Engineering Viral Products

9 Ways to Engineer Viral Products and Word of Mouth Marketing

Designing virality and word of mouth marketing into your product

When it comes to producing hockey stick growth and exploding valuations, virality and word of mouth are the holy grail. A product that markets itself without spending a dime on customer acquisition (CAC)… That is the stuff of legends that every company strives for, but few ever achieve.

Because virality is hard.

Because virality “is not” engineerable.

At least that is what they say.

And while we can never guarantee explosive growth or that something will “go viral,” there are several powerful strategies to increase your odds of success and the overall organic growth of your company and user base. And they don’t have to be hard, not if you start from the beginning with virality and growth in mind, because often, many key product and UX/UI decisions your team will be forced to make will have major implications on just how viral your product or service becomes.

So don’t limit yourself from the start. Instead, let’s look at fundamentals of virality and find out how to incorporate some of the proven strategies to help your company scale.

The 9 Ways to Engineer Viral Products & Growth

1. Make the product AWESOME

This is a prerequisite for everything else. If your product or service doesn’t blow customers/users away or serve an incredibly important role in their business or private life, they’re not going to share or recommend your product.

Period. End of Story.

You need something awesome if you want people to talk about it.

And while there is a lot that goes into creating a killer product (well beyond the scope of this article), there is one point worth hammering home and that is Net Promoter Score or NPS.

NPS is a measure of how likely a customer/user is to recommend a product or service to a friend. It is a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being the worst product experience you’ve ever had and 10 being so awesome you can’t shut up about it. Like when Tesla first came out or that first iPod you had.

The key to NPS is understanding the scoring. Anything less than 6 means your product sucks while a 6 or 7 means people couldn’t really care less. It is only once you hit 8 and beyond that product virality and word of mouth actually work. Anything less and you need to focus first on the product.

  1. Referrals

When it comes to direct referrals (i.e. literally asking someone to sign up or to buy something, there are two primary categories: Incentivized Referrals and Value Add Referrals.

Let’s start with Incentivized Referrals, of which, there are Free and Paid variations. 

Incentivized Referrals

With Incentivized Free Referrals, the concept is pretty simple. If you get someone to sign up, you both get something of value for free.

These are typically the products or services you’d share with your family, friends or network because you love the product and know they will too.

Examples of Incentivized Referrals (FREE):
  • Airbnb: Invite a friend and get a free night
  • Uber: Invite a friend and you both get a free ride
  • Groupon deals for large groups

Dropbox Referral Word of Mouth Marketing

But Incentivized Paid Referrals are something else entirely. These function more in a business sense, with someone actively promoting a product or service in order to get paid, i.e. the business model of many blogs and podcasts.

Which is exactly how I used to monetize my old ecommerce podcast, sharing special discounts on the software I used to run my business and getting paid when someone signed up. That allowed me to reinvest 100% of the actual ecommerce business revenue into growth and hit scale so quickly.

Examples of Incentivized Referrals (PAID) = Affiliates 
  • Top 10 Product Sites (these typically monetize via Amazon’s affiliate program which pays 4%+ commission on sales)
  • Wix, Shopify etc…
  • Blogs and Review Sites like The Wirecutter, Engadget or most of the trusted sites you know and love (it is the same thing with all those silly unboxing videos on Youtube)

Value Add Referrals

And then there are the Value Add Referrals, where you get another person on the platform or using the products and that makes the overall experience better for both of you. These are pretty straightforward and generally referred to as network effects (More on the 5 types of network effects and how to hack them).

Examples of Value Add Referrals (you’ve probably been pulled in, right?):
  • Facebook: Add your friends so you can chat & see them
  • Whatsapp: Invite your family so you can call for free
  • Slack: Invite your coworkers so you can collaborate and reduce email

The question is, is there a way you can design referrals into your product? What kind of incentives would you have to offer or how would you have to design/alter your product to make it something users couldn’t help but share? 

Speaking of, let’s talk social.

2. Social Sharing

People share things on social media for one of two reasons: either to show off/gain “brownie points” or to complain about or attack something. That is pretty much it.

And when it comes to actually posting things on social media, there are also two different techniques: Organic Sharing and Encouraged Sharing.

Organic sharing is more or less what we talked about above.

Examples of Organic Sharing:

This type of social sharing is much harder to engineer. It is either organically part of your product, or it is not. The one thing you can do as a product designer is to make it incredibly easy – this means having as little of a time commitment as possible with the minimum number of steps.

