24
min read

The Complete Guide to Organic Viral Marketing

Table of Contents

Remember this?

instagram egg

It’s the most-liked photo of all time on Instagram.

It started out as a stock photo on Shutterstock. Advertising creative Chris Godfrey and two of his friends posted it to the Instagram account @world_record_egg in 2019, and it took off from there, getting 55.8 million likes.

The photographer’s brilliant response to his surprise viral hit: “Egg is just an egg.”

Egg is just an egg, but a viral marketing campaign is not just a viral marketing campaign. There’s a lot that goes into it. We wouldn’t be talking about the egg if it didn’t have the must-have criterion for virality: a motivated fan base (the #EggGang) that got a dopamine hit from sharing and engaging. That takes planning and smart execution.

We’ll get into all of that. Here’s what we’ll discuss in this complete guide to organic virality:

Although you can’t hack virality, you actually have more control than you think. If you use the tactics in this article, you’ll increase your odds of reaching more people—and converting them into customers.

But first, the basics.

What is viral marketing?

Viral marketing is what happens when people share a product, service, or content. It’s consumer-spread growth.

With virality, people outside your company become your marketers, increasing brand awareness in the process. Those people could be customers, prospects, or really anyone who learns about and then shares your product or information.

What viral marketing isn’t is just one thing. It’s not all viral social media posts, like TikTok dances and Twitter clapbacks.

In fact, we’d argue that content virality—the kind that gets shared on social media—is the least important type. (But if you’re here to read about viral content, here’s where we get into it.)

Instead of short-term content virality, we recommend focusing on long-term product virality. If your product itself is so good that people build the habit of using it and sharing it, you’ll see true engagement, retention—and growth.

We’ll explore what that means below. For now, here are definitions for the four virality types we’ll discuss.

  • Pull virality: when users invite others to a product because doing so improves their experience of that product. Slack, PayPal, Zoom, and Facebook are all better with others.
  • Content virality: the most recognizable type of virality. It’s when content—in particular, social media posts, articles, and videos—goes viral. Examples: the egg, Dollar Shave Club’s “Our Blades Are F***ing Great” video (27+ million views)
  • Word-of-mouth marketing: when people tell others about a product or service. It’s how Allbirds and Hydro Flask became the ecommerce giants they are.
  • Push virality: when product usage increases its exposure. Like when you see someone wearing AirPods, and that makes you realize you’d really like a pair too.
4 types of organic virality

We cover another type of virality, referral marketing, in a separate article on how to launch a referral program. It’s the only type that’s not organic—instead, it incentivizes sharing through rewards, credits, or other fabricated means.

Before we get into each type, here are three fundamentals to bear in mind for any virality initiative.

3 virality fundamentals

1. Don’t chase silver bullets

A “silver bullet” is a single activity that guarantees victory. To mix metaphors, you wave a magic wand, and success is yours.

The silver bullet fallacy is the idea that a single marketing activity or channel will automatically lead to exponential growth.

That’s not how it works.

Brands that chase silver bullets might get some short-term wins, but growth will probably stop there. They'll lose in the long run unless they take a more thoughtful and strategic approach.

Which is why, instead of aiming for a quick win like a meme that goes viral for a day, we recommend focusing on product-embedded virality.

2. Retention > acquisition

Have you ever signed up for an app, only to be asked if you’d like to invite all your contacts to it too?

The early days of digital product virality had a ton of instances of this type of “invite your whole address book!” approach. But it doesn’t work.

You might get some new customers if you do this, but they probably won’t stick around.

When it comes to virality, what you want is retention. Unless customers stay long enough to experience your product’s value and get into the habit of using it, you’ll have low customer lifetime value.

We love this quote from the investment company Peak: “Virality is vanity, true engagement and product value is what ultimately matters.”

The most important virality metric you should be tracking isn’t likes, shares, or forwards.

It’s active use.

3. Understand your viral coefficient (k-factor)

Your viral coefficient (aka k-factor) is the number of people who buy your product after a user recommends or exposes it to them. If your average user gets three other people to buy from you, your viral coefficient is three.

Although viral coefficients are useful to understand, they're limited—they don’t factor in time or retention. For a methodical virality formula, check out the article “Lessons Learned—Viral Marketing,” by the VC David Skok. It also has a downloadable spreadsheet where you can test out different inputs.

