Harnessing Viral Growth

by Ernesto Humpierres


Achieving viral growth is probably one of the hardest things to do by a new venture. In my view the problem lies in the fact that there is so much choice for every conceivable functionality or solution that users are looking for. The day has only 24 hours and there is literally no time for users to try out all the apps they want, and pick up yours out of a haystack. Given this context, I want to discuss three elements (or dimensions) related to what could be impacting viral growth. These elements are: the degree of social validation, the advantages of the “stickiness” of a particular solution, and finally the ease of transmission of the solution.

At first it seems counterintuitive that social validation is important to something that is “viral”. The first perception I get from the concept of virality is that is something brewed from the ground up, without the need of hierarchies or leadership; it’s about the “people’s” choice, right? Well no, in an era of choice and mass media I believe we need those social validators more than ever to actually go viral, be it from a large specific constituency (i.e. Harvard students in the case of Facebook), or public personality (like Charlie Sheen attracting 1 million followers to his Twitter account in 24 hours, or Conan O’Brien saying that the one-liner has a business model when referring to Twitter). But wait; do not confuse social validation with need of awareness, think of Google’s highly visible efforts to dominate certain tech solutions, and no marketing money will buy them success (do you recall Google video?). So the key in my mind is to pick a constituency or group that can act as social validators and target them intensely. Think about it, targeting 20k Harvard students is probably more focused and effective than targeting the whole world wide web, and once you get the social validation from a prestigious group like that you can go on a differentiate yourself from the other dozens of applications out there similar to yours.

This leads me to the second element, the “stickiness”. The more skin in the game I have in an application the more I will be engaged with it and the higher the network effects. Facebook is sticky, the amount of memories, pictures and emotional baggage stored in its servers is way to big to abandon once you are caught. In the case of IMVU, well… it reminds me of Talk City back in the late nineties: there was really nothing forcing me to keep up with it as soon as I left the last chat room. So my recommendation is to force the creation of that stickiness. Think of Dropbox, once you have 2GB of important information up there you are committed to it. Just thinking about transferring and organizing that data again gives me a headache, plus information stored there can only grow.

Finally I want to refer to ease of transmission and adoption. The easier it is to pass the application to someone else the higher the virality coefficient. A YouTube video link is extremely easy to pass on, but convincing someone to fill up the 2-hour eHarmony questionnaire will definitely impact virality. Actually eHarmony realized how important this is and they have been working throughout the years to reduce the time it takes to finish open a profile in their site. Also, the fact that different people use different platforms means that passing the information will be challenging. In regards to the first problem I think LinkedIn found the solution. Joining is very easy, and after that the process of uploading and filling out more data in your profile is modularized in sub-processes, so to speak. You can fill out specific data and complete a full sub process in a short time, and then do that multiple times over multiple sessions to complete the whole process. So by segmenting tasks you make it easier for the user to become engaged with the application. Maybe I can dedicate 15 min for a task in LinkedIn but not for a 2-hour questionnaire in eHarmony. The solution to the second problem requires multi-homing, and I really don’t think there is currently and easy solution for that. 

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