Social Media Organic Bragging Post

Donald Trump hateful tweet posting

Facebook Organic Bragging about Kids

Examples of Enabling Organic Sharing 
  • Sharing buttons on the sidebar or header/footer of every website or blog (like you see here)
  • One click Instagram uploads to Facebook
  • Click to Tweet this article here (pre-formatted Tweets that post with one click)

Encouraged Sharing

And then there is the other category of social sharing, the one you have MUCH more of an influence on and that you MUST optimize if you want to achieve real virality. 

This is where you need to think like a salesman. No one is going to buy your product (or share it) unless you ask.

But within Encouraged Social Sharing, the fact there’s both organic and incentivized versions isn’t often considered. 

Sure, we’ve all see the Encouraged Social Sharing that goes something like this:

Click here to show your support for #SavingBabyWhales or even more extreme or playful examples.

Encouraged Social Sharing - Jesus Guilt Trip

Either way, this is using a call to action (CTA) plus a play on the user’s desire to look good in front of their friends and family. But these can be implemented without such manipulative tactics as well.

Just remember, it is all about making your users look good!

Examples of Encouraged Sharing:
  • Click here to share your Peloton miles biked/calorie burn – Subtle message: I workout!
  • Share your KIVA donation on Facebook – Subtle message: I’m a good person
  • Share your recipe with your friends on social – Subtle message: I can cook well

In all of those instances, they used an actionable CTA to create more buzz… and it works.

But so does Incentivized Social Sharing – which is most easily explained with examples.

Examples of Incentivized Social Sharing:
  • Tag us on instagram/post a video etc… to enter a free raffle
  • For every 10 shares/likes etc… we’ll plant a tree, donate to charity etc…
  • Doritos Fan-Generate Superbowl ads: The best fan made videos will be funded and run as official Super Bowl ads

And so on and so forth….

In summary, here are the questions you need to ask yourself and your product team:

  1. How do you help your customers/users look cool to their friends?
  2. How do you encourage users to share and engage?
  3. How easy is it for users to share your content?

If any of your answers aren’t as phenomenal as the examples above, think about what you need to tweak to push your social engagement and virality to the next level.

By the way, this is what I do for a living: I help companies grow and scale faster by merging strategy, marketing and product into one. Find out how I can help your business go bigger, faster.

ONE LAST NOTE: When users try to share your product/site etc… be sure the social media  post includes a link preview to maximize attention and screen real estate.

3. Daily Usage / Product Features

Yet another class of drastically underutilized/totally forgotten product virality is actual real world usage. Imagine, in a digital age, in-person can still have incredible viral effects.

Because seeing is believing.

Don’t believe me? Here are a few powerful examples which might just change your mind.

Examples of Daily Usage / Product Feature Virality:

How about the 1st time a friend invited you in an Uber (or you saw someone getting dropped off)?

“You have a personal chauffeur?” That would be my first reaction. And then of course, the friend tells you all about Uber.

Uber Limo chauffeur

Then there’s pre-COVID networking events. “Sorry, l ran out of business cards, but do you have Linkedin?” In two seconds their app was open.

Or the notorious Netflix and chill… Even in non-romantic settings, seeing the possibility of seemingly unlimited options at your fingertips for just $10 a month. Sign me up!

It is the same thing when you’re out with friends about to pay. “Do you have Venmo? We can split the check.”

Pretty powerful, huh? The problem is, it’s very hard to design for as there needs to be a real world component and many products and services just don’t lend themselves to this type of “sells itself” coolness.

4. Direct Sharing / Sending Something

It is always nice when your users literally force others to adopt your product. If that sounds underhanded, it is because it is. But it is also incredibly effective and super beneficial for both of them.

To demonstrate, here are a few classic examples.

Examples of Direct Sharing / Sending Something:
  1. Money Transfer: Venmo/Paypal
  2. File Sharing: Wetransfer/Dropbox/Docusign etc…
  3. Location Sharing: Uber/Google Maps

Paypal Money Transfer

Face it, very few people are going to turn down free money, forgo receiving a contract or be lost for hours looking for a friend because they don’t want to sign up for another service.

Again, some things just sell/market themselves.

But that doesn’t mean you cannot influence this. There is one time-tested strategy that can work wonders when implemented right, if it aligns with your product’s functionality.