The psychology of sharing

The best resource on the psychology of sharing remains Jonah Berger’s 2013 book Contagious: Why Things Catch On. Even though it’s relatively old (yes, there are some outdated points in it), Berger, a professor at Wharton, conducted rigorous research to back up his findings. They still hold true.

Here are the six reasons he found for why we share.

The 6 principles behind social sharing

Credit and thanks go to Jonah Berger for the information in this section, including quotes and some examples. He uses the acronym STEPPS for these six principles.

1. Social currency: “We share things that make us look good.”

We all seek social approval. It’s human nature. So we share things that we think will boost others’ perception of us.

Example: When the founder of SmartBargains.com launched a new site, Rue La La, he made it invitation-only. It sold the same products as Smart Bargains. But because consumers now felt like insiders—a badge of social currency—they bought a lot more.

2. Triggers: “Top of mind, tip of tongue.”

We share and talk about things we come across. Which is why people discuss things they see regularly (like Cheerios) more than things that are less visible in their everyday lives (like Disney World).

Example: The most inescapable song of 2011, Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” peaked in daily searches every Friday after it came out. (BTW Rebecca Black is good now.)

3. Emotion: “When we care, we share.”

We share things that make us emotional. Things that elicit high-arousal positive emotions (awe, excitement, and amusement) and negative emotions (anger and anxiety).

Examples: Basically, everything on Upworthy. And incredible animal videos.

4. Public visibility: “Built to show, built to grow.”

We imitate things we see. We’ll go to the food truck with the long line and sign up for the email service we see others using (AOL, then Hotmail, then Gmail).

Example: The Apple logo is upside down on a closed MacBook. But it’s right side up when the MacBook is open—say, at a coffee shop where others are working nearby. That’s solid public branding.

5. Practical value: “News you can use.”

We share useful information. Passing along helpful tips, tutorials, guidance, etc., strengthens social bonds.

Examples: #lifehacks viral videos on TikTok, Brené Brown TED Talks

6. Stories: “Information travels under the guise of idle chatter.”

Berger explains that “people don’t think in terms of information. They think in terms of narratives.” Which is why Aesop didn’t just say the words, “Don’t give up.” Instead, he told a story about a slow-yet-persevering tortoise who ended up winning a race.

Example: Unboxing videos are a type of story. As psychologist Pamela Rutledge puts it, each is “a mini-three act play with an exposition (presenting the box), rising action and conflict (what is it? can I get the box open? will I like it?) and resolution or denouement (showing what’s in the box).”

unbox therapy
Videos on the YouTube channel Unbox Therapy regularly get millions of views.

Understand the psychology behind both sharing and receiving

As you create a product, service, or piece of content that you want to go viral, carefully consider why someone would share it. How does it align with the six STEPPS?

Also think about the person who receives the shared thing. What would compel them to accept the invitation? What would lead them to then take an initial action (like signing up for your product), and why would they ultimately become a paying, retained customer?

Every step of your virality roadmap needs to be motivating:

  • From sharing to receiving
  • From receiving to inception point: when the recipient understands what the shared thing is and gets interested in it
  • From inception point to aha moment: when the recipient realizes the shared thing’s value
  • From aha moment and experiencing product value to—you guessed it—sharing with someone else
virality path from receiving to sharing

Now that we’ve gone over the basic principles of organic virality, we’ll dive into the four types. Starting with the most important one: pull virality.

Pull virality

pull virality definition

If you build a great product, they will come. And stay.

What pull virality boils down to is embedding virality into your product. A product gets shared organically during use, because sharing it:

  • Increases the benefits of using the product
  • Makes the user experience better

The reason it’s the best type of virality is that it encourages native product use. It aligns with a product’s value propositions.

As Andrew Chen says, “Virality is a business design problem, not a marketing or engineering effort.”

Examples of pull virality

  • Social media: You’ll have a better experience on Instagram or Snapchat if more of your friends are on it.
  • Collaboration and communication tools: There’s not much point in using Dropbox or Zoom if your collaborators aren’t on there too. Collaboration tools aren’t just for work—platforms like Strava (workouts) and Nextdoor (community news) also encourage in-app interaction.
  • Practical tools: If you need to get paid and the person doing the paying uses Venmo, you’ll download it too.

