Alright. I've been working with RockYou
for 3 months now (part-time and fulltime). Over the past month I've gotten half a dozen calls from startups looking to understand how to 'get' viral in their business models and emulate RockYou's growth on social networks, blogs, etc. Rather than repeat myself continually, I thought I'd put some of my initial thoughts down on why RockYou has been successful growing virally (this December we saw 13MM unique visitors to the RockYou site while spending $0 in marketing).
The way I see it, there are three basic drivers for viral growth within the social networking space.
1) Engagement of BOTH the user AND viewer. I can't emphasize this point enough. Too many startups, even now, focus entirely on the user of their product. While delivering significant value to users is hugely important, it does very little to help drive viral growth. Generally people are not going to become evangelists of a product. They have no time to do it even if they truly like your service/application. What you're left with is the infamous 1% rule... and with only 1% of your users (assuming you have a great product) waxing poetic on forums and through word-of-mouth, it's gonna take a hell of a long time to go viral.
Your product needs to truly engage both users AND viewers. It's the engagement with the viewer of a widget on a social networking profile that will drive viral growth. If the viewer sees something they really like, you don't need the 'user' or profile owner to evangelize on your behalf. The viewer will simply click through and get the product for him or herself. For RockYou this meant making our widgets and slideshows really stand out through transitions, themes and music. Increasingly we're doing this by making widgets more interactive as well (ala Corkboard). By making user's photos and text 'pop' on a page, not only have we captured the viewer's interest (presenting user content that they will look at regardless), we've presented the viewer with something appealing to consider for their own content. Another example are MySpace Layouts (ala Freeweblayouts
). Attractive, well-designed layouts generated a lot of value to both the user, allowing them to increase self-expression online, and great appeal to the viewer. The viewer is induced to click through to the layout provider site, generating viral growth.
If your product/service has great value to users but your widget has no self-evident appeal or engagement to the viewers of that widget, simply put, there's very limited viral upside.
2) Viral products are NOVEL products. In the slideshow space, I hazard, the opportunity for viral growth by a new player is nearly non-existant. Rockyou, Slide, MySpace and Picturetrail account for over 90% of the slideshow market. Once top players capture viral growth, it's almost a self-fulfilling prophecy, since sequential growth will continue to drive increasing market share until the user population for said product is tapped. Once that's happened new players are only stealing share through incremental improvements, not generating viral growth. Think about factor #1 above as well. If a viewer sees a new product they've already seen multiple if not numerous times, the inclination for that viewer to click through and get that product is significantly reduced. Clickthrough rates are key to viral growth, and having a me-too product competing with products that already burned through the viral spiral will elicit low clickthrough. Think video players on MySpace. Do you think there's any viral growth left in the video space? I don't.
That said, if you can create a product that take elements of current offerings and make it truly new and appealing to viewers, viral growth is once again enabled. Two great examples of this are www.zingfu.com
. Both have taken the well-played out concept of photo-sharing (Photobucket
won that viral race) and made completely new applications for them. These applications, photos and faces within photos applied to templates to maximize a laugh, are both extremely viral. In the case of Zingfu, within 6 months they've driven an estimated 2MM users per month to their site. Novelty combined with something truly appealing to the viewer is a powerful combination.
3) Finally, almost all of the value of your product/service offering has to be FREE. If you're not providing the vast majority of value of your products for free, simply put, you won't have any viral growth. Think Google and Yahoo. Both offer users a ton of value without cost (search, mail, fantasy sports, news, etc). They charge for access to their huge base of users via advertising and also generate revenue from users via premium services. But without a truly compelling and free reason to go to Yahoo and Google, they'd have no traffic. This era of Web 2.0 is based on this concept. Offer free products to consumers to generate massive user bases which are then monetized via ads and premium content. Yahoo, Google and eBay proved that this model can be hugely successful. But you need the massive user base first.
Well there you have it. Obviously there's more stuff which I'm keeping under my hat. Would love to hear more thoughts regarding viral marketing and growth if you have them...