It’s probably being said in a marketing meeting right now: “We want to go viral. Make people share this online.”

Clients are so flip about. Everyone wants it. As though massive viral sharing is as simple as asking for it.

The growth hacker has a response: Well, why should our customers do that? Have we actually made it easy for them to spread the product? Is the product even worth talking about?

It’s stunning how rarely people venture to answer this question, myself included. They assume that “going viral”—benefiting from a rapid, contagious, person-to- person spread—is something that can magically happen to any product. But product virality is not some accident.

To back up for a second, virality at its core is asking someone spend their social capital recommending or linking or posting about you for free. You’re saying: Post about me on Facebook. Put this on Twitter. Tell your friends to watch my video. Invite your business contacts to use this service. The best way to get people to do this enormous favor for you? Make it seem like it isn’t a favor. Make it the kind of thing that is worth spreading and, of course, conducive to spreading.

Only a specific type of product or business or piece of content will go viral—it not only has to be worth spreading, it has to provoke a desire in people to spread it. Until you have accomplished that, or until your client is doing something truly remarkable, it just isn’t going to happen.

This is where Growth Hacking beats traditional marketing in the most critical way. A marketer has no authority to change or improve a product. Their job an external one. They can change the way something is described but not how it is. A growth hacker isn’t stuck adding marketing on to a product, they have the ability to build virality into it.

And if we look at three quick growth hacking examples, it’s clear that that is exactly what happened.

One of the simplest and most straightforward examples of this is Groupon and LivingSocial, the daily deal pioneers. Each and every deal on these sites—which at the time of launch felt a lot more exciting than they do now—is accompanied by an additional offer. For Groupon, it’s “Refer a friend” and you get $10 when your friend makes his or her first purchase. For LivingSocial, it says, “Get this deal for free”: if you buy the deal and recommend it to three friends who buy it via a special link, it’s free for you. No matter how much the deal costs.

This is drastically different from throwing some “Like this on Facebook” or “Post this on Twitter” buttons on the bottom of a blog post and expecting it to suddenly spread. Think about how much less Groupon and LivingSocial had to spend on advertising (or how much more effective that lead generating was) because every offer had advertising built into it—they were paying their users to do it for them.

After more than fourteen months of struggling to find a growth engine, the Dropbox team had what they call their “epiphany.” Using an idea brought on by talks with the famous growth hacker Sean Ellis, Dropbox built one of the most effective and most viral referral programs of the start-up world.

Their “Get free space” button was what did the trick. The offer was that users would get 500 megabytes of free space for every friend they invited and got to sign up. Almost immediately, sign-ups increased by roughly 60 percent and stayed at level for months. With more than 2.8 million direct invites a month because of the program, it’s not hard to see why.

In both the Groupon and Dropbox cases, Referrals versus paid advertising is the kind of A/B test whose results are obvious to everyone. Referrals win. And today, 35 percent of Dropbox’s customers come to it via referral.

And finally, there seems to be some connection between launching email services and viral launches. Beginning with Hotmail, which launched with probably the first growth hacking and viral marketing strategy, the approach has since been replicated (and improved on) by Gmail and Mailbox.

Just a simple line at the bottom of every email: PS: I Love You—Get Free Email (which Hotmail’s founders resisted for the first few months because it seemed so simple) created exponential growth. 1 million members within six months. Five weeks after that, membership had doubled again. By December 1997, with nearly 10 million users, Hotmail was sold to Microsoft for $400 million. It took just thirty months from launch for Hotmail to accumulate its thirty millionth user. And though it has now been renamed, Hotmail still exists, unlike the majority of its peers from that era.

A few years later, Google launched Gmail—now the dominant free email service—with essentially the same growth hacking strategies. First Google built a superior product (that is something worth sharing). Then it built excitement by making it invite only. And by steadily increasing the number of invites its users were allowed to dole out to friends, Gmail spread from person to person until it became the most popular, and in many ways the best, free e-mail service.

Then, most recently, Mailbox improved the model even further by almost turning it into a game. Users signed up for a waiting list and were given a public place in line—an almost comically long line (over 1.25 million people). It was something you had to talk about, something you wanted to share and join, even if just to see what all the noise was about.

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See how much different this is than simply expecting a marketing person to magically make something “go viral?” It’s not a matter of relationships, of coordinating your launch or hiring some new media PR firm. It begins internally, and is determined by how the product works and is presented.

That falls firmly within one job description: the growth hacker.

Only they have the engineering chops, the developmental credentials and the expertise to actually build these traits into the product they then intended to hand over to the social sharing public.

Sure, it’s not as easy but it’s far less of a gamble. You’ll understand that you can’t just make a YouTube video about whatever you want and expect it to get 10 million views. There has to be a compelling reason for a community to take hold of it and pass it around. You can’t just expect your users to become evangelists of your product—you’ve got to provide the incentives and the platform for them to do so.

Virality is not an accident. It is engineered.


Ryan Holiday is a bestselling author and advisor to many brands and writers. His newest book Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing and Advertising focuses on the untraditional tactics behind a new class of thinkers who disrupted the marketing industry.