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Join the next cohort of the  PLG Certificate Program. Application Closes Oct 24

How to Master Product Virality

Many SaaS businesses strive for $0 customer acquisition cost (CAC), but the only way to get there is to create a viral product. But viral marketing is easier said than done. There's more to it than posting on social media and hoping for the best.

So, how do you go viral? Let’s begin by looking at the five types of virality.

The 5 Types Of Virality

There are five types of virality you should know about. It doesn't matter what type of viral content you create, it will fit within one of these categories.

Whether you can leverage all of them depends on your product, but there are likely to be at least two that will work regardless of your product.

So, with that, let’s look at the various channels you can leverage.

1. Network Effects

Social networks like Twitter and LinkedIn only make sense when there are a lot of people using it.

If you went to LinkedIn and there was nobody there to interact with, it wouldn’t be a “professional network” at all. You'd have no chance of reaching your target audience.

So, with this type of virality, your users do most of the work to get other users using the product. And, they do this because it makes the product better.

There are two types of network effects, and they are:

  1. Cross company. This type is represented by the social networks already mentioned – Twitter and LinkedIn. They’re effectively useless if it’s just your company using the apps but when other people use them it’s great. This is the strongest type of network effects.
  2. Intra-company. Slack, CRM software and other similar apps would be considered intra-company. These apps are used within the context of a company and tend to have lower virality.

2. Value Virality

Value virality is a relatively new type of virality that isn’t blogged about and isn’t well understood. This is where your existing customers provide value to others they know by using your product. So, your customers spread your product simply by using it even if they don’t particularly like your app. This is a viral marketing campaign that's often overlooked.

Any document signing product is a product that shows value virality. For instance, you could receive a document to sign in Adobe Sign. Before eSignature companies, when you got a document you had to print it out, sign in, scan it and reupload it. It was a bit of a nightmare.

But with eSignature, you wouldn’t even have to be a customer of Adobe Sign to receive a lot of value. All you’d have to do is 'click sign' and your job would be done. Much easier than the old way. So, people spread your product just by using it.

3. Exposure Virality

Exposure virality is where your customers show off your product to others because it makes them look good in some way, shape or form. If you want to learn how to make a product go viral, start here.

For instance, when Instagram was still new, and Instagram photos appeared on other social networks (like Facebook), people tended to go, “wow, how did you make that?”

There are a few things to be aware of when using this channel:

First, it’s not about value – it’s about social proof (or status). And, it needs to be spectacular to be effective, so if your app doesn’t have standout qualities, don’t put all your eggs in one basket unless you know you’ve got something that will “wow” people. Viral growth is never guaranteed.

4. Invites & Referrals

This is where your customer gets rewarded for sharing your product. This type of virality should be quite familiar already. With invites and referrals, regardless of what your app is, it can work for you.

Although no longer in existence, the Mailbox app pioneered the notion of a wait list. When you signed up, you got bumped in line and get priority access to the hot app by sharing it with other people. So, if you shared earlier, you would get access to it quicker.

While referrals and invites are a great way to encourage signups, you must ensure that the offer appeals to your target audience. And of course, make sure you have a plan in place at product launch.

5. Word Of Mouth

Word of mouth (or brand power) is where your product is so amazing that everyone is talking about it.

Beware that there is no guarantee for success even if you see a lot of people sharing your product. It takes quality content, such as a truly viral video, to make it big.

The good news is that there is an effective and affordable way to get word of mouth started, and that’s content marketing.

So, if you aren’t sure where to start, or you don’t have any upfront money to invest in word of mouth, try driving traffic to your website with stimulating and relevant content.

What Works & What Doesn’t

What works is highly contingent on the type of business you have. A viral campaign that works for you may fall flat for another company in your space.

But with this in mind, in most cases, you will see similar results to the following:

Exposure Virality

Exposure virality may well account for one to two percent of your user signups.

But the churn rate tends to be high when users discover your app through this method, indicating that many of them may not be your target audience. It's a bad marketing strategy to focus too many resources here.

Referrals & Invites

Overall, referrals and invites are relatively effective, and will probably account for roughly 12% of your signups.

A few things to keep in mind with referrals is that:

  • You should do it early in the customer lifecycle.
  • This method tends to work better if your product has a broad appeal.
  • It’s a good idea to measure what share of your user base is willing to refer your product.

Value Virality

Value virality tends to be quite effective and will likely account for approximately 14% of your signups. This can be a big part of your viral success.

You can empower your user base with things like PDF slideshows, Q&A surveys, polls, code snippets, live video to offer value to non-users.

Word Of Mouth

As you may have guessed, word of mouth is likely to account for the remaining 44% of signups. It's often the best way to get in touch with potential customers.

If you want to get people talking about your product, however, you need to determine exactly how you’re going to stand out.

Not All Virality Is Created Equal

The goal of virality, of course, is to turn your users into paying customers.

So, while one channel may account for more signups, it doesn’t always result in more paying customers.

Ultimately, you’ll want to test out the various channels and track your own results, but here is a basic breakdown of where you’re likely to get the most paying customers from:

  1. Word of mouth. People are more likely to convert off of a recommendation.
  2. Value virality. People who’ve gained some value from your product are more likely to turn into customers.
  3. Referrals and invites. Referrals and invites fall under the “relatively effective” category.
  4. Exposure virality. Exposure virality is essentially passive endorsement, making it less effective.
  5. Network virality. Network virality may not offer much by way of results.

Final Thoughts

The number one thing to do here is to play to your strengths. Maybe this means using an influencer to spread your message. Maybe it means picking things up in the brand awareness department or focusing more on video marketing.

If you know why people are going to use your app and how it stands out from the rest, you need to leverage and emphasize that in your marketing.

This will increase the chances of your app going viral, leading to the types of results you’re looking for with your SaaS app.

It's this type of viral effect that you're chasing after!

Olof Mathé
Olof Mathé
Olof led the team that built Inkling Habitat, now adopted by the world’s largest publishers. Prior, he was an entrepreneur and worked at Skype and McKinsey. Olof grew up in Sweden and finished his engineering degree in France. He created Art Hack Day, a global computer arts hackathon.