An Internet Marketing Plan, which includes the factors listed later in this essay can be the difference between “Go big or go home”. Every company worth its salt sets out to become the next big thing, especially in this day and age when some startups are being acquired for Billions. YouTube was acquired for $1.6 billion by Google in what now seems like a steal, Instagram was acquired and hired by Facebook for $1 billion and most recently Tumblr was acquired by Yahoo! for $1.1 billion in cash.
Similarly, startups like Twitter, Pinterest, Airbnb, Spotify and SurveyMonkey are all well-known privately held companies with valuations over a billion. What have these companies done to reach this prestigious and lucrative club? The answer is actually rather simple. When they all started growing, they were able to achieve a rate of growth that is exponentially faster than the norm. How did they achieve such fast growth, you ask? Did they advertise a lot using PPC, as well as TV and radio advertisements? Do they happen to have amazing social media strategy or grow due to strategically fruitful joint ventures? The answers to all of the above questions are ” NO “. They did not do any of that, in fact all of these companies grew based on viral growth from one user to the next. People shared them among their contacts openly and freely promoting, endorsing, and encouraging adoption.
Viral marketing growth is one of the most important aspects of growing your startup and if you ever want to enter the Billion Club, your users must spread the word both freely and willingly.
As the name suggests: ” Viral ” is something that can replicate itself from one person to the next. On the internet, it spreads via, social networks, search engines, emails, instant messaging, mobile devices and gets instantly enhanced when the networking effect begins to compound.
In the real world ” Viral ” is simply called word of mouth marketing. Let’s take the simplest of examples first; when you see a good movie, do you tell others? How many people can recall “I’ll be back” the famous catchphrase used by Arnold Schwarzenegger, in the 1984 science fiction film The Terminator. People used it freely and it became one of the top movie catchphrases of all time. Almost every single movie makes it or breaks it based on the word of mouth. In fact a highly successful movie has the public doing all the promoting, endorsing and encouraging to the masses for them.
“Why do you wanna fight?” asks Adrian. “Cause I can’t sing or dance,” replies Rocky. With a budget of $1 million, Rocky made $225 million at the box office, giving star and creator Sylvester Stalone a percentage return of over 11,000%. Wow. How exactly did that happen?
The Blair Witch Project, was shot by a simple camera and filmed in just eight days, made over $248.3 million. With a budget of only $600,000 the return on investment for the film was more than 20,000%. Amazingly, the film advertised very little but was able to thrive thanks to viral marketing.
Whether it is a movie, startup or any other venture, the viral spread must pass from one person to the next in an efficient and simple process. It should be a streamlined distribution model where one user cannot wait to tell his entire network the news he has discovered.
To determine viral marketing growth for any venture, what needs to be determined is fairly similar:
1. What will make you grow = your main message (not necessarily your unique selling point but your Unique Spreading point)
2. Initial Liquidity = where will the initial users come from
3. Spread rate = How many people will each user invite
3. Conversion rate = how many people will see it and actually join
4. Cycle time = CT (time it takes for invite cycle to reach from one person to the next)
The Viral Coefficient (K) = (invites * conversion rate)
If you achieve a viral coefficient greater than one with a short cycle time, nothing much can stop you from entering the Billion dollar club. The only problem with viral coefficient (VC) for startup is that it requires significant data, which means if you are including a viral plan before you launch, it will be based on nothing more than theory. To have a realistic viral roadmap, either you should do premarketing before you launch and based on the data determine your viral spread or wait until you launch and see what the numbers tell you.
Figuring out your viral coefficient is nice, but determining what will spread about your venture is the golden key. Your users will not pass all the benefits and features along to other people. In the example of the Terminator people didn’t explain the entire movie to their family and friends, they simply said “I’ll be back” enough times for others to go and watch the movie. To create the burning desire to want to find out what “I’ll Be Back” actually referred too.
How Hotmail became big
Some startups will have a built in viral component but it must still be highlighted. For example, one of the most famous viral growths success stories was achieved by Hotmail. What did Hotmail do to cause Microsoft to take notice and pay 400 million to buy them? The answer is simple, Hotmail simply grew too fast to ignore. A small segment of the market will become your early adaptors, acclimatizing to your product or service offering very quickly. You must do everything in your power to make sure it is easy for these early adaptors to use your product and spread the word.
