Science behind viral marketing

By December 7, 2006Blogging, MySpace, WAYN, Web2.0

Viral marketing 2 

Viral marketing is a big topic in the web2.0 world and there is a lot of debate on whether you can force it or whether it is just something that happens to companies that get lucky.  I often talk about the importance of finding ‘a bit of magic marketing pixie dust’ that will really put a rocket under your traffic growth.

I think the evidence increasingly shows that whilst it is certainly not a science and there is no guaranteed formula for making it happen there are things you can do to maximise your chances of success.  This has been in the back of my mind since understanding how WAYN (a recent investment of ours) kickstarted it’s viral growth and the MySpace case study case study I read yesterday on the excellent Startup-Review firmed up my thinking to the point where I wanted to get it out there on a post and see what you all think.

I was pointed to Startup-Review by a couple of you last week when I said I was looking for a case study on turning traffic into cash.  Great site.  If you have an interest in what makes web2.0 start-ups successful you should check it out.  I have already emailed two links to other partners in my fund.

This is a quote from the MySpace case study:

If the two largest Web 2.0 successes (based on number of registered users) are Skype and MySpace, I think it is interesting to note that each benefited from having a major distribution partnership during launch…..While both Skype and MySpace were inherently viral products, they might not have reached such large scale in such a short period of time without that initial impulse function from distribution channels.

The distribution partner for Skype was Kazaa and MySpace leveraged Intermix’s (MySpace parent company) media buying and channel relationships.

As Startup-review points out, this kind of traditional partner based marketing runs a bit counter to many web2.0 ideas of zero cost viral marketing.  The insight here is the trick of getting your site started by finding the distribution that will get you to the critical mass point after which true zero cost viral marketing can work rapidly for you.  If you pay a little for that it could be worth it.  Distribution, Distribution, Distribution.

Also interesting is that MySpace had two failed initiatives at driving growth before the third successful one.

The importance of PR (traditional offline media as well as parties and blogs) shouldn’t be underestimated either.

All of this will cost a little money.

As I mentioned, WAYN had a similar start using CPA based advertising to attract initial members to the site and working the press extensively.   Clearly they haven’t had quite the success of MySpace and Skype yet…..

As an aside, using the blogosphere and web world to drive traffic is getting harder.  This post from Peter Rip describes how the blogosphere increasingly needs to be thought in the same way as a traditional channel, and this post from Greg Linden describes how using Digg is getting more difficult.  Both these developments are symptoms of a maturing channel.  The web world is getting more crowded.

  • To follow Nic / Frank analysis of Myspace, I recommand danah Boyd’s paper :
    http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue11_12/boyd/index.html

  • To follow Nic / Frank analysis of Myspace, I recommand danah Boyd’s paper :
    http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue11_12/boyd/index.html

  • Hi Nic,

    Well-written post and thanks for linking to Startup Review. I have been giving a lot of thought to this question of virality and will be writing an article on the topic in the next couple weeks. One of the main points that I will make is that for something to be viral, its core function must be communication. Information-oriented services are not viral. The term viral is tossed around too loosely in my opinion. Good Internet products can have word of mouth marketing, but that is different than viral marketing.

    I agree with most of the points you make above. Mainstream PR is in my opinion a crucial element to achieving scale. Initial distribution can greatly increase the probability of success, but some companies didn’t need it to be successful, mainly because they were highly viral services. A few examples of this are Facebook, Hotornot, and Xfire.

  • Hi Nic,

    Well-written post and thanks for linking to Startup Review. I have been giving a lot of thought to this question of virality and will be writing an article on the topic in the next couple weeks. One of the main points that I will make is that for something to be viral, its core function must be communication. Information-oriented services are not viral. The term viral is tossed around too loosely in my opinion. Good Internet products can have word of mouth marketing, but that is different than viral marketing.

    I agree with most of the points you make above. Mainstream PR is in my opinion a crucial element to achieving scale. Initial distribution can greatly increase the probability of success, but some companies didn’t need it to be successful, mainly because they were highly viral services. A few examples of this are Facebook, Hotornot, and Xfire.

  • Absolutely……and as with eyeballs in “Web 1.0”, this is going to get more and more expensive as hordes of newcomers charge in. There are only so many Social Nets one can belong to.

  • Absolutely……and as with eyeballs in “Web 1.0”, this is going to get more and more expensive as hordes of newcomers charge in. There are only so many Social Nets one can belong to.

  • johnyD

    Good article…I have to say that WAYN.com is really superb site. I found many good friends here and its great to keep in touch with all. Great stuff 😉

  • johnyD

    Good article…I have to say that WAYN.com is really superb site. I found many good friends here and its great to keep in touch with all. Great stuff 😉

  • Interesting. But marketing new sites with no budget is getting harder and harder and it takes more work to get smaller traffic returns these days as everything is so saturated.

  • Interesting. But marketing new sites with no budget is getting harder and harder and it takes more work to get smaller traffic returns these days as everything is so saturated.