLT number for the other two. So measure the various parameters continuously and optimize for the ones that give best results.
Importance of Seeding :
Imagine for calculation purpose the current user base of a product as 5000 and consider only the 2nd and the 3rd channels of virality listed above as the growth channels for easiness in quantifying. (Assume a Viral Coefficient of 0.6 and a Vlt of 10 days) We would have a table that looks like this
And our user graph would look like this:
Now, assume acquisition of a constant number of users from other channels, we have (all values are hypothetical):
Seeding initially is critical as that’s what enables the viral growth to kick in. In the first example we flatten out our user base after 2 months. This is why seeding should always be an ongoing process to leverage maximum value from virality or else we should have a viral coefficient greater than 1 to have an eternal upward curve for our user graph which is very difficult to achieve throughout the lifetime of the product. There would be short bursts when the viral coefficient is greater than 1 and would result in phenomenal growth especially if you are on a larger base as well but not through the lifetime of a product.
- Virality is something that should be inherent in the product. It’s important to design and incorporate virality during product conceptualization itself.
- Always measure and track various metrics to understand what works best and dig deep into those channels.
- Iterate as fast as possible to understand the best viral channels. The longer the iteration cycle, the longer it will take for you to spot your best viral loop.
- Reduce the number of steps required to do any action that results in virality. Make it as easy as possible for the users to send invitations. Understand that the easier you make, the better your metrics would look.
- Two factors that influence Virality are: Viral Coefficient (K) and Viral Loop time (Vlt). Increase ‘K’ and decrease ‘Vlt’ for rapid growth.
- Retention and re-connection are important factors that help in Viral growth.
- Important to seed users initially.
- Exponential growth from Virality kicks in after a threshold limit. Make use of various channels for seeding the initial audience.
- It’s very difficult to achieve sustaining growth through virality where you require a viral coefficient greater than 1. Hence, compensate for this and balance it out by seeding users through other channels as well – if required paid channels also to maintain momentum.