Intrinsic Virality

by Dan Walsh

Messages can be constructed to spread like a virus, or to help other things spread like a virus. Products and services for example. But some products and services spread rapidly without such craftiness. They seemingly dominate the planet overnight without any viral messaging intervention. How is this possible? What sets these products apart? Products that naturally lend themselves to referrals and word of mouth spread have intrinsic virality. There are four common attributes of a product with intrinsic virality.

  1. The product makes the user feel good…
  2. About a common and visible problem…
  3. Which is non-competitive
  4. Within a well-connected population.

Making a user or customer feel good is self-explanatory. Providing emotional value is paramount to rapid organic growth. No one will refer a bad experience, but everyone will refer a positive experience – as long as the mental connection is made. This is where #2 comes in. If a current, happy user of a product never sees anyone else with a problem the product solves, then they can’t spread the word. The product gets “quarantined” so to speak. The problem a product solves must be rampant enough to always have a spread vector. A large spread vector can be stopped short if the problem a product solves creates a clear competitive advantage for the user. Mortgage salesmen don’t share their best tips and tools because it would hurt their own business. Parents, on the other hand, are all too willing to refer strollers, bottles, books, etc. because parenting isn’t a zero-sum game. Two (or two million) people can be good parents simultaneously, but only one salesman gets commission from that sale. Lastly, the population must be well connected. A product that solves a big, non-competitive problem for every single semi-driver in the country won’t take off unless those semi-drivers communicate with each other. The road is lonely. Intrinsically viral products have a social element that enables them to become communicable. For what it’s worth, trying to “viralify” a product is about as effective as trying to “gamify” something. Slapping a leader board on a lame app doesn’t all of a sudden make it a game. Including a “Share on Facebook” button doesn’t magically make something have virality. The above four criteria are present at the inception of the product. They can’t be shoe-horned in later.