How To “Go Viral” — and Why Most Sites Never Do

By Travis Steffen

So you’re wondering how to go viral, eh?

Anyone with a working brain (i.e. if you can even WONDER how to go viral), diligent planning and research, access to a bit of capital, and a data-driven approach CAN achieve viral growth to some degree.

However, very few actually do this to a significant degree. This is mainly because most people don’t truly understand the mechanics of viral marketing.

This sort of education falls into such a gray area that it’s not commonly included in any business or technical educational curriculum, and it’s such a complex beast that those who do end up teaching about it only understand a few pieces of it themselves.

(If you haven’t read my last post on what viral marketing actually is, read that first.)

Most of the people who DO write about viral growth mechanics are not trying to teach day 1 founder how to go viral. They’re usually VCs who use a working knowledge of viral marketing in order to evaluate potential investments.

While these individuals have great blog posts on specific aspects of viral marketing, they are often not the ones actually BUILDING the viral products they’re investing in or advising on (at least not anymore), so their exposure to the nuts and bolts will be a bit more theoretical and not as practical as founders may need.

A few of these same individuals have some startup experience, but were only exposed to one or a few examples in practice, many of which are now likely dated approaches.

Others are actually brilliant (Andrew Chen’s blog and Adam Nash’s blog are two of my favorites. Got any others? Hit me with a comment and let me know!), but viral marketing and growth is only one puzzle piece in their much larger puzzle, so you likely won’t get the complete picture you need to actually BUILD a viral site or app.

Another reason why most people don’t create viral sites, apps or products is because most business models, industries or site structures are not inherently viral in nature.

If a website or app doesn’t instantly take off like wildfire after allocating a bit of attention to their viral marketing campaign, many founders get frustrated and shift their focus back to more traditional, linear forms of digital marketing. They stop researching how to go viral entirely because they don’t believe that since their site isn’t CURRENTLY viral, that their site CAN’T go viral.

Sometimes they’re right. Other times, they’re just uneducated.

The chicken, or the egg?

For most founders, all aspects of their viral marketing education have come AFTER they’ve started a site or app. After all, most people start companies because they have an idea — not because they’ve been pre-educated in viral marketing mechanics.

They then learn a bit of the higher-level theory behind what SOME people refer to as viral marketing (in reality, most of the time this is actually content marketing), and then try to build in “viral carriers” (methods of sharing or sending invites such as sharing buttons or referral systems) AFTER they create their site or app.

This is the best move for most people, and you will become MORE viral in comparison to sites who don’t do this at all, but you will NOT “go viral”. In other words, viral marketing will NOT be the sole growth engine you need to acquire users.

Don’t get me wrong — you definitely do NEED viral carriers. In fact, it’s one of the types of tools we create here at Upshare. However, these carriers by themselves will NOT create an exponential, self-driving growth engine.

To do this, there are many other pieces of the puzzle to factor in.

“MORE viral” vs. “GO viral”

True viral marketing — if done well — can create what’s called a “self-driving growth engine” or user growth that expands itself without feeding it too much time or money. You’ll need to strategically steer the ship, but if it’s done correctly, your users will fuel it and propel it forward.

Viral marketing is NOT a simple product feature you can add or a widget you can bolt onto your site. It MUST be built deep within the core of the product, and it MUST be sparked by an inherent, value-driven desire your users have to invite others.

No amount of convincing or bolted-on features or widgets will succeed in making something truly “go viral”. However, they MAY help make your site or app MORE viral than it was before — which can still be the difference between a massive crash-and-burn failure and a world-beating success story.

In other words, you should stop researching how to GO viral, and instead shift your focus to becoming MORE viral.

Even if you’re site isn’t truly viral in nature, every site has a certain “viral factor”. This means that there will always be a percentage of users on average that will invite others to your site or app in some way.

For most other sites, this percentage will never reach anything life-alteringly high, but there are degrees of viral growth you can reach that can make every other mode of marketing much more effective.

So stop researching “how to go viral” and focus on the ways to become MORE viral that I’ll teach you here in Viral Hero.

If you happen to create a hyperbolic growth engine — great -but unless you’re creating something like a communication or collaboration tool, you probably won’t.

But can you make your site MORE viral?

Absolutely — and you’d be REALLY screwing the pooch if you didn’t do so as soon as humanly possible as this will allow you to drastically reduce your marketing spend on a per-user basis.

This is because true viral growth can only happen for a very short period of time (more on this in a later chapter), so for most, choosing “MORE viral” over “GO viral” allows you to create a more sustainable and scalable growth strategy. This then results in a more successful business.

