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Viral marketing is not a marketing strategy

Many times, viral marketing is seen as a “marketing strategy” that is interchangeable with other methods of acquiring users. That is, you go through three steps:

  1. Develop your product
  2. Think through a plan on how to make people use it
  3. Declare viral marketing is one of N approaches (along with SEO, SEM, PR, etc.)

Or perhaps you already have an existing product, and you have gotten interested in using a Facebook widget or something like that to make it “viral.” If you are in this boat and think of viral marketing as a compelling marketing strategy, you’re in trouble.

Successful viral products don’t have viral marketing bolted on once the product has been developed. It’s not a marketing strategy. Instead, it’s designed into the product from the very beginning as part of the fundamental architecture of the experience.

Roelof Botha, the venture capitalist that backed YouTube, says:

Forget about adding “viral” to your marketing to-do list after your
product is already on the market. You need to bake it into your
business model from the very beginning. “Viral isn’t something you can
just make happen,” says Botha. “It has to be inherent in your product.”

Viral marketing is not a product feature
Similarly, no single product feature determines the viral success of a business. I’ve seen several product pitches where the business is described as “viral” on slide 10 of the presentation, because of a particular feature, like:

  • “Tell a friend”
  • Widget embeds
  • Addressbook importing
  • … or whatever.

No single feature determines the virality of the product – instead, it’s part of a viral loop that connects a disparate set of functions into a cohesive motivation for the user to tell their friends. If the fundamental product doesn’t drive a viral motivation from its users, then it’s very hard to force it.

Viral marketing is a fundamental product design discipline
So what happens when you try to start a new viral product from scratch? Ultimately, you ask the reverse question of what most folks do. Instead of:

We have product X, how do we virally spread it?

… we ask:

We have viral loop X, what’s the right product to put into it?

Once you have that question in mind, it becomes a lot easier to start brainstorming compelling experiences that might be inherently viral.

It might feel really weird to you to have this constraint. Why allow something like this to arbitrarily affect your product experience? Well, it’s true that it’s yet another constraint, but you are dealing with plenty of constraints already, like:

  • Keeping things free (or making premium subscriptions)
  • Making it web (versus hardware)
  • Having it support some browsers (versus better ones people should be using)
  • Keeping the site fast (rather than slow)

… and more. These are all things that motivate and constrain your product decisions, and adding (or substituting viral marketing) can be a very very smart idea to have a successful business rather than a successful product.

The skillset for effective viral marketing
Because of the above issues, “viral marketing” is not really something that ought to be in the domain of soft-skill folks like PR, advertising, and marketing people. Nor is it in the world of hardcore technical folks that can architect systems but not consumer interactions.

Instead, it’s something that needs to bridge both soft and hard skills. You need an interesting combination of skills, including:

  1. Understanding the motivations behind user behaviors
  2. Understanding and exploiting the technical loopholes to create viral loops

I think that the fundamental compartmentalization of these two skillsets is what ultimately drives huge companies being worse at viral products than startups.

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