Share this with a friend.

Perhaps you’ve designed an e-Birthday card for your aunt or took the perfect selfie at the club. Well, in addition to being something you can share on social media, most things can also be shared directly via email or Whatsapp as well. The key is, as we said earlier, you just need to ask/encourage users in the right way. A well-timed CTA to “share with a friend” probably won’t have massive usage, but every percentage point counts when we are talking long term exponential growth.

So, here’s a little homework. What are the key stages or actions in a user’s journey with your product? Are any of these moments things that they might want to share? If they are, you’re in business. You found your “sharing sweet spot.”

5. Freemium Plans + Company Logos

One of the more common ways companies design virality into their offerings is through visibility – letting others use the product or service for free in exchange for getting in front of prospective customers in a natural way.

Because what better way to market your product than by showcasing its primary use case? Not only is the barrier to entry low for users (i.e. “free”mium), it allow means your product literally explains itself.

When was the last time you saw a Sent by Mailchimp monkey icon, a customer service popup Powered by Intercom or a blog proudly displaying a Built on WordPress footer?

It is an almost daily occurrence. 

Powered By Mailchimp Email Marketing

And not only will this keep your company top of mind, it also means users are just one click away from entering your site, your funnel and probably checking out your pricing page or signing up. 

While the numbers might not be enormous (at least initially) what happens when you hit Mailchimp-esque scale and have 11M+ users reaching over 4B people worldwide (2019 stats vai TechCrunch)? Suddenly, you spread like viral wildfire!

Obviously this technique works best for SaaS or digital companies, at least if you can afford to “give away” freemium access to your service. That is a complicated decision in and of itself. I’ve worked with startups where this works wonders, drastically increasing both free and paid users and signups and others where a freemium tier actually cannibalizes paying customers. 

But you won’t know until you try. So run the experiment if it makes sense for your company and see what the numbers say. 

(And if you want help optimizing this and your product’s pricing, we should chat!)

6. Collaboration

Nothing beats teamwork, at least when it comes to building a viral B2B product. Imagine acquiring a single user who then goes on to onboard their entire team, their entire division, their entire 10k person organization… That is the power of building collaboration into your product.

Because only one thing beats a word of mouth referral… your boss having the last word. And either your boss was the one that brought Slack into the team in the first place to reduce email overload, or she got invited after the entire department was already addicted to the system. Either way, you’re in and you win.

Which is why combining collaboration with a freemium model is so powerful. It is like a virus you don’t know you have until it is too late to stop. Plus, it is pretty convenient and teams actually love it. That is what we call buy-in and lock-in. 

In other words: $CHA CHING!

And while we’ve all probably used Slack, Microsoft Teams, Gchat or something else in organizations in the past, collaborative tools and this form of collaborative virality are by no means limited to communication tools.

Other Examples of Collaborative Virality:
  1. Share editor access on a Google Doc
  2. Email this Asana task to new user
  3. Invite a new contributor on GitHub

And wait one second – I know what you are thinking. “My product’s not about collaborating.” But that doesn’t mean it can’t be…

What about Canva, the image design platform, i.e. idiot-proof Photoshop for design work? Designing a business card or a wedding invitation is a pretty individual thing… at least until it isn’t. What happens when that wedding planner builds out an agency or a simple mockup becomes the basis of a marketing campaign? Things expand quickly.

Canva photo collaboration

And Canva realized most organizations want to be able to share designs among users and departments, both for feedback and for additional revisions. That means managing multiple users, access levels and ultimately, creating corporate/business accounts!

By simply prompting users to share designs with their friends and colleagues (even when they might not have thought to do so initially), you create an open environment where users literally discover collaborative use cases themselves.

With enough creativity, most anything can be made collaborative. The only question is, how can your product?

7. Sexiness: Logo, Brand & Product

Sex sells. That has been proven time and time again. But so do the attributes associated with sex appeal. What’s cool, what’s trendy, what makes you unique?

A few thoughts probably pop to mind.

Now for a quick experiment. Check your shoes, shirt, underwear etc… What brands are you wearing? And what do those brands symbolize or market themselves as?

Probably the exact attributes you listed to describe yourself, right?

Humans are social by our nature. We want to fit in because evolutionarily, if we didn’t, we’d be outcasts and have died off alone. And no pass on our genes!

