The first ever viral product
In the mid 13th century, an extremely viral product originated from the dry, barren plains of Mongolia. The users of this product could not stop talking about it and it spread like wildfire — spreading out from the Asian plains to the Mediterranean and most of Europe, capturing an easy 50% of the market share. By the end of the century, 25% of the whole population of the world was touched by it in some way or the other — peaking at what some estimates put at about 100 million users. All this happened centuries before Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or even the internet.
Of course, I’m talking about this little bug called Yersinia Pestis, the pathogen responsible for the bubonic plague epidemic of the middle ages — also called The Black Death.
But before you close this tab and call me names under your breath, I’d like to tell you that I don’t actually apologize for this exaggeration. What I’m going to tell you may entirely change your thoughts about growth.
What makes anything grow virally?
Growth, by itself, is never an accident. It is a meticulous order of efforts and thoughts that culminate in the results we want to see. Not unlike the plague pathogen itself, your product should be designed in such a way that it can reproduce itself — from an app installed in one smartphone, it should be able to “go” to another smartphone. And then reproducing again to two more, and then four more, and so on. An app should be able to use us, the human vehicles — or carriers of the app, to spread it into other smartphones. Nature designed Yersinia Pestis to be inherently viral. Can we design our products the same way, so that they are inherently viral?
Not all pathogens are viral, of course. Not all apps can be made into viral products. Viral pathogens share these basic attributes —
- The impact they have on the host, also called virulence.
- Their mode of spreading across other hosts, also called transmission.
A network effect of sorts is created that rate of growth of the disease depends entirely on the number of people that have it. If you know your high school math, you’ll identify that this is indeed a differential equation for the exponential function.
Leveraging a network effect to create exponential viral growth
One of the main reasons I bought my first Android phone in 2011 was because everyone that I knew was using WhatsApp. Although, it opened me to many other comforts of having a smartphone, the joy I received from being a WhatsApp user — connecting to my friends without paying for SMS charges was pretty darn satisfying.
The ability to become useful to the whole network of a person was WhatsApp’s virulence. Its mode of transmission was the social effects that it created in a network. If you’re not using WhatsApp, you’re probably going to miss out on something that your friends are doing because they’re all using it too. WhatsApp also made it very easy to bring non-users into the fold just by sending them an SMS to join in. Peer to peer recommendations have a conversion rate of 92%. It would be foolish to think that WhatsApp is just a messaging app. It’s a living, breathing network that follows this very simple rule —
If your product becomes more useful with more the number of people that use it, then your users get a huge incentive to spread the word.
This rule, also called Metcalfe’s law, has been known to us since the 80s. Most of the big internet companies that we see today are applications of this law if you examine closely — Facebook, LinkedIn, Quora, Instagram, Snapchat, Medium, Airbnb, Uber…the list is endless.
Most people think that the companies became what they are today because their product solved a critical problem better than anyone else. Well, yes, and also no. While these platforms have little utility to a single unconnected user, the value of these platforms is increased more and more when those same users invited their friends over.
These companies outshined everyone else in their domain because they made it easier for those users to increase the network effects.
You can now hopefully relate to the Black Death analogy here. The plague actually became deadlier with the rising number of people that contracted it. While they themselves didn’t spread the pathogen actively, it was readily done by rats and fleas feeding on plague infested corpses. But if you look around, the bubonic plague isn’t around anymore. Something happened that this worldwide epidemic came to an end. This brings me to the next part of the story —
The machinery of organic growth
Isn’t the world always looking for something to do? Haven’t you ever wondered how new things start trending every single day? From Kim Kardashian’s most scandalous selfies to the humble Fidget Spinners, a whole industry thrives on making new headlines. From that black or white dress to the latest character death in Game of Thrones, it’s like we are all stuck in a loop.
A feedback loop.
Think about it, really: the more news gets reported, the more news we consume. More the consumption increases, more the profits of those who share the news with you also increase. This drives more people into publishing news, publishing more news. This kind of system creates what analysts call a positive feedback loop. The reason black plague didn’t survive because it used to literally kill its users in what is called in contrast called a negative feedback loop. A very bad idea for product managers, indeed.
Designing feedback loops into your product is not a new idea but it is one of the fundamentals of growth-driven problem solving. In Nir Eyal’s landmark book, Hooked: How to build habit forming products— he describes a feedback loop that he calls the Hook Model intended to create user habits. You want your users to keep coming back and make your product a part of their daily lives.
While inherent virality and network effects help in achieving growth, positive feedback loops help in sustaining them. After a sum of people have populated your network, there must be a machinery to reward them such that they stick to it. In our brains, fortunately, there is precisely a set of machines in place that does just that. They’re called our dopamine receptors.
Dopamine is what makes cigarettes, cocaine or even sex feel so good. It is literally the biological producer of the state of “feeling good”. But the caveat that comes with it is that it’s highly addictive. Each hand that you win in blackjack makes you want to play more. You’re not craving the money, you’re craving the dopamine molecules that rush into your brain.
That feeling of excitement, that rush of achieving. That sentiment of being just moments away from winning. It’s dopamine in action.
Even if you lose, you’ll try a hand again. Such is what a dopamine cycle does to you. This is beyond customer psychology at this point. This is freaking customer neuroscience.
Addictive products are designed to be addictive. Each notification that you receive on Facebook or Twitter serves as a trigger that makes you want to check it. Somebody has liked your picture. It feels good. Social validation pumps up the dopamine reward systems significantly. It is the same feeling that you get when a group of people applause you or when someone congratulates you. It motivates you to share more pictures, craving for more dopamine hits. Therefore more people like your pictures — and the loop continues.
The best way to make your users stick to your product is to keep making them feel good.
Of course, there are moral and ethical considerations to this. You wouldn’t want your customers to fall into a vicious cycle of swiping candies off their smartphone all day, would you? ;)