Tap your community and the K factor to drive viral growth

Going viral is the dream, but most projects need a little push.

Mariusz Gąsiewski, Google’s CEE Mobile Gaming Lead, compares going viral to sightings of the mythical Yeti, the legendary snow creature that allegedly roams the Himalayas.

“Many more people are talking about it than really saw it,” he told TechCrunch, noting that viral growth comes in two types: “real” and “supported.”

“Viral requires advocacy,” said Gąsiewski, meaning that most viral products trickle up via various levels of acceptance. Products that gain “real” virality are usually built from the bottom up, with smaller groups finding and sharing them until they eventually break the barrier.

Bored Apes, for example, began in the depths of NFT subculture, eventually crossing over into the mainstream thanks in part to disbelief at the prices paid for the artwork and promotion from celebrities like Paris Hilton and Jimmy Fallon.

Supported virality, said Gąsiewski, is bought and paid for.

“It is more common, although still rare,” he said. “In this case, someone is trying to create a snowball effect through advertising, working with influencers, etc.” He said this variant has become more difficult to create as audiences become more media-savvy.

“Even hyper-casual games whose growth strategies were based on such idea[s] in the past do not work in that way anymore,” said Gąsiewski. “Their growth combined is with strong user acquisition (UA) activities.”

Formerly known as word of mouth, virality is the middle path, Solydaria creator Andrew Yakovlev said via email.

“It’s the hardest, yet least expensive, the path between the paid media ‘push’ path on one side and the content-based ‘organic’ ‘pull’ path on the other. Each of the three paths has their black, white and gray practices, their vices and virtues,” he said.

Yakovlev pointed to the K factor formula:

  • k=i*c

  • i = average number of invites sent by each customer

  • c = average % conversion of each invite sent

In other words, given the size of the audience contacted, how many individuals responded and potentially engaged? Through a mixture of real and supported user acquisition, many marketers believe they can generate viral growth rates.

“Virality can be manifested; it’s not just a random occurrence that blesses some but not others,” said Yakovlev. “Viral effects need and do use networks, and so are often confused with network effects.”

In fact, viral events often happen independently from the platforms on which they occur: Twitter went viral at SXSW 2006 not because the service was unique, but because proto-influencers selected the platform as the de facto means of communication at the event over many competing services. This early adoption by those in the know brought in increasingly wider audiences that adopted the platform because of its content, not its functionality.

Community is the key

I interviewed two app marketers about how they pushed their products into virality. They had different views on the process but found it ultimately came down to building an active community.

Sam Zivot, marketing manager at StickerYou, said his company went viral after it dropped sticker leaks into its growing product community.

The key, he said, was “providing a valuable incentive to an online community that is naturally viral in its nature.”

“Dropping sticker leaks at random intervals kept the audience on edge, and ready to pounce with each new release,” he said.

Reality.co CEO John Woznowski sees virality as primarily a process of preparation and outreach. In his case, he built a base of grassroots interest by making his global game, a real estate trading simulation, seem like a local phenomenon.

They prepared the game, Landlord GO, by localizing it into 40 languages and then added 150 million real-world properties. To get the word out globally, his team targeted 200 of the biggest cities in the world and sent out 200 individualized press releases to the media in each of those cities.

The plan, said Woznowski, was wild.

“We cold emailed over 75,000 journalists, divided city by city in small groups,” he said. “Each email contained the journalist’s full name, their outlet name, the city name, a local famous property name, and a real number of active players from that area.”

To make things more interesting, they created 200 photo sets from each city in order to further localize the message. In other words, Woznowski made a global phenomenon seem like something that was bubbling up locally.

“The process took about two days and I didn’t sleep because people were replying, asking for questions, and calling me over the phone. It was crazy!” The result? His game saw an estimated 2 billion views in a short period.

Zivot said that the real key to virality is the ability to demonstrate a product to a potential user or, better yet, have a member of your community demonstrate the product for you.

“Never underestimate the power of demonstration. Many of the products exploding on the internet today have origins in the humble demonstration,” he said. “Show how your product makes a difference, and you are on the path to virality. Or just create the next Wordle.”

What is the worst way to go viral? Zivot said influencers rarely offered a solid ROI.

“Banking heavily on a celebrity or major influencer to carry your message, and having that celebrity or major influencer do something that not only compromises them but by default your brand,” is a bad idea, he said.

Jane Wang, CEO of Optimity, said that authenticity was key. She said that the worst way to create virality was through “creating misinformation and triggering conflict.”

You’re also sunk “if that virality is based on unsustainable incentives or growth, e.g., paying people to use your app,” she said.

Dumb luck and preparation

Virality comes when you least expect it and, conversely, only when you are ready for it. By creating an environment that encourages virality, you can turn the hit-or-miss nature of viral products into a hit machine. That said, you have to have all of the pieces in place, including a working product, a large potential customer list, and a lot of luck and support.

Interestingly, Yakovlev pointed to a tall tale that viral marketers tell about former video-sharing company CEO Lou Kerner. Kerner’s startup, Yashi Media, was neck and neck with YouTube until the video “Lazy Sunday” took the Internet by storm. Kerner claims that he bumped into Chad Hurley at a YouTube conference, where he mentioned that if the “Lazy Sunday” video had been uploaded to Kerner’s site instead of YouTube, then the two would have been in different positions.

“Yeah,” said Hurley. “But why would my brother have uploaded it to Yashi?”

It just goes to show you that even with the most preparation, sometimes dumb luck — or your brother — steps in to mix things up.