Spotify is an example of well-integrated pull virality. You can use Spotify without other people, but it’s so much more fun and engaging when you can create, share, and discover playlists. So you invite your friends to Spotify—possibly by sending them a link to a playlist you just made. Once they’ve signed up and realized how much they love creating and sharing playlists, they invite their friends. And so forth.

It’s the product itself, instead of any funny memes the Spotify social media team might create, that makes it shareable.

How to add pull virality to a product/service

The good news is that because you can build pull virality directly into your product, you have a lot of control over its implementation.

The bad news is that it can be challenging to enable this type of virality after a product build. Just another reason why it’s so important to understand, from early on in your company’s life, how to optimize your product for long-term growth.

Here are two ways to build pull virality into your product.

1. Design your product so its content is meant to be shared

Social media is the most prominent platform type for user-generated content (UGC) that’s meant to be shared. No one would use LinkedIn, Facebook, etc., if they didn’t have connections there.

If content sharing is central to your core product value, make it a) easy to make content, and b) easy to share content.

Besides social media, here are some other examples of products with content-sharing pull virality:

  • Loom lets you share video recordings with colleagues, to cut down on meeting time. Once someone receives a Loom video and experiences the benefits, they might be motivated to sign up for their own account.
  • Figma users can share their designs and prototypes with teammates, who can then leave feedback directly in the platform.
examples of content-based pull virality
Pinterest, Open Table, and Spotify make it easy to share content from within their apps.

2. Design your product so users collaborate or have transactions with others

When users need to work with non-users during natural use of the product, those non-users can become your next conversions.

Collaborative or transactional pull virality is particularly powerful for B2B companies with a “land and expand” strategy. You land by getting one person to use your product, and then you expand when they invite the rest of their team.

Here are a few examples of collaborating and transacting:

  • To accept an invitation through an events service like Eventbrite, you almost never reply “yes” or “no” to the invitation email. Instead, you’re encouraged to register through the platform.
  • GitHub: If you want to make changes to a team’s codebase, you need a GitHub account.
examples of transaction-based pull virality
Slack, Zoom, and WhatsApp are built for collaboration and transaction.

More pull virality tips

  • Time it so that an existing user invites a new user after they experience product value, not after they first log in. Slack users are more likely to bring others into Slack after they’ve experienced for themselves its time-saving and efficiency-increasing benefits.
  • But do highlight benefits and value during a smooth new-user onboarding flow, so prospects don’t bail during their first interaction with your product.
  • Factor in viral cycle time (VCT). That’s how long it takes a user to invite others to a product. TikTok has a short VCT (user sees video → shares it → recipients become new users), whereas B2B enterprise products typically take more time to experience and recommend. Because VCT needs to compensate for churn, it’s a vital element of growth—even though it’s not discussed nearly as often as k-factors.

Content virality

content virality definition

Content virality and the next virality type we’ll discuss, word of mouth, aren’t built into products. Unlike Slack’s product-embedded invitations or the “powered by Mailchimp” badge that appears in Mailchimp emails, viral content and word of mouth live outside a product.

Although in general, we recommend native virality—the kind that’s part of your product—that isn’t always possible. If a product isn’t innately shareable, or if it’s not used frequently enough to build a habit, content and word of mouth are your best bets for going viral.

Example: People don’t buy cookware that often. So Williams-Sonoma created the site Taste, which has recipes, cooking tips, and party ideas. Readers and fans of the site—including those who find out about it from friends, family, and follows—know where to go the next time they need something for their kitchen: Williams-Sonoma. (Thanks to Hooked author Nir Eyal for the example, which he shared at our Growth Summit.)

If content virality is best for your product and marketing efforts, you can increase your odds of getting shares by creating excellent content.

How to create excellent content

(Thanks to my amazing colleague Joyce for her work on this section!)

The word “viral” is often used to describe short videos, catchy memes, and shocking news. But virality doesn’t just come in one style or format.

Anything can go viral. Even obituaries.

You can increase your chances of virality through these seven tactics:

  1. Focus on one channel.
  2. Reverse engineer the most shared content in your industry.
  3. Leverage company data.
  4. Pinpoint the exact who and why behind sharing.
  5. Develop a compelling headline.
  6. Optimize content for shareability.
  7. Create content that’s authentic to your brand identity.

