The Two Types of Product Virality

Whenever presenting or teaching about growth I discuss “product virality” as I believe it’s one of the best ways for products to increase awareness and acquire new users. It’s free and it scales.

I define product virality as user flows and features within a product that naturally lead to existing users spreading awareness of the product to their network (friends, colleagues, family etc.).

I preface this with what product virality is not:

  • Incentivized or non-incentivized referral flows
  • PR
  • Word of Mouth

Examples of product virality include:

  • Dropbox folder sharing: You’re working on a project with group members where you need to share files so you try to get them to join.
Invite friends, coworkers or group members to join so you can share files with them via syncing folders.
  • Facebook photo-tagging: You inherently want to tag friends in photos. Back in the day, if your friends were not on Facebook they would receive an email indicating that they were tagged, this would prompt them to join Facebook if they weren’t on it yet.
  • WhatsApp group messaging: You created a WhatsApp group for your close friends to chat, so you naturally try to get all your close friends to join the app so they can participate.

After examining various examples, I found product virality can be further defined into two categories:

  • Pull product virality (PPV): Product virality where existing users require people in their network to join to gain value out of a feature.
  • Distribution product virality (DPV): Product virality where existing users spread awareness of a product to their network.

Using the above examples, with WhatsApp group messaging and Dropbox folder sharing you need certain people to join to gain the primary value from the feature whereas with Facebook photo-tagging you do not. The person who receives a notification that they were tagged in a photo simply becomes aware of Facebook in a very contextual way. Thus, the WhatsApp and Dropbox features would fall under PPV and Facebook photo-tagging would fall under DPV.

With PPV, your users actively try to convince people in their network to use the product to benefit themselves, whereas with DPV, your users are only making people in their network aware of the product and don’t necessarily gain value from specific people joining.

More examples of PPV:

  • Slack: You must have colleagues join your channels to gain the value of being able to communicate efficiently with others in the company.
  • Splitwise: You need your friends to join the app so you can input shared bills, money owing, and money lent with them.
Need friends on the product to input money owing and money lent
  • Skype: You need your friends to join to video conference with them.

More examples of DPV:

  • Instagram cross-posting: You inherently want to share Instagram photos on Facebook and Twitter as well, so they provide an inline and seamless experience for this. Your friends on these social networks will become aware of Instagram when they see the Instagram link or click through to the Instagram page.
Instagram upload cross-posted onto Twitter — note the link
  • Hotmail tagline: The infamous “Get Your Free Email at Hotmail” tagline at the end of all Hotmail emails that went out in their early days. Users would send emails and all the recipients would see the tagline, becoming aware of Hotmail.
  • Nike+ Running app, run sharing: When you have a great run that’s tracked through the app, you naturally want to share that to your social networks. Nike+ provides a unique integration with social networks like Facebook where it displays your pace and run map in the card that is shared. As your friends see your activity, they will become aware of the Nike+ Running app.
Unique social sharing cards from the Nike+ app integration with Facebook

Between the two types of product virality, PPV is much more effective in converting, activating, and retaining potential new users since the existing users are actively persuading someone to join and use the product.

By definition, having PPV also means your product has network effects as users gain value from more users joining. However, the reverse is not true, if your product has network effects it does not necessarily mean you have PPV. For example, Reddit has network effects but you do not require people in your network to join to gain value out of it, so it does not have PPV.

DPV usually provides contextual awareness to potential new users which contributes to increasing their conversion, activation, and retention. However, DPV’s effect on these lower funnel stages is incomparable to PPV’s influence. With that said, DPV in many cases scales to a larger audience and generates more top of funnel awareness.

DPV and PPV are not mutually exclusive and there are products that have both. For example, Facebook has the photo-tagging feature as DPV, but it also has features such as Events and Groups where users need specific people to join which generates PPV.

Both should be considered as you look to engineer virality into your product. If and how each can be realized will depend on your specific product. In order to successfully invent these experiences, you will need to have a deeper understanding of your users and the relevant situations where they would interact with non-users.

It’s not easy, and as always product market fit is still the key before working on growth, but if you’re able to get both PPV and DPV working in a scalable fashion it should generate some serious growth.

*PPV and DPV are the terms I’ve used to formalize my thoughts around this and it works for me, but I would love to hear about any similar terms and frameworks anyone else has seen or used to describe these concepts.

*Know more examples of product virality? Share them with me at philip.la@gmail.com.

Thanks to Juliana, Karen, Steve, Lyana, Even, Nima, John, Hillary and Qasim for feedback and proofreading.


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