@andrewchen

Get the newsletter · 2018 essays (PDF) · Featured · Recent

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.

PS. Get new updates/analysis on tech and startups

I write a high-quality, weekly newsletter covering what's happening in Silicon Valley, focused on startups, marketing, and mobile.

Views expressed in “content” (including posts, podcasts, videos) linked on this website or posted in social media and other platforms (collectively, “content distribution outlets”) are my own and are not the views of AH Capital Management, L.L.C. (“a16z”) or its respective affiliates. AH Capital Management is an investment adviser registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Registration as an investment adviser does not imply any special skill or training. The posts are not directed to any investors or potential investors, and do not constitute an offer to sell -- or a solicitation of an offer to buy -- any securities, and may not be used or relied upon in evaluating the merits of any investment.

The content should not be construed as or relied upon in any manner as investment, legal, tax, or other advice. You should consult your own advisers as to legal, business, tax, and other related matters concerning any investment. Any projections, estimates, forecasts, targets, prospects and/or opinions expressed in these materials are subject to change without notice and may differ or be contrary to opinions expressed by others. Any charts provided here are for informational purposes only, and should not be relied upon when making any investment decision. Certain information contained in here has been obtained from third-party sources. While taken from sources believed to be reliable, I have not independently verified such information and makes no representations about the enduring accuracy of the information or its appropriateness for a given situation. The content speaks only as of the date indicated.

Under no circumstances should any posts or other information provided on this website -- or on associated content distribution outlets -- be construed as an offer soliciting the purchase or sale of any security or interest in any pooled investment vehicle sponsored, discussed, or mentioned by a16z personnel. Nor should it be construed as an offer to provide investment advisory services; an offer to invest in an a16z-managed pooled investment vehicle will be made separately and only by means of the confidential offering documents of the specific pooled investment vehicles -- which should be read in their entirety, and only to those who, among other requirements, meet certain qualifications under federal securities laws. Such investors, defined as accredited investors and qualified purchasers, are generally deemed capable of evaluating the merits and risks of prospective investments and financial matters. There can be no assurances that a16z’s investment objectives will be achieved or investment strategies will be successful. Any investment in a vehicle managed by a16z involves a high degree of risk including the risk that the entire amount invested is lost. Any investments or portfolio companies mentioned, referred to, or described are not representative of all investments in vehicles managed by a16z and there can be no assurance that the investments will be profitable or that other investments made in the future will have similar characteristics or results. A list of investments made by funds managed by a16z is available at https://a16z.com/investments/. Excluded from this list are investments for which the issuer has not provided permission for a16z to disclose publicly as well as unannounced investments in publicly traded digital assets. Past results of Andreessen Horowitz’s investments, pooled investment vehicles, or investment strategies are not necessarily indicative of future results. Please see https://a16z.com/disclosures for additional important information.