1. Focus on one channel

Focusing on just one channel can help you create better content for that channel. For example, if you determine that Twitter is best for your content posting, you’ll know to keep text short and attention-grabbing.

Choose a channel based on your target audience—where do they usually consume content? You can repurpose content for other channels later on, after you have a solid process in place.

2. Reverse engineer popular content in your industry

Once you’ve decided which channel to focus on, take a look at what currently performs well. Use BuzzSumo or a similar tool to identify the most shared or upvoted pieces of content.

Then run each one through these questions:

  1. How was it formatted?
  2. What emotion(s) did it evoke?
  3. What separates it from similar content that didn’t go viral?
  4. Who shared/upvoted the content? Did any influencers share it?
  5. When was it published? (Beyond time and date, consider the larger context of when it was published.)
  6. How could the content be improved?

Look for trends. You’ll almost always find insights that the best content creators are consistently using. Apply your takeaways to your content planning.

3. Leverage company data

Your company’s data is a good source for content ideas that might go viral.

Why? It’s exclusive to your company. No other business has it.

The challenge here: transforming your data into an interesting narrative that people want to share. Look for ways to relate it to your audience.

Examples:

  • OkCupid often uses its own dating data to create blog posts. People share them, and major media outlets quote or link to them.
  • LinkedIn has a wealth of data on job trends, like in-demand positions and industries. They use it frequently in their content.
The OKCupid article at left got hundreds of on-page reactions. LinkedIn’s article on in-demand skills was shared more than 19,000 times across Facebook.

4. Pinpoint the exact who and why behind sharing

Two important questions to ask to improve the odds of your content going viral:

  1. Who would share it?
  2. Why would they share it? (Refer back to Jonah Berger’s six STEPPS for help with this one.)

Your market research and customer personas (step 1 at the link) will be essential as you answer those questions. The more specific your answers, the better.

After all, understanding your audience is the core of virality. Without people, content can’t be shared.

5. Add compelling headlines to articles

Half the battle of getting users to share content is motivating them to click on it in the first place. That’s why headlines are so critical.

Consider why your audience would find your content compelling, and create a title based on that reason. Note that “compelling” doesn’t mean clickbait—avoid creating titles that trick or mislead readers. You can test this by asking, “Would I be disappointed to see this piece of content based on the title?”  

According to virality research, the B2C headlines that are most likely to drive engagement:

  • Stir emotion: “The Investment Advice That Could Change Your Financial Life”
  • Create urgency: “These Popular Android Apps Are Putting User Data at Risk”
  • Offer a solution or explanation: “Understanding Crypto: We Explain Bitcoin Lingo for Those Crypto Noobs”
  • Use numbers: “The 50 Best TV Shows to Binge-Watch Tonight”

While the top B2B headlines:

  • Explicitly describe what a piece of content is about: “62.41% of All Google Searches Generate 0 Clicks”
  • Offer an explanation or actionable advice: “Ecommerce SEO: A Simple (But Complete) Guide”
  • Relate to industry news: “How Intel and Burger King Built an Order Recommendation System That Preserves Customer Privacy”
  • Use numbers: “18 Examples of Brilliant Email Marketing Campaigns”
  • Include brackets for clarification: “Ecommerce Business Ideas in 2022 [From 27 Industry Experts]”

6. Optimize content for shareability

If content can’t be shared easily, it probably won’t go viral.

Should you use hashtags? If it makes sense to, sure. They help make content more discoverable, although they aren’t an exact science. Content quality matters much more than hashtags for virality potential.

If you use them, keep them limited: ~3-5 hashtags on Instagram and no more than two on Twitter. On TikTok, like Twitter, the character limit makes it impossible to add too many hashtags anyway. After a short and hook-y description, use the remaining space for the most relevant hashtag topics, like hashtags with plenty of existing posts—ones people are actively using and searching for.

viral content - noodles the pug
Jonathan Graziano included five hashtags in one of his viral TikTok videos about Noodle, his adorable 13-year-old pug (13.7 million views). These hashtags work well because they enhance his message—fans will love seeing the hashtag #noodletok. Source: @jongraz

Other ways to make content more shareable:

  • Focus on a single message. Avoid tackling too many topics within a piece of content. Commit to one, then get to the point quickly.
  • Make content that’s easy to consume. Order your content logically. For text-based content, use headings, lists, and line breaks. Always check to make sure your content looks good on mobile devices (especially if you built it on desktop).
  • Add descriptive featured images to articles. Your featured image is like a sneak peek of your article. Choose an appealing one to get more users to click.
featured images from ahrefs blog
We love the featured images on the Ahrefs blog. They’re delightful—and shareable.

