Five secrets to making your startup go viral

Mike Trigg

December 22, 2014

An amended version of this post was originally published on

Screen Shot 2014-12-22 at 12.04.41 PMWhen Facebook paid around US$16 billion for mobile messaging service WhatsApp, people were stunned by the sky-high valuation. But what’s even more remarkable about WhatsApp is that it reached 450 million monthly users “without investing a penny in marketing”.

It’s a great example of a truly viral product, one that spreads by providing a valuable service not only to the initial user but also to their friends, family and colleagues. In the digital world, virality is a science expressed in mathematical formulas. Hightail has benefitted from natural viral growth as a result of users sharing files through our service. But what if your product isn’t a social network or messaging service with an obvious viral hook? How can you create a viral effect that will help your product spread via your customers’ networks?

Rather than relying on the barefaced bribery of a referral program or desperate begging for Likes and positive reviews, try these five tips for adding a smart viral twist to your product.

1. Let sharing benefit everyone
In 1991, telco firm MCI (for whom I once worked) was vying for new customers in the recently deregulated long-distance calling market. While rivals AT&T and Sprint relied on cold calls and direct mail, MCI invented the “Friends & Family plan”. Suddenly, every MCI customer had a compelling incentive to promote its service: discounted calls to their relatives and friends. Though this concept is now ubiquitous, at the time it was truly innovative.

MCI’s telemarketers could now begin sales calls by saying “I’m calling on behalf of your friends and family”, giving them three times the close rate as cold calls. By the end of the year, the company’s revenues, customer numbers and call traffic had increased significantly. An official AT&T response stated, “We would be uncomfortable using our customers as salespeople for our products.” If that represents the prevailing attitude of the early 90s, then MCI’s thinking was really ahead of its time.

2. Give sharing an emotional value
Coca-Cola Santa Claus adCoca-Cola is famous for its emotional marketing campaigns, from popularizing the modern image of Santa Claus to teaching the world to sing. The company recently gave this emotional appeal a viral twist by replacing the famous Coke logo on cans and bottles with thousands of names. The idea is to find one with the name of a friend or family member and buy it for them. The Share a Coke campaign first ran in the UK in 2013 and was so successful that Coke brought it to the US this year.

The forthcoming Apple Watch will also aim to create emotional connections with its “digital touch” features. Some tech observers are convinced that the ability to share heartbeats, sketches and other ephemera will make Apple Watch the most viral of all of the company’s products.

3. Make sharing the purpose of your product
GoPro makes lightweight video cameras designed for sports enthusiasts to record their activities. The technology is impressive, but GoPro’s transformation into a viral product is more a result of its action-packed online videos and in-store displays. The firm’s marketing doesn’t boast about product specs or features, they just show you someone boarding down a snow-covered mountain or swimming with dolphins.

GoPro’s “be a hero” tagline emphasizes that its cameras aren’t for just recording your latest extreme outing, they’re for sharing your adventures (often via Hightail) and impressing your friends. Customers are the company’s best marketing tool because they constantly share footage that highlights why anyone who loves action-based activity should have a GoPro product. “GoPro” has practically become a verb for filming personal action videos so don’t be surprised to hear supersonic skydivers or mugging victims say “I GoPro-ed it”.

4. Align your product with a powerful idea
Dove Campaign for Real Beauty adThe spread of ideas assuming a viral pattern is a theory propagated by the likes of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and the 2010 movie Inception. Associating a product with an idea is something beauty brand Dove has done extremely well. Positioned as the natural alternative to traditional beauty products, Dove’s marketing campaigns usually feature “natural women” and not stick-thin supermodels.

Dove’s “campaign for real beauty” goes beyond product promotion. This YouTube video depicting an ordinary girl being transformed into a billboard model with some hair, makeup and Photoshop tweaking, is a persuasive message about the modern beauty industry. It’s something anyone can get behind even if they don’t buy Dove products. Having been watched by more than 18 million people, the video has built brand advocacy for Dove as a different way of thinking about beauty.

5. Use social proof if your product has a perceived risk
Having said earlier that referral programs are barefaced bribery, there is a place for using cash or other incentives to help build your audience. Ride sharing app Uber offered users free rides for referring friends in order to overcome any uneasiness people may have felt about using unlicensed taxis. For new users, knowing that a friend had previously used the service established Uber as reliable and trustworthy. And of course, they too got a free ride.

So don’t be discouraged if your product isn’t naturally viral. Offline brands like Dove, Coca-Cola, and GoPro have shown that all it takes is a little creative thinking. Which of your favorite viral promotions did we miss? Let us know in the comments.


  1. bruno

    3 years ago

    Nice article!

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