Oddly enough, your ENTIRE viral marketing strategy can change in one single word (i.e. choosing to become “MORE” viral instead of trying desperately to make your site “GO” viral) as it will ensure you place the careful and diligent planning in the necessary other channels to feed traffic into your viral loop.

Who can create viral products?

As I mentioned earlier, anybody CAN create viral sites, apps and products, but few actually do. Here’s why:

  • Why marketers can’t do it: Viral marketing is a feature that typically must be created by people who know how to architect products from the ground up (unless you’ve added some of the tools we’ve created for you at Upshare).
  • Why engineers can’t do it: Most engineers can build beautiful, clean, scalable code, but most don’t have enough knowledge of (or interest in) how viral growth works to allow them to build a growth engine that feeds itself.
  • Why new founders can’t do it: Most new founders are so enthralled by their idea that they build it as it is in their head, rather than inserting it into a core viral structure that they insert their idea into later.
  • Why MOST experienced founders can’t do it: Most experienced founders have used tactics other than viral marketing to become successful, and rather than educating themselves on a new area, they’ll draw on the existing areas they’ve mastered to start and build new ventures.

In addition, viral growth can be absurdly tricky and complex to measure due to all of the other variables that can effect it.

For this reason, even a good chunk of the handful of people who understand the nature of viral marketing choose to all but completely ignore it, and instead focus on more cut-and-dry forms of user acquisition, such as paid ads or SEO.

That said, the ease of implementation of these forms of acquisition has caused these growth channels to become incredibly saturated and much more expensive.

This is where true viral heroes can shine — as it’s partially BECAUSE viral growth is more tricky and more misunderstood, but so absurdly effective that a large percentage of companies with strong viral marketing campaigns are later acquired for 9 or 10 figures.

Viral growth is so rare because it’s so misunderstood.

Even most of the high-level minds out there, and I’m talking top product architects and VCs, only understand about 50–60% of viral growth at best.

Most VCs only understand viral marketing enough to vet investments. Most product architects only understand viral marketing in the context of the specific product(s) they’ve worked on, and even then often only to a degree (largely because of the complexity of the reporting of viral growth metrics).

The vast majority of viral products go viral on accident. The founders likely suspected their product would be highly-shared and passed on, but then again, what founder doesn’t have this belief in the early days?

Does this make the ones who were correct geniuses? Or were they simply the lucky few?

Usually, it’s the latter.

This isn’t to say these founders aren’t brilliant, and it isn’t to say they didn’t optimize their viral loops after they began to witness users passing on their product. However, it’s not something they likely understood on more than a rudimentary level in the beginning.

As the growth lead here at Upshare, it’s been my sole job to work to gain a much deeper understanding of viral marketing mechanics than anybody else on the planet. While I will never claim to be the world’s top viral marketing expert, it’s now my goal to create the world’s top educational resource in viral marketing.

I’ve scoured books, research papers, and blogs, have done countless case studies, and have built my own viral products along the way to test what I’ve learned.

As I’ve done this, I’ve dissected some of the strongest, most applicable pieces from top founders, brilliant investors, and even top virologists in medicine. From these dry, academic and jargon-laden resources, I have begun to piece together this resource we’re calling Viral Hero.

So — what do you need to build a more viral site?

There are TONS of variables that go into perfectly accurate viral growth equations and predictions. To be honest, I haven’t seen or created any such equations that even come close to predicting completely accurate viral growth…yet.

However, unless you’re creating some sort of presentation to pitch a strategy on how to go viral, you don’t need prediction equations to get started making serious progress towards are more viral site.

Think about it like this: do you need to project future traffic, conversion rates or sales states with 100% accuracy in order to move forward in your business?

Certainly not, and the same is true for virality.

So if you don’t need prediction equations, what DO you need?

  • You need a clear, engaging means to understand the core concepts behind viral growth and a working knowledge on how to improve (which you can find here at Viral Hero)
  • You need tools to help you improve (which you can find at Upshare)
  • You need a framework to help you see how much your viral metrics are changing so you can effectively A/B test viral growth (which I’ll provide you with here at Viral Hero)

Sound like a plan?

What’s next?

Awesome. Click the button below to go to the next step.

But before you do — what’d you think of this post?

  • Do you agree or disagree with my stance on “more viral” vs. “go viral”?
  • Have you been a part of, or can think of an example of a company that would be a good case study for Viral Hero?
  • Can you think of a cool new outfit for Viral Panda?

Hit me on Twitter, or comment below, and I’ll get back to you quicker than two shakes of a panda’s tail 😉

Originally published at on June 25, 2015.

Like what you read? Give UP a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.