The secret to a viral product

Over the years I’ve noticed a trend among all the different websites I’ve seen go viral.

I first became aware of this when it happened to one of my customers. My friend Shannon Larratt has since passed away, but the site thrives to this day.

It started as a pet project of Shannon’s while he was a college student in Toronto.

He called it “The Body Modification E-zine”. It was all about tattoos and piercings and things like that. He hosted it on the personal homepage that he got for free with his dial-up account. This was about 1994.

He wrote some articles, added some pictures and promoted the site to his friends. His friends liked it so much, they submitted their experiences and pictures.

Shannon put their content on the site. Then, those people then promoted it their friends. And so on.

Pretty soon his hosting bill got very high. To cover the cost, he started charging people to access some areas of the site.

Things kept progressing, and before long he wasn’t just covering his costs. He was making really good money.

All because the people that used the site told everyone they knew about it.

That is the key.

A website will go viral when normal use of the site causes it to be exposed to others who will also want to use it.

Here’s an example everyone has heard of. One of the very first websites I saw go viral was HotMail.

While it is cute that if you take out the vowels, it’s HTML, that’s not the secret.

The secret is in what happened once you started using HotMail.

Every email you sent out using their service got a little message tacked on to the bottom of it. It told the recipient all about HotMail. It told them that it was free, and that they could use it, too!

Before long, everyone and their dog was getting a HotMail account.

Microsoft purchased HotMail for a reported $400 million only 18 months after its release.

YouTube was the same way. It’s a video sharing site. What do people do with it? Share videos!

So a new user adds a video to the site, then tells all his family and friends about it.

People use it for a lot more, now, but back then, that was pretty much it.

In normal use, the site got exposed to everyone that person knows. Or at least everyone they promoted their videos to.

Less than two years after the domain was registered, Google bought them out for $1.6 billion.

Last example: Pinterest. No big payday like the other two, but here’s what’s interesting: Because it is very connected to social media sites, especially Facebook, it grew faster than any other viral thing I’ve ever seen. Check this Google Trends chart to see what I’m talking about.

All because when people “pin” something on Pinterest, it would immediately alert all their Facebook friends. The users didn’t even have to do anything! Facebook pushed out the message for them!

Absolutely amazing.

How can you use this information in your business? Well, maybe you can’t. That’s an alchemy question, and there is never a simple answer for that.

But if you have an idea for a business or a product or service that has that characteristic – if in the normal use of the thing, that thing gets exposed to more people who will want to use it, too – you have something that will go viral.

Carpe numero (seize the numbers)