My experience with consumer -facing products is limited to iShop, a mobile shopping app developed by Smartworlds in the early 2000’s, and Endorfyn, from PopSleuth, Inc., a web app designed to keep fans up to date on new releases from their favorite artists, developed three years ago.
iShop never got any further than a very positive article, with accompanying cartoon, in
The Wall Street Journal, and Endorfyn, while nicely executing on its mission, remains a niche product.
So what have I learned from these experiences, as well as advising and mentoring various B2C companies over the years? One thing: the cost of customer acquisition is very high, close to astronomical, which is one reason why you see companies like Uber raising billions of dollars; the second is is a correlative of the first: you must build virality into your product from from the get-go. It can not be pasted on later and no amount of Tweeting or SnapChatting can make up for lack of built in virality.
So what do I mean by virality? It’s simply the oldest and best method of marketing, word of mouth, digitized, and its effect amplified by several orders of magnitude by the power of social media marketing, led by Facebook, a colossus with well over a billion connected users the world over.
Connection is the secret sauce of virality. We never designed Endorfyn with virality built it. It’s an anonymous service, there’s no direct way to share your favorite finding on Endorfyn with your friends, no way to import your address book, no way to Like a finding and share that across your network, and many other ways we could have, but did not, built in virality. I had originally viewed Endorfyn as a utility, much like Evernote and like Evernote, it totally lacks viral features.
Another key aspect of virality is sharing. If you think about old fashioned word of mouth what does it mean? Sharing your opinion with other people. The huge successes in social media: Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat, Instagram, et al all have built in sharing and highlight and reinforce that feature.
The third key factor in virality is following – the ability to get notifications on new posts, comments, likes, ratings or whatever from people you care about – from friends and relatives to celebrities. Following is a key feature of Twitter and Instagram, for example.
One of my visions for Endorfyn was that we would get the artists themselves to use it, and thus people would sign up to Endorfyn just to find out what their favorite musicians were listening to, what their favorite authors were reading, what films their favorite actors and directors were watching, etc.
Notifications are an ancillary, but important part of virality. They make sharing, recommendations, and other viral features frictionless. Instead of having to hunt down the latest photo from a friend, you can opt-in to being notified on your smartphone when that friend posts a new photo.
A fourth component of virality is personal brand building. YouTube has made stars of many of its users, as it has brilliantly facilitated their ability to build their personal reputation or brand. This creates a virtual circle, where the more attention a YouTuber gets, the more video they create, the more views and followers they accumulate.
A fifth component is ratings. Facebook has made “Like” ubiquitous. eBay makes its users far more comfortable with doing business with strangers through its buyer and seller rating system. Uber has copied that feature: riders rate drivers and vice versa.
One of the most powerful drivers of virality, utilized by virtually all the successful social networks, is user contributed content. The content cost is virtually zero and contributors are motivated to share their photos, blog posts, videos, and other contributed content with their friends and followers. YouTube and Instagram would cease to exist if they shut down UCC. UCC is their growth engine and also enables personal brand building.
Recommendations are another driver of virality as again it is is digitization of typical consumer behavior. When I discover a great restaurant or watch a great movie I naturally want to recommend it to my friends. And vice versa. Given the ever growing plethora of media, finding stuff you like – which is the mission of Endorfyn – gets harder and harder. Yet we didn’t have the resources to add this viral component to the app.
Identity is vital to virality. Endorfyn requires a login and password, but like Evernote, your identity is a secret. There’s no way you can discover friends who are using Endorfyn and share your likes about favorite artists, their new releases or news about them. Whether that identity is “real” like on Facebook, or created by you like on Reddit, having a known persona is critical to enable all the others aspects of virality, from sharing to ratings.
Finally the important of all forms of virality – and one you have no direct control over -is the network effect. Metcalfe’s law states that the value of a network equals the square of the number of its users. The law was originally applied to telecommunications systems and “nodes”, but has since been found to apply to social networks. By building in virality you create the opportunity to benefit by the network effect. And the network effect drives growth more effectively than any marketing technique ever created, and growth is the number one goal of all startups.
I’m far from an expert on either consumer customer acquisition or social media, so I’m sure there are other ways to build in virality. If you’re not a an expert on both those subjects it may be very worth your while to consult experts before you build your product.
Because if you get anything out of this post, it’s that virality must be built in from the get go. You can progressively add viral features, but you’ll never acquire enough users to get that far without going viral from the start.
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