“Let’s Just Add Some Virality”

A terrific post by venture capitalist Josh Kopelman on why marketing and customer acquisition plans are strategic and core to a business and not something you put off until the product's ready to ship. I especially agree with his point about the buzzword "virality." Building word-of-mouth doesn't come by wishing it so or "sprinkling" on some magic ingredient at the end of the product development process…

It happens all the time.  I’m meeting with an entrepreneur, who is telling me about a really innovative product idea for a consumer website.  And I’m liking it.  We’re going back and forth on product ideas.  And before I know it, we’re approaching the end of our meeting.  I then ask them, “So, how are you going to acquire customers.”  And that’s when it happens.  That’s when I realize that they’ve spent all their time focusing on the product/site, and aren’t nearly as innovative when it comes to their customer acquisition plans.  They view marketing as something they can “bolt on” afterwards.

The most disappointing answer is when they say “Oh, we’ll just make it viral.”  As if virality is something you can choose to add in after the product is baked – like a spell checker.  Let’s imagine the conversation at the marketing department of the wireless phone companies.  “Let’s see.  Should we spend $4 Billion on advertising this year…or should we just make it viral?”.

Virality is something that has to be engineered from the beginning…and it’s harder to create virality than it is to create a good product.  That's why we often see good products with poor virality, and poor products with good virality.  The reason that over $150 Billion is spent on US advertising each year is because virality is so hard.  If virality was easy, there would be no advertising industry.


Here's a video message from a Twitter spokesperson on how they think about their users. Important viewing for any Twitterholic.

4 comments on ““Let’s Just Add Some Virality”
  • I’d like to see some examples of “virality engineering” or a “customer acquisition plans.”

    No offense to John, but it seems like a pretty vague critique. Or maybe he’s just priming us for a future post…

  • Virality is kind of below-the-radar marketing, which seeds the brand among the most influential people. The basic idea is that if the firm can convince these people to make the brand their own, and configure the brand, like a virus, to make it easy to talk about, these influencers will rapidly spread their interest in the brand to others through their social networks, just as a virus spreads. At the beginning of the new-economy era, Douglas Rushkoff warned the world about what he termed media viruses. Brand managers quickly turned the tables and decided that going viral was the quickest and cheapest path to brand heaven. The more velocity through the system, the better the brand does.

    In such a context, entrepreneurs will have to explain their *seeding* strategy to the VC – not just how they plan to infect the early set of consumers, but *how* they spot the *influencers* from amongst the crowd.

    A related idea is what Malcolm Gladwell has called the coolhunt. Here brands are no longer led by marketers, they get their meaning and value on the streets by opinion-leading trendsetters who adopt the brands and give them cachet. Consumer goods companies send out cultural detectives onto the streets of cool territories, like the playgrounds in poor urban neighborhoods or underground clubs, to scout out new trends. The race is to grab the newest, coolest culture the fastest, before it becomes mass culture.

    Not easy for a startup to have that kind of (virallable) bandwidth. It’s plain over-confidence or excessive casualness if they use the expression “oh, we will viral it” during the concept stage. Just ask them how.

  • This drives me nuts. Saying “we’ll just make it go viral” is like saying you can bend the minds and wills of consumers. Not gonna happen, at least by a group of people who think virality can be cooked up almost as an afterthought. That’s like asking someone how they’re going to make a living as a writer: “Oh, I’ll just write bestsellers.”

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