In the early days, when I was just polishing off the manuscript of Launch Tomorrow, I gave it to a friend who also lived and breathed startups. I specifically requested that he keep it quiet and just asked for feedback. Professionally, he was a marketer but in this case I was hoping to get some honest “tough love” from him. To make sure the book would be good.
After speaking with him in person, I dropped a pdf into gmail, and forwarded it on to him. Coincidentally, I also happened to have an early trial version of Streak installed on my gmail account, which is an app which measures email opens, now primarily used by salespeople.
Over the next week or so, it turned out 37 people had opened that email 56 times in different locations around London and Europe. This simple indicator was enough to convince me that the manuscript is definitely at least a minimum viable product. If not a bit more. There were a lot of tweaks I wanted to make, but clearly my idea audience was enjoying and using it. Even though this viral spread was accidental, ultimately I was pleased that my friend had effectively proven to me that my product was ready.
This was a special case of someone who knew me well, the fact that he forwarded it without my consent and that it was re-forwarded so many times implied that my soon-to-be released product will be able to generate word of mouth referrals when I do launch. This was particularly poignant, given that this was a B2C product. Like most impulse buys, books (on their own) tend to be low $ value products. There is little margin for error with a high customer acquisition cost, yet you need to be great at generating awareness and discoverability. So you can only use channels that have a fixed cost up front but little additional variable cost of reaching another person.
While virality seems “free” from a financial point of view, it’s expensive in terms of your time. The idea is to create enough product (content in my case) which people naturally want to share. Once you have their attention, you include some kind of call to action which then turns into a conversion , like a sale. Or at least a micro conversion, like getting an email subscriber.
Once people hear about your idea or your product, then they decide whether to buy it or not, and also whether to share it or not. Nowadays, it paradoxically seems easier to convince people to buy an inexpensive product than it does to get them to share it (at least for me). 🙂
Why virality can be an engine of growth
Matthew Lieberman, author of “Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect” and professor of psychology says:
We always seem to be on the lookout for who else will find this helpful, amusing or interesting, and our brain data are showing evidence of that. At the first encounter with information, people are already using the brain network involved in thinking about how this can be interesting to other people. We’re wired to want to share information with other people. I think that is a profound statement about the social nature of our minds.
The main reason viral growth can be a massive growth engine is the fact that once you get beyond a certain tipping point, the sharing be comes so extreme that it reaches disproportionately many people. Numerically, if you see it as a coefficient, it will be multiplied with each person (or step), and that number can quickly get disproportionately large.
My high school math teacher had a good example of this compounding effect. Would you prefer to get $1 mln today, or one penny today, two pennies tomorrow, continuing to double that amount for the entire month? This is, of course a trick question, designed to put teenagers in their place. The compounding penny option ends up being a much larger amount than the initial million.
This metric of 37:1 was my viral transmission ratio on this particular event. Basically anything above 1:1 will lead to geometric growth, if it sustains at that rate. At a rate of 2:1 on a daily basis, you’d be at 2147483648 within 31 days. It’s just raw arithmetic: 2^31. So if the true long term viral transmission rate settled at 2:1 that would still mean the book had a captive audience with high latent demand-and that I needed to get it out there.
The good thing about a viral growth engine is that it’s costless growth. As you don’t spend any money on building initial awareness, any revenues you do make are fully yours. If you do have financial constraints initially this can be a good place to start.
The main drawback of viral growth is that results tend to be highly unpredictable and difficult to manufacture deliberately. Depending on how effectively you make your content unique and engaging, people will be more or less willing to share it. More often than not, all it takes is one share from someone with a large audience, and it will give you a big spike in traffic. It’s just that it’s difficult to get those initial share, particularly if no one knows who you are.
The hard part is writing content good enough that people want to share it with their friends. To some extent, you can pre-test this by using what Andrew Chen’s twitter technique. He writes potential headlines as tweets, and then sees if anyone interacts with it. Once the idea is proven, via a favorite or a retweet, he uses that as a basis to write a longer piece on that topic. As a result, his growth hacking essays tend be highly focussed on his target audience’s needs. As a result of forwards, he effectively “clones” his existing audience. The content people forward tends to attract other interested in the same type of content.
Another approach is to repurpose a backlog management service like uservoice or a kanban tool like trello combined with audience interaction. You can create a backlog of writing ideas, and then have your existing audience vote on them. This way you are naturally spending your time writing things which is attractive for them. It’s effectively a vetting and prioritization system for content, similar to prioritizing features in agile software development.
If you’d like more ideas of how to experiment with growth, take a look at Your First startup experiment my book on getting you to that first experiment. De-risk your startup idea and figure out how to grow, grow, grow with Your First Startup Experiment.
- Virality can be an engine of growth because it rapidly raises awareness at a low per-user cost
- The key is that you have each person refer more than one person to your product
- While the best way to get and keep this effect is to build a great product that addresses a market need, you can experiment with some tools to help engineer in virality