Viral marketing has evolved from word of mouth to a much more scientific endeavor in the online world. Based on my previous posts and some additional thinking about the subject I’ve defined seven mechanisms that companies have used to successfully “go viral” in the past.
1) Communication. Same side positive network effects have driven virality for companies like AIM, Skype, Facebook, MySpace and even Fax Machines. Since you can’t communicate with others who have the tool until you get it, virality works very well. (I’ve listed Facebook and MySpace as communications tools and not self expression communities because I believe it is the Wall/Comments that drives a lot of the virality and high PVs of these sites)
3) Widgetopia. Reid Hoffman refers to this as “invading a community”. Rockyou (a LSVP Portfolio company), Slide, Photobucket, Snapvine and others have done a great job here. Increased penetration in an existing community makes it more likely that a new user will see one of your widgets and want to get something similar. Increasing returns to scale means that the big get bigger faster.
4) Platforms. Cross side positive network effects as Jeremy posted about a couple of weeks ago can also create virality as groups on both sides of the platform flock to the greatest numbers of the other group. Ebay is the best example of this.
5) User Generated Authority. User generated content can result in high levels of traffic from organic search. This can result in more user generated content and the virtuous cycle continues. Wikipedia and Yelp are probably the best examples of this. We’ve been seeing similar behaviour at a smaller scale at Stylehive (a LSVP Portfolio company)
6) Everyone’s favorite topic. Quiz based content that tells the user about themselves (and often compares them to other people) has worked to drive virality in the past. Tickle, Quizilla, Classmates, Friend Reunited/Genes Reunited all saw big growth by getting users to input some data and gave them information about themselves (whether it be an IQ test, which sort of Superhero you are, or contact info on old friends).
7) Pay me. There have been several businesses that successfully grew by paying both new and inviting users. The economics can make this more difficult for media models than commerce models. However, it can drive a lot of new adoption, and did for AllAdvantage and Paypal.
Just about every site that has gone truly viral has employed at least one of these tactics, and sometimes several. I don’t have a detailed understanding of Netvibe‘s growth at this point and it doesn’t appear to fit into any of these categories. If you can think of companies that don’t fit these models, or other approaches that have also worked, please note them in comments!