That is why people wear Rolex, buy Tesla or tout their Nikes. We all want to convey a “better,” cooler version of ourselves to the outside world, to self-identify with the others we want in our social circle. 

This is why your logo and brand are so important, because they’re your symbol to the world, your “calling card” for what your company stands for. And while you can work on your brand story and values in how you convey yourself to the world (which has a huge impact on the type of and number of customers you attract), the other thing to consider, at least when designing your product, is the sexiness and how well it aligns with you as a company.

Unfortunately I can’t find the exact quote, but Elon Musk, when asked about Tesla’s aesthetics once said something to the effect of, “It didn’t cost any more to make the cars look sexy, so we did…” 

Tesla - virality via sexy branding and design

And while climate-consciousness and wanting to be part of the “in crowd” are a big reason Tesla has scaled so quickly, having a sexy car certainly helps.

Moral of the story: make your product and brand as appealing as possible.

Because it all kind of comes back to sex and passing on your genes…

8. Embedded Content

Second to last but certainly not second to least when it comes to pouring gasoline on your product’s viral growth is embedded content – something between a parasitic and symbiotic relationship that allows you to scale on the back of other products while the other service benefits from the unique value of your product.

If that all sounds a bit abstract, it is because it is. It is much easier to talk practical examples.

Examples of Embedded Virality:
  • Embedding a Youtube video on a site
  • Embedding a Tweet in a blog post
  • Google’s little link pop ups/previews/answers right in search

Youtube embedding content

Anything that you can do to make it easier for users or companies to integrate your product or content into what they are doing, the better. Some may argue that APIs are a form of embedding as well, and while they are, it is hard to argue that they push virality. Growth, yes… because allowing API access to your product or service allows developers and businesses to build upon what you have done and often allows services to hit scale incredibly quickly, but in a conventional definition of virality and user to user spread, it is a bit different and outside the scope of this article.

9. Blockchain and Token Economics

Blockchain has the potential to be one of the most disruptive technologies of our lifetime. In addition to the innumerable benefits of transparency in many sectors and use cases, the reason blockchains and cryptocurrencies are so powerful comes down to the incredibly strong network effects associated with them (speaking of, here’s more on the 5 types of network effects and how to hack them!).

Not only do “believers” have strong opinions on how the world should be, especially with respect to the obvious corruption and instability displayed in the finance industry (enabled by massive government bailouts and bonuses to bank execs), by becoming “early adopters” in a movement/project, token owners feel a reasonable sense of ownership and thus emotional stake in the success or failure of the platform/app/project etc…

Add to this the economic implications of legalized, legitimate Ponzi schemes – i.e. every new user you convince of your worldview/to join the movement and buy in, the greater your tokenized stake in the network is worth.

It is literally like paying Jehovah’s Witnesses or Evangelicals for every non-believer they converted. You’d create a religious army.

When you tie: Pure Passion to Pure Profit, you get Fanaticism

Bitcoin HODL Blockchain Network Effects

Which isn’t to say leveraging tokens and blockchain technology is the wrong way to build a business or product. In fact, it is often the only conceivable way of unseating the near insurmountable monopolies of big tech today (which I go into further in this post).

But as this is beyond the scope of this article and not something most products or businesses can consider implementing (without forcing a useless token into a product that clearly doesn’t need it just to let them do an ICO), so I think it is time to end the article here.

Closing Thoughts on Virality

Viral growth is what we all want. It is the key to effortless hockey stick charts, exploding valuations and often, the fuel for an extremely defensible business flywheel. And as you have seen here, there are a lot of ways to engineer virality and word of mouth marketing into most products and services.

The biggest question that remains is which viral loops fit best with your business and model and which you are going to try first. Remember, when it comes to viral coefficients (i.e. how many new users every user brings on board – something we understand all too well now thanks to Covid-19), even small percentile differences create exponential waves in the medium and long term. 

That is even better than compounding interest.

So, that is my challenge to you. Choose 3-5 techniques that could plausibly work in your business and test them. Share your thoughts, processes and results in the comments below. 

As you can see, these are some of the most powerful ways to grow your business bigger, faster… i.e., what is what I do best

But if you want help ideating on or implementing any of this to supercharge your mission-driven business’ growth and world changing potential, feel free to reach out here.

And if you want more proven strategies to up your sales, acquire more customers and reduce churn and build your business bigger, sign up for my free 15 Step Growth Guide here.



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