The Five Factors of Virality

by Louis Beryl

One of the most difficult, and most prized, characteristics of new technology products is to achieve viral growth. Many entrepreneurs believe that the cleverness and value that their product delivers will allow the product to literally “sell itself” and spread quickly with low marketing and customer acquisition costs. However, this is not often the case. Reality suggests virality is quite rare and much more difficult to achieve than originally anticipated. I will explore what characteristics of the products themselves allow new products to diffuse rapidly and become viral based on Roger’s Five Factors.

Everett Rogers suggested five product-based factors that determine the rate of adoption in innovations, which are discussed in his book, “Diffusion of Innovations.” (brief summary) The five factors are:

Relative advantage – the degree to which a product is better than the product it replaces

Compatibility – the degree to which a product is consistent with existing values and experiences

Complexity – the degree to which a product is difficult to understand and use

Trialability – the degree to which a product may be experimented with on a limited basis

Observability – the degree to which product usage and impact are visible to others

Let’s look at the example of Dropbox and see how the five factors are able to explain their product’s ability to achieve viral growth.

Relative advantage: Dropbox made a clear value proposition to its customers over existing substitutes that your files will be with you all the time, organized, wherever you are. No more remembering your flash drive or emailing files to yourself. Dropbox wasn’t the first to have the idea of cloud file storage, but they were the first to fully integrate the product cleanly and simply across multiple operating systems and devices and insure that it worked all the time without ever corrupting or losing your files.

Compatibility: Dropbox worked the way people already worked by creating a simple file folder right on your computer, where you stored files in the exact same way you already did. Anyone familiar with a computer found this system naturally intuitive.

Complexity: The Dropbox team spent significant time insuring the product was incredibly simple. They studied user behavior rigorously, making sure that every step of the process, from finding where to download the application on the website, to the installation process on your computer, and ultimately to using the product itself was straightforward and naturally intuitive. “It Just Works.”

Trialability: Dropbox’s use of a freemium model, offering significant free storage to initial users before charging fees for heavy users, allowed user experimentation to be fast, cheap, and painless. Their offer to increase free storage with referrals helped new users experiment further with the sharing characteristics of the product that ultimately helped it achieve viral growth.

Observability: Although all of the other factors were influential in Dropbox’s rapid diffusion among users, the observable nature of the Dropbox product is what ultimately allowed it to achieve high virality. More impressive is that observability is not an inherent characteristic of the product they were selling. Before Dropbox how many people knew what type of storage someone else used on their computer? However, the ability to easily share files with other users on the Dropbox platform quickly exposed many other new users to the product giving it very high observability and important validation from friends and colleagues.

Conclusion

When thinking about the design of any new technology product it is important to remember all of these five factors. In Dropbox’s case it would have been easy to have high relative advantage and compatibility, easy trialability, and low complexity and still miss the importance of observability. This would have made a cool product that only a limited number of savvy tech users would have known about. The genius of the design was to enable non-users to experience the Dropbox platform and observe it for themselves. By doing this, along with nailing all the other factors, they were able to create a product with significant viral growth that quickly diffused to mainstream users.

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