7. Create content that’s authentic to your brand identity

Look at existing viral content for inspiration—but don’t try to copy it if it doesn’t fit your brand’s mission, voice, and values.

For example, some brands, like Netflix and Groupon, use humor successfully in their viral content. That doesn’t mean it’s a must for yours.

For more on brand identity, check out step 2, “Define Your Brand Voice,” in our article on writing marketing emails.

How to optimize your results

There may be trends in what makes some pieces of content go viral—but still, achieving virality is more art than science.

Part of why there’s no foolproof formula for content virality is the fact that it usually reflects the culture and trends of a specific point in time—which are always changing. So a viral piece of content from 10 years ago likely wouldn’t go viral today because of changes in people’s ideas of what’s worth sharing.

Although there’s no easy answer to content virality, you can increase its likelihood through repeated effort. Think of creativity as a muscle. To exercise it, you should:

  • Monitor news and trending topics. Pay attention to news where your brand can make an interesting contribution (called newsjacking).
  • Conduct social listening. See if any memes or pop culture–related trends are gaining traction on social media. If it makes sense for your brand, engage with them.
  • Study the latest viral content in your industry and from your competitors. Continue to reverse engineer the content that’s popular with your target audience, and look for ways to improve it.
  • Experiment with your content. Test new approaches and ideas. Analyze your results, and apply new learnings to future content.

More examples of viral marketing

Food clapbacks

The food-and-beverage industry was an early adopter of virality-driven social media marketing. Where others played it safe, sticking with higher-up-approved brand language, some food companies went bold and opinionated.

It worked. Here are some F&B social posts that went viral. Source for all three: the endlessly entertaining Vulture article “Brand Twitter Grows Up.”

moonpie viral tweet
Literal shade. Source: @MoonPie
sunnyd viral tweet
This was sent during Super Bowl LIII, but it went viral without that context—sparking a lot of controversy and conversation. Source: @SunnyD
ihop viral tweet
IHOP’s announcement that they were changing their name to IHOb got 7.5 million views. It was an extremely effective marketing promotion for their burgers. Source: @IHOP

Zillow

Zillow has enough resources to invest in all kinds of content marketing, including creative content with the goal of getting lots of shares. For example, it’s created property listings for Santa’s home and the Incredibles’ super-home.

zillow's property listings for santa and the incredibles

They even created press releases to get more eyes on their listings.

zillow press release - santa's home
Source: Zillow

These fictional property listings aren’t meant to be optimized for SEO—they’re for entertainment. Anyone who likes Christmas or Pixar might share them for fun, placing Zillow’s brand in front of more people.

Course Hero

The online learning platform Course Hero commissions infographics as a key part of its digital marketing strategy. Their 500+ infographics summarize famous pieces of literature.

course hero infographics
Course Hero’s Pinterest gets 1.4 million monthly views.

Free for anyone to use, the infographics are especially useful for Course Hero’s target audience: teachers and students.

They’ve been shared on Pinterest hundreds of thousands of times. Even better, they lead new traffic to Course Hero’s website and other resources, like study guides for each famous book.

Beardbrand

The men’s grooming company Beardbrand is known for its strong video marketing. It took a new angle and created fresh content to appeal to what it calls the “urban beardsman”—not the hippies, lumberjacks, or other stereotypes often associated with beards.

Beardbrand’s YouTube channel has more than 1.8 million subscribers. Some of its most popular videos are hair and beard transformations, which get millions of views and thousands of comments.

beardbrand viral video
Source: Beardbrand

Word-of-mouth virality

word of mouth definition

When something has word-of-mouth virality, its users love it so much that they talk about it. To friends, family, maybe even strangers.

They might talk about it IRL (offline word of mouth) or on social networks or other online platforms (online word of mouth).

Like the other virality types in this article, it’s organic. The people spreading the word aren’t getting an incentive, and they’re not being asked to do it.

