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Viral Communication Marketing – A Conversation is a Two-Way Street

Before we dig into the mechanics of viral communication marketing, let’s recap. In the last chapter, we covered inherent viral marketing, which is a product or service that offers zero value unless used with others, and where inviting others is the key to unlocking that value – such as Skype or WhatsApp.

While many inherently viral products are communication tools, not all communication tools are inherently viral. However, ALL of them typically fall within the category of viral communication marketing.

Sites, apps or services that harness the power of viral communication marketing are typically used to communicate with others, SOME of whom may currently be or may now become potential users.

Here’s the difference:

Early on, Skype was an exclusive two-way tool. It was a closed system. This means that in order to communicate with others on Skype, both you and whoever you’re communicating with MUST be on Skype.

An earlier example of a closed system, two-way tool was the telephone. To communicate with somebody on your telephone, both parties must have (or at least have access to) a telephone themselves.

This is not a new thing. Inherent viral marketing through closed system products like this has been around ever since written and spoken languages have existed. If you can’t speak or read a certain language, you are unable to communicate with another person who doesn’t speak it or read it themselves, and vice versa.

On the surface, this may SEEM like it would be viral communication marketing because two people are communicating. However…

Viral Communication Marketing is Inclusive

A product leveraging viral communication marketing is NOT necessarily an exclusive two-way street. It’s an inclusive medium. As such, products that leverage viral communication marketing without being a closed system will NOT be subject to Metcalfe’s law.

Instead, products leveraging viral communication marketing let you ALSO touch the outside world as well. This is akin to using a translator to facilitate communication between two people who speak different languages. It’s a solution that allows communication through one product to reach the outside world – even if they’re not also using the same product.

While this lowers the potential for explosive viral growth as the product reaches ubiquity, it can improve early growth by not forcing others to adopt the product in order to receive communication from others who are using it. That said, the key to this entire engine is that communication through the new product must contain an onramp back to that product.

To see an example of one such onramp, let’s take a look at one of the hottest viral hits of all time.

Hotmail – The Legendary Viral Sensation

In 1995, two friends, Sabeer Bhatia and Jack Smith, came up with an idea for a free web-based email client, which would eventually be called Hotmail. Their service worked like a charm, but after exhausting a bit of traction from some niche PR on online message boards, growth slowed.

While they raised a small round of venture capital from a Silicon Valley firm called Draper Fisher Jurvetson, this was nowhere near the most lucrative contribution they made to Hotmail’s success. As this began to happen, Tim Draper, a partner at the aforementioned firm, suggested they include an onramp. This came in the form of a small message at the bottom of every email sent by a Hotmail user.

It was quick and simple, and just said “Get your free email account at Hotmail.” The last word was linked back to the site.


Bhatia and Smith pushed back reflexively, thinking it to be a spammy move, but as they began to run out of options and money, they gave in and tried it. What happened next was unexpected.

In just two short years, Hotmail became far and above the world’s largest email provider, boasting over 30 million members and selling to Microsoft for $400 million.

Viral Lessons Learned from Hotmail’s Success

Hotmail was the classic example of viral communication marketing. With just one simple line of text with a link, they explained their core value proposition – solving a key need in the market at the time – and an easy method to learn more and sign up.

The product then rapidly spread via user-generated communication. Users used Hotmail to send emails to other people, many of whom were not using Hotmail, and were using a sub-par tool that they often had to pay for. When they received the email from their friend, they saw the branding below their message.

Hmm…what’s this? I wonder what this Hotmail thingy is. Sound cool… *click*

This happened every single time a user sent an email to somebody else. When a subset of those users who received those emails navigated to Hotmail and became users, they suddenly become another source of referrals as well with every email THEY sent.

Each user became a sales rep. Each message they sent served as an understood endorsement or recommendation born out of use alone, which in itself can inject enough trust to drastically increase conversion rates from visitors to users in comparison to other acquisition methods.

Starting to make sense?

Let’s look at a few quick examples of companies who used Hotmail’s legendary example of viral communication marketing as inspiration for their own tactics:

  • Apple‘s iPhone-based email client includes a default signature saying “sent from my iPhone” at the bottom of each user email, just as Hotmail had (a tactic they swiped from Blackberry early on).


  • MailChimp includes a linked graphic promoting their service at the bottom of emails sent from their free accounts, which allows them to leverage new users’ own mailing list emails as growth engines for their product.
  • Hootsuite includes a “via Hootsuite” tag next to tweets users make that were scheduled through their system.


Each of these services allow you to communicate with others in various ways. Each message acts as a vessel that exposes the brand to others in mass quantities – many of whom go on to become users themselves.

Starting to get the picture?

What’s Next?

The first two types of viral marketing we’ve covered are incredibly powerful due largely to their high branching factor (more on that later).

However, there are still 10 more types of viral marketing to get into. However, whether you use our tools or not, all of the types of viral marketing are effective enough to state that if you’re not using at least a few types of viral marketing to grow your site or app, you’re not going to grow as much as you otherwise could.

That said, not every viral engine revolves around communication. What if you simply want to invite co-workers so you can work together to achieve a common goal?

I’m glad you asked. That’s exactly what we’ll cover next. Let’s dive right in, shall we?

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

  • Can you think of any other sites that use viral communication marketing to grow?
  • Do you have any apps on your phone RIGHT NOW that use viral communication marketing?
  • If Viral Panda practiced any martial art, what would you imagine it being?

Hit me on Twitter, or comment below.

Want To Know How Dropbox Grew So Fast Early On?

Dropbox tried a number of non-viral marketing strategies early on…but most of them didn’t result in a positive ROI. However, their user acquisition graphs kept going up….and up…and up. Why do you think that is? I’ll tell you everything in the next chapter.


Travis Steffen

Travis Steffen

Travis Steffen is a Silicon Valley growth engineer, data scientist, and serial entrepreneur with multiple exits. He currently serves as Head of Growth at AutoLotto. He's also a crazy adrenaline junkie, is obsessed with fantasy football, and can grill a mean rack of ribs.
Travis Steffen
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