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Yahoo’s Mash: Analysis of viral marketing technique

The invite email
I was recently invited to Mash (thanks Randy!) and took a quick spin around the site. I’ll leave it for others to explain the whole experience, but I wanted to focus on the viral marketing element of the site.

First off, here’s the invitation e-mail:

From: Yahoo! Mash
To: Andrew Chen
Subject: Randy made a profile for you on Mash

Andrew Chen,
Randy started a profile for you on Mash!  It’s good to be loved! ;)

Check it out!

The Mash Team

Note: Sent to [email removed]. This invite expires in 10 days.
Click below to block future messages from Yahoo! Mash:

First off, I have to be impressed that they used the hook "Randy made a profile for you on Mash". I think it’s a great hook, although I probably would use the full name Randy Stewart rather than Randy, since if the name were something more common (like John) I would have discounted the value of the invite.

Overall, every viral hook ends up being a very simple phrase between a Person A to a Person B. That might be "Check this out" or "Here’s a holiday card" or "Take this quiz and see if you can beat me" – these simple phrases coming from your friends are fundamentally what compels people to check out links.

The reason why "Randy made a profile for you" is a good hook (assuming you know as well as I do how nice of a guy Randy is), comes from:

  • An appeal to curiosity, since you’re curious what Randy made
  • An appeal to narcissism, since it’s about you!
  • An appeal to reciprocity, since Randy just did some hard work, and you should accept the gift either way
  • An appeal to social proof, since if Randy’s doing it, you should be too

They could make a couple of these appeals stronger, but ultimately it’s a pretty good hook IMHO. For the folks that want to read more about a structured way of examining persuasion make sure you buy Persuasion by Cialdini.

Watered down addressbook importing
The next part is the most interesting: Now it’s clear that someone at Yahoo was doing their homework, and knows that addressbook importing can be a very powerful part of every social network. However, rather than using it as a mechanism for two goals:

  1. Drive more connections between friends
  2. Invite new friends from off the site

.. instead, they just focus on #1. When you import your friends, you are really "finding all the others" on Mash, and while it’s opt-out (everything’s checked at first), it doesn’t encourage you to invite people from off the site.

While this might build engagement in the long run, the problem is that it also kills the viral loop :( You really need to get new people coming in, and for those new people to bring in more new people, in order for the site organically.

That said, this is run by Yahoo so as long as they can keep the users going, perhaps sticking it on their homepage, integrating it into Mail, and other initiatives might be enough for getting the site to grow quickly.

What’s Mash’s viral loop?
So the question is, what is Mash’s viral loop? Let’s go back to my quick definition from before: To define the viral loop, you can think of it as…

The steps a user goes through between entering the site to inviting the next set of new users

So in the case of Mash, you are looking at:

  1. Getting an invite that Randy set up a profile for me
  2. Going through addressbook importer screen
  3. Agreeing to accept/reject Randy’s changes
  4. Setting up my profile, etc.
  5. Putting a friend’s e-mail into the invite form
  6. Then my friend gets an e-mail (with notice that I set it up for him)

Now, in general, I think this is a very reasonable loop, except for the fact that with watered-down addressbook importing, and dependence on a user to set up other peoples’ profiles, the "branching factor" on the viral loop is not that great.

I mean, how many friends’ profiles are you going set up? You’d have to recall their name/e-mail, then type it in, then set up their profile. You might do this with 3 or 4 or 5 users, but beyond that?

The strength in a "spray and pray" e-mail method is that although the conversion rates are low (<5-10%), you are typically importing hundreds of contacts in one shot. Compare that to Mash’s method, which might have a better conversion rate, but it’s doubtful that it’d be more than 2-3X better, IMHO, due to peoples’ fatigue in social networks, etc.

Anyway, from this work, I know the guys at Yahoo are thinking hard. There’s lots of innovative ideas within Mash, just from first glance. This honestly surprises me, so I’m confident the same folks who came up with those ideas will be able to make something interesting happen.

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