Hotmail didn’t push at all. The service allowed you to log in from anywhere while possessing your own email address. It also allowed for the creation of folders, and featured an address book to easily add your contacts. Through it all, Hotmail pushed only one message. Every time the early adopters used Hotmail to email someone, Hotmail embedded a one line message at the bottom of the email. “Get your own Free Hotmail account” therefore when an email came to you from someone you knew, at the bottom it would feature that message. When you complied and got your own account and started sending emails to your contacts, they got the same message at the bottom as well “Get your own Free Hotmail account”. Hotmail was therefore able to achieve viral coefficient which was greater than 1 and grew incredibly fast, but the main thing was they pushed only one message and their cycle time was short. Lots of people thought that the person sending the email was actually the one telling them to get their own free Hotmail account.
This value proposition was simple; someone you know is already using it and then tells you (as some perceived it) to get your own Free Hotmail account. You subsequently created your own account because if it is good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.
More recently, Apple’s iPhone used the proven and tested method from Hotmail and embedded a statement at the end of each email being sent using the device, “Sent from my iPhone”. When you received it, you knew that the person sending it is using an iPhone. Have you ever seen how long the lineups are outside of an Apple store during the launch of a new apple product like iPhones?
When you are looking at your own startup’s viral potential, you must learn from others and be able to answer some fundamental questions:
Is your product viral by design?
What are the top 5 most important features of your venture?
What are the top 3 most important benefits of your venture?
What gets used the most?
What gets clicked the most?
Benefits are much more important than features
Remember features are nice to have and will appeal to a small set of hardcore users but benefits you offer are the key. When the benefits hit home with the customers, they will spread, endorse and encourage the usage of it on their own freewill. This freewill spread is what takes a small company and puts it into a league of its own.
What Facebook did to become so big
Viral marketing planning is an ongoing task. Facebook was not the first social network to the market nor were they the most sophisticated, yet they outgrew everyone else and become the first site to reach one billion members. Although they made sure people used their real names and real pictures to sign up to the service Facebook’s initial viral spread came as a result of the “status” option, which allows you to click on anyone’s profile and see if that person was single or in a relationship. It suddenly began to spread from one person to the next fairly rapidly. As Facebook opened up to more universities; they knew that although status was important, a network affect must be achieved. Therefore when you signed up, the first thing they wanted you to do was to find your friends on the site and invite others who were not yet members. They added viral features so that you could tag individual faces in group photos, thereby making the content available to them and their Facebook contacts. When someone tags you in a photo, Facebook automatically sends you a message letting you know that someone has tagged you in a photo. As you can see, Facebook started off with viral spread based on the “Status” option but as time went by, they kept adding other viral components to the mix.
Viral spread and repeat usage goes hand in hand. If someone is using your product again and again, the chances of them spreading word to people they know significantly increase. This means you must figure out a critical mass for your startup, I am not talking about critical mass in the sense that the mass market knows about your venture but critical mass at the user level. What will it take for a single user to be able to use your product fully? For Hotmail, you just needed your account and one person to send the email to and you can fully use the product. For Skype, it takes one person at the other end and the user level of critical mass is achieved. Facebook figured out, as long as you have 5 friends on Facebook a user level critical mass has been achieved. Once the ULCM is achieved, the next logical step is a faster viral spread. How many Facebook profiles do you see with only 5 friends?
Some of you reading this may be thinking that it is much easier to analyze established companies and determine their viral spread. This is indeed true, but remember at one point today’s household names such as Hotmail and Facebook were merely a startup idea, like yours. If they did not achieve viral growth when they started, they would not be where they are today.
I will be doing a post on viral spread thought map for Directly.me, which has yet to be launched but already has more than two million direct connections. It will show you how Directly.me planned and implemented viral marketing.
In determining your viral strategy, remember you must push only one aspect of your startup, which you think will make you grow virally. If you don’t know what your most important message is, you can test the top three ones. It may be wise to test the benefits over features. Make sure you can track the metrics to determine which one is hitting home. Also determine how many users it takes to reach User Level Critical Mass. Once you know what single message you can push for viral growth in the beginning, you are ready to work on the rest of the equation, which includes your viral coefficient and the cycle time. Whatever your viral coefficient is, if you can reduce your cycle time your growth will get wings. There were other video sites around when Youtube launched yet Youtube grew faster than any of the other sites and gained the majority market share. Although the other sites had a similar viral coefficient, Youtube’s cycle time was amazingly short. You see a funny video and send a link to your friends; your friends then see it and instantly pass it on to their friends.
Your internet marketing plan for viral growth must provide clear understanding of what your product is going to do for your users and it must deliver on this. If you can take away only one thing from this, remember: from the start, only push One Main Message to achieve viral growth. This should not necessarily be your unique selling point but rather your Unique Spreading Point.
Thanks to Rocky Mirza and Kuljit Grewal for providing their input.
Here is a good read on : Why Online Ventures Fail: A Technical Perspective