People think this type of virality is largely out of their control.‌

That’s partly true. You can’t force people to talk about something. To get word of mouth, your product or content has to be so good that people want to talk about it. It has to be “remarkable”—in that someone would remark about it to a friend.

But there are some things that are under your control when it comes to being remarkable.‌

3 ways to increase your chances of getting word of mouth

Any marketing or PR initiative has the potential to build word of mouth. Social proof, user-generated content, influencer marketing—any of these can be a cost-effective way to build buzz around your brand.

Here are three specific ways to get people talking.

1. Build your community

Community is critical to word of mouth. To get people talking, give them a forum where they can.

To create community around your brand:

Strengthen customer relationships directly. You probably can’t (and shouldn’t) set up Zoom chats with all your customers. But you can reach out to some of them. That might mean your top customers, your influential customers, or anyone you want to show a little appreciation for.

Despite being one of the most famous people in the world, Taylor Swift surprises fans at their weddings. She visits them at the hospital. Those visits are much more powerful word-of-mouth drivers than any step-and-repeat pose would be.

Do niche community outreach. To build connections that start conversations, focus your audience outreach. People will spread the word if they feel a strong connection to your message.

If you’re targeting real estate developers, you might write an opinion piece in your local paper about a recent development, then email the link to your local real estate association. If you're targeting coffee connoisseurs, consider doing a live class on brewing techniques, with a special deal for attendees.

Do something bold that aligns with your community’s values. This is especially important if Gen Z, aka the Action Generation, is a core demographic of your target audience. They care deeply about their values—67% would stop using, or even boycott, a brand that clashes with them.

One of those values is authenticity. If you do something bold that shows your brand is genuine, you’ll gain the trust of your audience and prove you’re the real deal.

Example: The cosmetics company Lush, a Gen Z favorite, quit Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat in late 2021. They had millions of followers on those social networks collectively, before their feeds went dark.

In a press release, the Lush team explained that until those platforms took steps to create a safer environment for users, they’d be somewhere else. The risky stance garnered global press coverage and conversation.

google trends - lush cosmetics
Worldwide interest in Lush peaked when they announced they were leaving four major social media platforms. Source: Google Trends

2. Add a personal touch

Make your customer experience as remarkable as possible. And make it personal.

A few examples:

Spotify Wrapped: Spotify’s end-of-year recaps of individual users’ listening habits got shared over 60 million times in 2020—among 90 million users. People love talking about and sharing their top songs of the year. Personalization can be a powerful catalyst for virality.

Netflix: Check out this clever variation on a cease and desist:

netflix - stranger things cease and desist letter
Source: AmyNewman.com

A viral message like that could convert users—and even prospects—into brand advocates. Netflix subscribers who get the references and inside jokes will delight in the connections they feel.

It’s remarkable. And shareable.

3. Make your product exclusive or scarce

In October 2016, an op-ed appeared in the New York Times with the headline, “I Paid $2,500 for a ‘Hamilton’ Ticket. I’m Happy About It.” The author, N. Gregory Mankiw (an economics professor at Harvard), had heard about how great the show was from friends, and he’d seen the glowing reviews from critics.

But tickets were notoriously hard to get. Shows were booked out far in advance. Instead of waiting months for his shot at seeing a performance, Mankiw decided it’d be worth it to shell out thousands per ticket on the marketplace StubHub.

hamilton gif - wait for it
The opposite of what Mankiw did. Source: tenor.com

That’s the power of exclusivity. It makes tickets hot and products get bought. It’s why Birkin bags are shrouded in envy and speakeasies have wait lists.

“Scarcity and exclusivity help products catch on by making them seem more desirable. If something is difficult to obtain, people assume that it must be worth the effort,” Jonah Berger writes in Contagious. “People evaluate cookbooks more favorably when they are in limited supply, find cookies tastier when they are scarce, and perceive pantyhose as higher end when it’s less available.”

To get people talking about your product, consider making it scarce. Exclusivity tactics include displaying low stock availability, making your service invitation-only at first, or offering deals only to brand “insiders.”

More examples of word of mouth

Brooklinen

The luxury-bedding retailer Brooklinen started out as a small business founded by a husband-and-wife team, Vicki and Rich Fulop. To raise brand awareness in those early days, the couple drove around New York City in a rented Zipcar, delivering sheets to influencers and bloggers. They included a handwritten note with each delivery, asking the recipient to try out the sheets and tell others about the experience.

