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Think Big. Move Fast.

I’ve been traveling a bit this week, speaking at Widgetcon on Wednesday and at Community Next on Saturday. Both panels were on the topic of viral marketing; at Widgetcon with a focus on how brands can use widgets for marketing, and at Community Next with a focus on how to measure viral campaigns.

Dave McClure moderated the panel at Community Next and conducted an interesting experiment with the audience that really encapsulates some of the key lessons of viral marketing. He seeded two memes into the audience. One person was asked to start saying “meep” repeatedly. Another group of five people were asked to put their hand onto another person. The idea was to see which memes spread furthest in the audience.

The “Meeper” juiced up the visibility of his meme by adding an element of clapping as well (“meep”, clap, “meep”, clap etc), and walking up and down the front of the stage. Initially maybe 10 people near the Meeper started to meep as well (and clap – more clapping than meeping actually) but this eventually died down as it failed to get picked up more broadly. The initial early adopters started to feel self conscious when no one followed them, and stopped meeping.

At this point, the people on stage still had no idea what the second meme was until Dave asked how many people were touching someone else. About a third of the audience, maybe 50 people, raised their hand. Although it initially lagged, the second meme had far outpenetrated the first.

Although a somewhat artificial experiment, Dave managed to demonstrate a number of the key lessons about viral marketing in a very clever way:

    1. A “high visibility” app can get quick pickup among early adopters very quickly. “High visibility” can be caused by a high invite rate, inviters who invite a lot of people on average, or simply something that is extremely visible and obvious (e.g. music on your profile page, or some guy walking up and down the stage clapping and saying meep).

    2. High visibility can cut both ways. New users who are seeking social proof can see who is adopting, and decide whether or not they are “like me”.

    3. Early adopters can also be early abandoners and not representative of the broader population. (see Josh’s classic post on the 53,651)

    4. Product matters. While a highly viral app can get distribution quickly, if the uninstall rate is high then it never gets beyond a certain size. While virality dictates the speed of growth, uninstall rate (typically a function of product quality) dictates saturation size, which in many cases is a more important business driver.

    5. It helps to start virality from a larger base. Viral marketing is a probability driven game, and if you don’t have enough initial seeds then a failure of virality from any one seed can stop all growth immediately; with more seeds you have more “shots on goal”.

A lot of the same lessons came out of the panel discussion at Widgetcon. There was a real focus on asking what should be the right metrics for measuring “success” for a widget based marketing campaign. CPM and pixel count (728×90 etc) didn’t seem to be the best way to measure and sell advertising when users voluntarily affiliated themselves with a brand. Echoing lesson #4 above (Product matters), most of the panel came back to engagement with the widget as the key metric for success. If the widget isn’t good, users won’t engage.

As the industry’s attention turns to the tactics of viral growth (whether through email, cross sell, calls to action, optimization of color, font, copy and position etc) it’s a good reminder that, as has always been the case, product matters more than marketing (whether viral or not).