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Virality Explained: 6 Ways to Design a Viral Product

Posted by Grant Robertson-Adams | Jun 10, 2021

Virality has been getting a lot of attention recently, but not for the reasons that we’re going to be exploring in this piece. Rather than talking about R numbers, vaccines and quarantine, we’re going to explore ways that you can create viral products using virality or viral marketing.

What is virality?

Virality is based on viruses, specifically on how fast viruses can spread and take things over. Lord knows we’ve all come to understand that point recently… In marketing and content this boils down to a piece of content such as a video clip, image or piece of writing spreading rapidly around the internet through shares between users.

Marketers can make use of viral marketing to rapidly spread awareness of their products or services. By its very nature you’re able to get thousands, potentially millions of eyes on your content in a relatively short period of time. The real mastery of viral marketing is getting your audience to do the work for you. Your content is, essentially, patient zero. That’s where your role ends, after that you want your content to be spread from person to person so that its reach grows exponentially.

In reality, virality is always linked to a product. You can share your opinion on a service or product through recommendations, testimonials or talking about it with friends, but this is marketing through word of mouth. There’s a slight difference.

Word of mouth happens naturally and usually when your users or customers are so enamored by you that they naturally talk about you. Virality, on the other hand, is when people share a product whilst using it.

Take, for example, Zoom. Zoom made use of virality because in order to talk to someone on Zoom (after receiving an invite) you have to download it and become a user. As you become a user you inherently begin to gain value from use of the product. Lo and behold, you are another user, inviting more people and the user base grows, and grows, and grows.

So how can you go about building virality into your product design from the start? Well, for a start here are a few examples that should get the ball rolling:

  • Launch a Referral Program
  • Appeal to Vanity
  • Collaboration with Team Members
  • Make Your Product Embeddable
  • Use a Watermark
  • Branded Signatures

6 Ways You Can Build Virality in Your Product Design

The 6 methods that we’ve listed above are core ways to deliver viral products by making use of viral design.

Launch a Referral Program

This is probably the most popular method of building virality into a product. Referral programs are popular because they, putting it simply, just work. The best marketing methods always encourage the user base and audience to do the marketing legwork for you. You provide a great product and it’s so great that the users want more. So you incentivize them by offering them more of the product (or more at a discounted price) if they get other people to use your product.

Subscription boxes are a classic example of referral marketing. Almost every box that you could subscribe to will offer you a free box for every 1,2 or 3 people that you sign up. Or 3 months free for every 10 referrals. Or more! The absolute must in this method is to ensure that the referral scheme is mutually beneficial. Both sides need to feel that they’re benefitting from the transaction.

Referral marketing is a common growth channel for physical products, but has been wildly successful with digital products too. Take for instance, the behemoth that was World of Warcraft. Their referral program gave players free in game items in exchange for varying levels of commitment. Should a current player get a friend to sign up, the rewards would be unlocked. The World of Warcraft referral scheme was so successful thanks to the fact that when people already have friends in the game, they were far more likely to become long term subscribers, massively increasing their LTV.

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Appeal to Vanity

“Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.” Jane Austen said that in Pride and Prejudice, and the world hasn’t changed ever since. People will, and always will, care about what other people think about them. Leveraging this from a marketing point of view and the inherent competitiveness that goes along with that, is a powerful tool.

appeal to vanity for viral marketing

Social media is built on vanity. It’s how the platforms became so popular. People like to share updates about themselves that make themselves look good. Likes, followers, retweets are all, purely vanity metrics, but people are obsessed with them. In fact, it became something of a plague to the point that Instagram has famously removed Like counts to better help people's mental health. Another take is the well-known grind to get that 500+ connections on LinkedIn. Are people really networking with all 500+ people on a regular basis? Of course not, but they don’t want to be seen as a lower level member. Therefore they connect with others, they encourage colleagues to join (to better their numbers) and the platform grows.

Collaboration with Team Members

As I write this my phone has pinged with messages from the team on Slack, the content is being written on a collaborative Google Doc and then we’ll use ClickUp to share progress and begin the editing process. Each of these apps, but a handful in a plethora of similar apps, are all making use of communication for the purpose of virality.

