Thursday Sep 12, 2013 by Andrew Parker - Principal, Spark Capital
When you’re building a company where the lifetime value of a user is still unknown (which is virtually all early stage consumer-facing startups), your most healthy source of new customer acquisition is user evangelism. The goal is to build a product that encourages your users to recruit other users for you.
Before you can successful build a viral product, you need to understand the answer to the following question: Why do users recruit new users? What is their motivation for pulling in their peers? The answers vary widely depending on the type of software and the social construction of the service, and the purpose of this post is to enumerate a bunch of these motivations.
1. Because the product’s utility necessitates having peers in the network. Words With Friends is the classic example here. There is no single player version of Words With Friends. The only way to play a session is to invite a friend to play with you. The game is inherently viral by construction. This applies to functional software too, not just games. Think: Yammer.
2. Because people enjoy the altruism of sharing a great experience. Just like when I eat at a new restaurant I love, I bring it up in social conversation with my friends. This same phenomenon applies to great software. Think about how often someone has told you about “this great new app I just got”… it’s a pretty frequent occurrence, and its the strongest endorsement your product can receive. Marquee example: the latest Google Maps for iOS release after the Apple Maps fiasco. Friends would recommend Google Maps to other friends after it launched simply out of altruism and enthusiasm for the product. There was no network benefit to pulling your friends in, yet it distributed quite well via word-of-mouth marketing.
3. Because showing off your own creation necessitates evangelizing the platform. This is Etsy’s viral channel. Etsy is a beautiful frame in which crafters display their work in order to A) generate revenue and B) feel credible and validated because their work is displayed nicely online in the Etsy platform along side their crafting peers.* Then, when an Etsy seller wants to tell people (say, at a local craft fair) to go check out their work online, the seller has to evangelize the Etsy at the same time. They say something like “Hey, check out my work online at http://etsy.com/shop/AnarchistKnitting," or perhaps stick the URL of the shop on a business card. This makes Etsy inherently viral. This same phenomenon applies to many types of marketplaces.
4. Because group adoption helps platforms endure. I’ve frequently heard people evangelizing applications out of support to the app developer. It happened just yesterday on Twitter when @anildash tweeted: “I love @yo_stellar & support the Indie web, so I got a Stellar Fun Pass. You should too: http://2.dashes.com/1aNlqHX I’m a @kottke micropatron!”
So what is the Stellar Fun Pass you ask? Well, in creator Jason Kottke’s own words: “[Stellar Fun Pass is] a way for people to support the ongoing development of the site (and gain additional features) through the purchase of an annual membership.”
Anil evangelized the platform to his peers because he wants the platform to continue to be successful and endure. This is patronage, and it’s a big driver of word-of-mouth marketing, both online and offline.
5. Because people enjoy the vanity of being seen as a thought-leader / early-adoptor. I phrased that sentence a bit too skeptically, but I’m trying to describe the phenomenon of a thought-leading critic and their motivation for evangelism. Their motivation is not the same as #2 above. It’s not about being helpful to a friend. It’s more about being seen as cutting edge and identifying trends before they break out. It’s the same reason why if you give TechCrunch an exclusive story on your new product release, they’ll write about you and spread the word about your product, but if you don’t give them exclusivity, then they’re less likely to write about you, because their journal won’t be seen in quite as good a thought-leading light.
6. Because the user is your mother. Not entirely a joke here. Sometimes people evangelize a product solely because they have a strong relationship with the founder. More importantly (and scaleably) people evangelize a product even if they only FEEL like they have a strong relationship with the founder (they might not actually know the founder IRL). This is the importance of establishing a strong sense of voice in your product and being a great front man on stage. If you make a connection with people’s emotions on a personal level as a founder, people are more likely to like your product and evangelize on your behalf. Your mother will always do this. When strangers start doing this too, it can be magical.
Got any more to add to this list?
* Side note: I once heard Etsy called “the most expensive image hosting site on the planet” because it’s a $0.25 listing fee to display 6 images for a few months. People pay for the access to revenue generation and the credibility.
Andrew Parker is a Principal at Spark Capital. You can find this blog post, as well as additional content on his blog called The Gong Show. You can also follow Andrew on Twitter (@andrewparker) by clicking here.