They made a quarter-million dollars in their first month. By 2020, six years after launching, they were bringing in $100 million annually.

brooklinen homepage
Brooklinen’s homepage highlights how wide their customer base is, and how much customers love their products.

The Greatest Showman

The 2017 P. T. Barnum musical The Greatest Showman cost $84 million to make. It earned less than $9 million during its opening weekend.

The response from the studio’s head of domestic distribution: “We thought we were dead.”

But positive audience exit polls offered a glimmer of hope. The few people who saw the movie really liked it. It turned out that they also liked talking about it on social media. And telling their friends about it.

Its second weekend in theaters, Greatest Showman made $15.5 million. By its tenth, it had made $146 million domestically—and $314 million worldwide.

All because of word of mouth.

Push virality

push virality definition

The final organic virality type is push virality. This is similar to word of mouth, except that instead of hearing people talk about a product, you see it. Maybe you see someone on the street wearing an enviable Burberry coat. Or you visit a friend’s home and realize, while lounging on their comfortable Ikea sofa, that you could really use something similar.

Exposure leads to awareness, which could lead to interest and conversion.

In addition to being like word of mouth, push virality has a close relationship with word of mouth. When someone sees a product in the wild and gets interested in it, they often talk about it too.

Examples of push virality

  • Physical products: A stylish person wears Supreme → you see them at a party → you think Supreme is cool and decide to buy it.
  • Digital products: When you buy something online and see that the checkout process is “powered by Stripe,” you’re exposed to Stripe. You’ll recognize it the next time you see it.
  • Vehicles: You see someone riding an electric bike, scooter, Tesla, or Uber (especially in Uber’s early days) → you register it and store it in your memory for later retrieval.

Why it works: Familiarity breeds preference

Push virality works because when we see something more, we tend to like it more.

According to the mere-exposure effect, people develop a preference for things because they’re familiar with them. If you’ve heard of A and never heard of B, you’ll probably like A more.

That effect is at the root of marketing strategies like influencer marketing, guerilla marketing, out-of-home ads (e.g., billboards), and really all standard ad campaigns. It’s why marketers use “impressions” as a metric. More impressions means more exposure.

Of course, the more market share your product has, the more exposure it will get. All your growth marketing tactics will help with that.

Here are a few product features that can also help increase push virality.

Digital product features that can boost virality

Some features that can increase exposure for digital products are:

  • Signatures and “credit lines.” Let users or recipients know who’s behind the curtain. Examples: “Powered by Slice,” “Proudly created with Wix.” This kind of language often appears at the bottom of emails sent through email service providers like Mailchimp, Intercom, and Superhuman.
  • Buttons and widgets. To order a pizza from your local pizzeria, you might click a button that says “Order online with DoorDash.”
  • URLs. This is much subtler, but you could put your company name in URLs. For example, when a company sends out a survey managed by the survey brand Alchemer, “Alchemer” appears in the URL for that survey.
branded badges
Add push virality to your digital product with signatures, credit lines, buttons, and widgets.

A simple tactic that pretty much all B2B companies can use: Try increasing exposure through clients’ and partners’ websites. For instance, look into getting your logo added to their partners page.

This can be mutually beneficial. If your brand sends its logo, you get more visibility. If your brand is reputable, your partner benefits from showcasing their relationship with you.

Virality-boosting physical product features

Physical products have inherent push virality, which is amplified when you draw attention to your brand. Add your branding to your packaging. Give out free stickers of your logo. Whenever someone puts one on their water bottle, they’re showcasing your brand.

But people will only do that if they like your brand and product. Push virality starts with creating a product people want to push. It only works if your product has core value.

Virality is all about product value

In fact, core product value is essential for all virality types. If users don’t love your product, they won’t pull or push others into it. They won’t talk about it. They might share its content, but those shares won’t result in retained users.

No viral marketing technique will be successful if your product doesn’t fit with your target audience. As product builder Josh Elman puts it, “Whenever you’re thinking about engineering virality, you need to be sure that it’s reaching the right people, gets them interested for reasons that align with the intrinsic value of your product, and leads them to the right actions.”

Everything goes back to your product. And the value users get from it.

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Content @ Demand Curve. Obsessed with books and Beyoncé. Trying to learn Spanish and live on a boat.

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