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viral loop

Your viral loop – many sides to the same coin

Your viral loop is the meanest, most generous, most viciously-humbling and most incredible thing you’ll ever work with as a growth scientist.

Not having one that works at all often tells you that your product or service totally sucks. Having one that’s absurdly effective can be just as catastrophic as it may require you to scale well before you have the capital or manpower to do so.

But what the hell is it?

Simply put, your viral loop is a visualization of all the steps a user goes through between becoming aware of a product and inviting the next set of new users.

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Most business owners don’t map out their viral loop. Instead they think something along the lines of “I’m going to create a product, and I’ve got these cool sharing buttons – so if people like the site, they’ll share it or tell their friends. Because…I’ve got these cool sharing buttons.”

They never give it a second thought, and then go back to working on their product.

Shortly thereafter, they fail.

However, some business owners put in the time, effort and focus into mapping their viral loop in the most intricate detail possible, then begin the process of systematically improving each step in their loop one by one.

Shortly thereafter, they’re on stage at some massive event talking about how they acquired millions of users by creating a product people love.

In reality, they’re leaving out an important step – they acquired millions of users by creating a product people love AND share with others.

But hold up. To illustrate things a bit better, let’s give you…

A common example of a viral loop structure

Viral loops come in all shapes and sizes. Without knowing about what you do or how you do it, it’s impossible to map your viral loop for you here.

That said, here’s a walkthrough of a very common structure of a viral loop:

Step 1: Awareness – a prospect hears about your product.

This could be through an external “viral feeding” traffic source like a paid ad or from an organic search result in a search engine. It could also be through a viral invite from another existing user that you or they are somehow connected to.

Once users are exposed to your product in some way or another, the next step begins.

Step 2: Interest – a prospect has their first experience with your product, becoming a “visitor”.

Somehow or in some way, you’ve snagged enough of a person’s interest to get them to experience your product (i.e. come to your website, walk through your door for the first time, etc.) and learn more about what you do and the value you can offer them.

You typically only have a very brief amount of time (a few seconds) to make an impact and instill enough trust or confidence to get them to continue forward.

You may have a few more steps in your user signup funnel – and that’s okay. This in and of itself should be its own optimized process (funnel optimization is a hugely-important industry by itself).

However, it’s often at least partially contained within your viral loop – and the next step assumes that this process has been a success.

Step 3: Decision – a visitor signs up as a user. 

You’ve now showed enough perceived value to convince a user to sign up to use your product. Now you can demonstrate ACTUAL value by delivering on the promises you made to the user before they made this commitment (hopefully even OVER-delivering on these to “wow” your users).

In a nutshell, you’ve shown a user value, and they’re satisfied with what they’ve seen so far. Now it’s time to dangle some additional value in front of them that they can unlock for taking a certain viral action.

Step 4: Action – a visitor understands and wants your Viral Value.

Your user has started getting core value from your product. Here’s where you make it known that they can get even more of that SAME TYPE of value by taking a certain action to help spread your product to others.

This is your Viral Value – and it’s actually what we’ll cover in the next chapter, so I’ll save the detailed explanation for now.

Step 5: Recommendation – a user shares or sends out invites. 

To unlock your viral value, the user must invite others.

Invites may be anything from actual conscious email referrals, Facebook shares, invites to collaborate, embedded tools exposed to their own users, physically taking a friend by the hand and leading them through your door, and more. (For more clarity on what these could be, check out these Types of Viral Marketing.)

This then exposes your site or service to a new prospect (new awareness), which closes one loop, and starts a new one.


In summary…

To understand your viral loop, you must create a detailed, metrics-backed map of all the steps that need to be taken for a user to successfully:

  • Have their first experience with your product
  • Understand what it is and the value you offer
  • Make the decision to share / send an invite

Diagram this viral loop as a cyclical process that you can visualize, discuss and brainstorm around. Make sure to include your data at each step so you can see where your bottlenecks are.

Also, try to include the segmentation factors that describe your most likely converters through your viral loop. Try to figure out why those users behave the way they do, and assess how to either attract more of those users, or how to make other users behave in a similar way.

At the end of the day, the process for improvement at each step in your viral loop involves increasing the perceived viral value for users who send invites or referrals as much as possible, and adding an additional, often time-sensitive reward (i.e. viral incentive marketing) overtop of that value to incite more immediate and profound action.

What’s Next?

Getting users to send their first invite is the first step, and if that’s all they do – you’re winning big. But what if you can get them to send another? What about 3? Or 5? Or 20?

And what happens when you get fewer users sending invites, but when they do, they’re sending more? Is that good or bad?

That, my friends, is what we’ll dive into next.


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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