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5 Secrets to Making Your Startup Go Viral

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When Facebook paid around $16 billion for mobile messaging service WhatsApp, people were stunned by the sky-high valuation. But what’s even more remarkable about WhatsApp is that it reached 450 million monthly users “without investing a penny in marketing”.

It’s a great example of a truly viral product, one that spreads by providing a valuable service not only to the initial user but also to their friends, family and colleagues. In the digital world, virality is part science and part luck.

How can you create a viral effect that will help your product spread via your customers’ networks? Rather than relying on the barefaced bribery of a referral program or desperate begging for "likes" and positive reviews, try these five tips for adding a smart viral twist to your product.

Related: How We Drove 10K Unique Visitors to a New Product in a Month

1. Let sharing benefit everyone

In 1991, telephone firm MCI (for whom I once worked) was vying for new customers in the recently deregulated long-distance calling market. While rivals AT&T and Sprint relied on cold calls and direct mail, MCI launched its “Friends & Family plan.” Suddenly, every MCI customer had a compelling incentive to promote its service: discounted calls to their relatives and friends. Though this concept is now ubiquitous, at the time it was truly innovative. 

MCI’s telemarketers could now begin sales calls by saying “I’m calling on behalf of your friends and family”, giving them three times the close rate as cold calls. By the end of the year, the company’s revenues, customer numbers and call traffic had increased significantly. An official AT&T response stated, “We would be uncomfortable using our customers as salespeople for our products.” If that represents the prevailing attitude of the early 90s, then MCI’s thinking was really ahead of its time.

What do your users and the people they know care about most when it comes to your product? Is pricing as big a concern as in the long-distance calling market or could, for example, access to premium features be more important? Figure this out and you will have a tool to drive viral growth.

2. Give sharing an emotional value

Coca-Cola is famous for its emotional marketing campaigns, from popularizing the modern image of Santa Claus to teaching the world to sing. The company recently gave this emotional appeal a viral twist by replacing the famous Coke logo on cans and bottles with thousands of names. The idea behind the Share a Coke campaign is to find one with the name of a friend or family member and buy it for them.

The forthcoming Apple Watch will also aim to create emotional connections with its “digital touch” features. Some tech observers are convinced that the ability to share heartbeats, sketches and other ephemera will make Apple Watch the most viral of all of the company’s products.

All good products have some form of emotional impact on users. Can you harness yours to drive growth? Or think about a new feature or user experience that could add an emotional incentive to sharing your service.

Related: 5 Simple Hacks to Make Your Content Way More Shareable

3. Make sharing the purpose of your product.

GoPro makes lightweight video cameras designed for sports enthusiasts to record their activities. The technology is impressive, but GoPro’s transformation into a viral product is more a result of its action-packed online videos and in-store displays. The firm’s marketing doesn’t boast about product specs or features, instead they show actual users' experiences.

GoPro’s “be a hero” tagline emphasizes that its cameras aren’t for just recording your latest extreme outing, they’re for sharing your adventures and impressing your friends. Customers are the company’s best marketing tool, because they constantly share footage that highlights why anyone who loves action-based activity should have a GoPro product.

Too often products focus only on their functional objective and forget that sharing can enhance the user benefit. Think about how to make sharing part of your purpose. How does your product become the publisher for what your users do with it?

4. Align your product with a powerful idea.

The spread of ideas assuming a viral pattern is a theory propagated by the likes of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and the 2010 movie Inception. Associating a product with an idea is something beauty brand Dove has done extremely well. Positioned as the natural alternative to traditional beauty products, Dove’s marketing campaigns usually feature “natural women” and not stick-thin supermodels.

Dove’s “campaign for real beauty” goes beyond product promotion. This YouTube video depicting an ordinary girl being transformed into a billboard model with some hair, makeup and Photoshop tweaking, is a persuasive message about the modern beauty industry. It’s something anyone can get behind even if they don’t buy Dove products. Having been watched by more than 18 million people, the video has built brand advocacy for Dove as a different way of thinking about beauty.

Can you become a part of the community interested in the broader idea behind your product? Join organizations, support causes and invite speakers to give talks at your office. Above all, be genuine in your support—some things are more important than your viral growth.

5. Use social proof if your product has a perceived risk.

Having said earlier that referral programs are barefaced bribery, there is a place for using cash or other incentives to help build your audience. Ride sharing app Uber offered users free rides for referring friends to overcome any uneasiness people may have felt about using unlicensed taxis. For new users, knowing that a friend had previously used the service established Uber as reliable and trustworthy. And of course, they too got a free ride.

What are the potential barriers to people using your product? Will social proof from other users help overcome these? If so, breaking out the checkbook could be the fastest way to growth.

Don’t be discouraged if your product isn’t naturally viral. Offline brands like Dove, Coca-Cola, and GoPro have shown that all it takes is a little creative thinking. Which of your favorite viral promotions did we miss? Let us know in the comments. 

Related: 6 Viral-Marketing Lessons to Learn From the Ice Bucket Challenge