Beyond the Buzzword: What “Viral” Really Means

“Every time I hear the word ‘viral’ I throw up a little in my mouth.”

Ok, I cheated a little.  No one I know actually said that out loud but I guarantee you that there isn’t a venture investor out there who hasn’t felt this way at one time or another.  Why?  Because some entrepreneurs waive that word around as if it’s a magic wand that can make any and all marketing related questions disappear.

It’s not.  And it stopped being cute months (years?) ago.  If you want to avoid investor MEGO, you need to show them that you truly understand what viral means for your service.  To that end, here’s a little primer on what I call “The Virality Spectrum.”

Spectrum of Virality

Negatively viral products are things you might use but that you actively don’t want others to know about.  If you use AshleyMadison.com to cheat on your spouse or spyware to get intel on the competition (or your spouse), you probably don’t want anyone to know.  It is certainly not impossible to market services like these, but do not expect testimonials from satisfied customers.  You had better have some other tricks up your sleeve to get the word out. AshleyMadison’s PR campaign is a good example.  If your keywords are cheap enough and your conversion rate and lifetime customer value high enough, search engine marketing can also do the trick.

Virally neutral products are ones that people use but don’t think much about. They tend to be utilities like Microsoft Word. We all use it, but when was the last time we bragged about it?  You can sell products like these with traditional advertising, marketing, distribution channel strategies, etc. but if you mention the word viral in a pitch for this type of company, you aren’t going to get very far.

Optionally viral products are ones where you hope people who really like then will pass the word on but there is really no special reason for them to do so other than the fact that they think you made something pretty cool and they want the social cred they can get from being the first to pass something new along to their peer group.  Games like Angry Birds certainly have gone viral but you never know when or where lightning will strike.   If you have a product like this and your strategy is to have it go viral, you had better have a lightening rod.  Put another way, would I invest in a record label that scouts out new music talent? No way. Would I invest in Simon Cowell‘s record label? Any day.

Inherently viral products are where things start to get interesting.  These services become more valuable for the user if he or she tells others.  The classic example of inherently viral products are Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social networks.  You still have to show that you can acquire that initial core audience (or better yet, that you already have that core), but if you can prove that you have an inherently viral product that fills a real need that no one else is servicing, you are well on your way to seeing a checkbook emerge from hiding.

But wait!  There’s more.  Some products go even further; they are necessarily viral.  These products can’t be used without letting your friends know about it.  In theory, you can use evite without emailing your friends, but it’s going to be a very small party.  Similarly, VolunteerSpot, the volunteer management tool I mentioned previously (and that – full disclosure – I am invested in), is designed to allow the prospective volunteers who you have invited to sign themselves up online for tasks.  Using VolunteerSpot without sending out that email or posting a link to your activity pretty much defeats the purpose.  With inherently viral products, using the service and the ask (“tell your friends”) are still separate tasks.  The beauty of necessarily viral products is that you don’t even have to ask.

So you can see why I love investing in necessarily viral products.  :-)

* I love them so much, I’m even working on one right now.  So of you are a developer / potential  CTO who appreciates the power of a necessarily viral service, give me a shout.

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About Andrew Ackerman

Successful entrepreneur, angel investor, and start up mentor. Now Managing Director in charge of DreamIt's NY startup accelerator.

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