Each of the apps works perfectly fine when used by a single person. I can schedule tasks for myself or I can write a document and save it. But when used collaboratively, the apps go to the next level.

The reason these apps have the opportunity to go viral is thanks to company wide adoption. It’s illogical to use multiple different systems under one roof and therefore once one user makes the case, and slowly adoption spreads, eventually it’ll be the expected and the norm. Beyond that, refer back to point one of this list. Referrals are made and the platform grows.

Make your Product Embeddable

Useful for purely digital products. Embeddable media is massively popular with bloggers, article writers and content creators. The most popular embeddable media are from video platforms, such as YouTube and social media, such as Instagram and Twitter.

A very popular embedded YouTube video

The virality comes into play through those sharing the content and embedding it into their sites. In fact, even though they aren’t even on the main platform’s site, the users are still using it. Not only that, they’re seeing your content embedded from a well respected and well known platform that they know they can trust. Some of that trust is naturally passed on to you. Kudos.

Use a Watermark

Marks are one of the easiest ways to share your brand awareness, it’s the main reason why logos are often one of the first things that people create when they launch a new venture. They want to, quite literally, leave their mark.

If you’ve ever tried creating a meme, edited a photo, or (on some devices) even taken a photo, you might have noticed that there’s a small, hopefully innocuous, watermark in the corner of it. As the example shows below, this doesn’t always get the desired effect. But what it does is pique the viewer's interest, and in some cases, enough for them to do their own research into what the watermark means.

watermarking for virality example

Source: Know Your Meme

Creating a tool that automatically marks the work is often an irritation to the end user. Few people want to show that they’ve used a tool. In the field of web design, some of the most viewed videos out there are, “ How to remove Powered by Shopify” and “ How to remove WordPress banner”. You could argue, however, that they are at least happy enough with your product that they want to show it off as their own. That will, inevitably, lead to them explaining to people how they built it…

Branded Signatures

Branded signatures work in a similar fashion to leaving a watermark, but in a somewhat less intrusive way. Do you remember when iPhone’s first came out, every email that was sent from one had the automatic signature “Sent from my iPhone” it let you know the device that the user was using, and, interestingly, plays into the vanity virality mentioned above. For a very long time, iPhones were status symbols. You had to be doing relatively well in order to have one, and having one meant that you were using cutting edge technology. Therefore, many people simply left that signature there, even though it could be easily removed.

If you are looking for a professional email signature, then HubSpot provide an excellent free signature creation service. The only catch is that you have to part with a bit of information in the form of your email and a few business details so that you can get slammed into their marketing funnel. The standard option is that it comes with a Created by HubSpot line at the bottom, but that can easily be turned off with a single click.

Making the Most of Viral Design

Take into consideration the entire buyer journey from start to finish. At the beginning of their process they might not even be aware of the fact that they need your product, or that the product exists. Or they might simply be taking a light interest in the products that are out there. This is the brand awareness stage of the funnel. This is where virality is at its most powerful, you want to capture as many people as possible at the start of the funnel.

Along the way, you’ll find that there will be many potential customers who are simply interested in your product just because it went viral. They won’t want to risk being subjected to the horrendous feeling of FOMO. That doesn’t mean that they will necessarily use your product or even purchase it, but they will have, at least, engaged with your brand and become part of the viral process. They may have even passed the viral load onto another, unsuspecting user through word of mouth.

word of mouth marketing
Word of Mouth is always going to be a popular marketing strategy

After this, you’ll have enough potential customers in your funnel who are ready to enter the consideration and conversion stages that you’ll begin to reap the rewards. The best part? If you were able to pull people into your products using referral programs, then chances are that they’ll be the ones to become loyal customers who eventually become brand evangelists, championing the product and spreading it even further.

All in all, ensuring that virality is embedded into your product by design is a surefire way to make your product spread like wildfire. A final word of warning, however, don’t force it. No one likes to see a product that is desperately trying to go viral and failing. You’ll end up looking like those videos you see with hired actors giving money to the “homeless”. And no one likes those guys.

  • Make use of viral design to maximise brand or product awareness
  • Consider using referral programs with mutual benefits
  • Don’t underestimate the power of vanity
  • Make your product the tool of communication
  • Leave your mark

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