What Makes a Product Go Viral?

Last Updated Jul 14, 2011 11:36 AM EDT

What Makes a Product Go ViralIf you've ever been involved in making or marketing a product that went viral, you know how thrilling and magical it can be. It's sort of like a lightning strike - a rare thing to witness. And like lightning, it rarely strikes twice so it stands out, even in a lifetime of achievement.

It's one thing for books like Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point or Geoffrey Moore's Crossing the Chasm to look back and explain how niche products go viral, but making it happen, by design, is another matter entirely.

Don't get me wrong; their analysis and insights are certainly useful, but there are all sorts of factors - competition, timing, luck, technology, to name a few - that go into determining if a product or service achieves a niche following and, ultimately, mass adoption.

For example:

  • What enabled Apple to change the dynamics of the entire cell phone market?
  • Why did a question as simple as Twitter's "What's Happening?" in 140 characters or less resonate with so many people?
  • What caused Netflix or reality TV to take off when they did?
Well, since I've been involved with a few viral successes, I thought it would be interesting to try to synthesize what they and other grass-roots successes that went on to achieve mass adoption in their target markets have in common. Here's what I've come up with:

7 Key Ingredients for Viral Product Adoption

  1. A problem that's pervasive and painful. So much so, that everybody's sort of thrown up their hands and given up. Most entrepreneurs and startups spend way too much time on "their solution" when really nailing the problem statement is far more critical to ultimately achieving viral success. That's what Apple did with the iPhone, they sat down and asked, "What do people really want to do with this thing and why can't they do it?" Indeed, Apple does that with all their products.
  2. A killer app. The concept is nothing new, but there has to be something that a lot of people really want to do, and that also needs to be the one thing the product does really, really well. Killer app can really mean anything. In the case of Apple or Droid, for example, third-party apps were themselves a killer app, along with a usable web browsing experience via the multi-touch screen. With Twitter, it's the ability to connect and share information with anyone on the planet with a simple interface and flat architecture.
  3. A solution that's elegant, simple, and appealing to a core audience that will run with it if given the chance. It also helps if the solution can be implemented using existing infrastructure and there are minimal barriers to adoption, i.e. it uses current technology, an intuitive interface, etc. When Google showed up, everyone was already comfortable with search engines, so advertising on a search platform was sort of a no-brainer. LinkedIn appeals to a core audience of job seekers, recruiters, and HR.
  4. An element of childlike fun or excitement. Users or customers need to feel a sense of community and involvement, being part of something unique. People really like to feel special, and discovering some cool new thing they can share with friends or coworkers makes them feel like they're special. It evokes a childlike response in all of us. I actually think this was a key component in the early success of reality TV; it really appealed to people on a one-to-one basis in a way that traditional TV didn't.
  5. Looking at things orthogonally. In all cases, you sort of have to tilt your head sidewise, metaphorically speaking, and look at things from a different angle. Throw out all the preconceived notions and assumptions, the body of past work, the status quo, and start fresh with a clean sheet of paper and ask, "What do folks really want to do with this clean sheet of paper?" if you know what I mean. That's a long way of saying "innovation."
  6. Broad availability and scalability. Sure, it's got to be out there so people can get to it, but just as importantly, it has to be scalable enough for mass adoption to occur or you just end up with a niche product. Look at Netflix, for example. What if everyone couldn't just access their queue online, get the movie in a day, and drop it in any mailbox? No broad acceptance, that's for sure. Come to think of it, that's called Blockbuster.
  7. It can't be cost or price prohibitive. There's something called price elasticity, price-points that allow a wider range of user or customer adoption. Take the PC, for example. I don't care how compelling the Internet and email was, if it didn't get below $999 and then $499, most people that currently have one wouldn't. Then there's cost. If it can be subsidized by a service business model like cell phones or cable TV, great. If not, then it's got to be doable as a successful and profitable standalone business.
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