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Cracking the code: Analyzing viral strategies

Encyclopedia of viral marketing strategies
I’ve recently been thinking more about viral strategies, and how they get implemented. I’ve been trying out a couple different sites that have gotten a lot of traction in the last year, to figure out why. After some analysis, it strikes me that there are some things that are obvious to understand, and some things which are not.

Explicit communication is obvious

When you go to a site and they ask you to embed a widget, or import your address book, or something similar, it’s obvious to list out these hooks. For the most part, they focus on two sets of actions:

  • Assuming control of a communications platform (email, MySpace, IM, etc.)
  • Making it easy for the user to spread it (widgets, URLs, Digg this,etc.)

The first case is automatic, yet most of the time they need you to log into an existing service, or download a client software that will do the importing automatically. Either way, it’s pretty clear.

Optimization isn’t obvious
When you see LinkedIn having an orange button for "Add to your network," it’s unclear what other variations that they tried to make the process successful. Was it:

  • The placement of the button?
  • The color of the button?
  • The fact it’s a button, not a form?
  • The fact it’s "Add to your network" rather than "Add a friend?"

It may be that in the universe of thousands of permutations, they are using the most optimal configuration. Yet you’d never know unless you were able to duplicate the same page layout, product, and audience. This makes these types of optimizations very hard to analyze.

Same for landing pages and action pages, where it’s critical for some stage of the "user funnel" to be optimized. You’d never know what kind of work they put in to change the title of the page by 10 characters.

Bootstrapping isn’t obvious
Another difficult part to understand is how some of these sites bootstrap their viral processes. Obviously, you have to start somewhere. So how widely did they start? Who did they initially court? How were they able to identify likely viral candidates?

For example:

  • Buying millions of e-mail addresses and bootstrapping using email marketing (MySpace)
  • Sending to all of your friends in your address book (HotOrNot)
  • Acquiring advertising media across ad networks (several dating sites)

Obviously in the case of social networks, where you start has a lot to do with where you end. If you start in India, you end up with a lot of international traffic. Figuring out how to break past the first 50k or so users in a targeted demographic is critically important.

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