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Viral Value: A Requirement for Viral Marketing Success

Some folks out there have made bold statements like “ad dollars are the tax of having an unremarkable product.” I’ve said things like this before when discussing viral marketing and viral value in particular. That said, if stated out of context, a statement like this would sound extreme and short-sighted.

A reason this statement is not true is that very few products are capable of exclusively using viral growth as their primary growth engine. However, the reason I keep saying this like this is because most marketers, heads of growth, and founders in charge of growing their company have NOT been educated in viral growth mechanics, and the dramatic nature of the statement may make a few more people pay attention.

You likely know by now that I’m a firm believer in the fact that once you’ve really dug deep into Viral Hero, you’ll have all the information necessary to create a product that – at least partially – grows itself. However, before any of that can happen, do you know what comes first?


I’m not talking about value to YOU. This is a trap most founders fall into time and time again. The truth is that your customers matter far more. They’re your REAL boss. In fact, to generate large amounts of revenue over the course of doing business, you must consistently and repeatedly deliver value to your customers. You can never succeed in the long run without first satisfying them.

In other words – you must offer so much value that your customers become willing to trade you something valuable that they already have (money) for the potential value you’re offering them instead (your product or service).

In simplistic terms, you’re using the barter system. You’re creating value, and you’re getting value in return. I know it sounds like a day one concept – and it is. That said, it’s one every single one of us forgets because we always end up looking at things through our own perspectives more often than we look at them through the perspectives of our customers.

You don’t have to do something crazy or tabloid-worthy in order to become remarkable or valuable in the eyes of your users or customers. Value can be created simply by solving a common problem very well in a world where that problem has not yet been historically solved so easily. When you add remarkability to that value by delivering in a way that creates the urge for customers to tell others about it…well then, my friend, you’ve stumbled upon viral value.

Why Customers Buy, and Why Customers Talk

Consider this obvious pattern:

  • People come to your site because they think you may have value that they want.
  • People buy from you because you’ve convinced them that you have enough new value (your product) to part with the existing value they have (money).
  • People share or invite others because you’ve convinced them that you can offer additional value (elevated social standing, incentives, etc.) in exchange for risking parting with the existing value they have (their current social standing in the eyes of their network)

Perceived value is the foundation needed for users completing your sales funnel. It’s also the foundation needed for users to complete your viral loop.

However, there’s one core difference:

If users buy your product and it ends up being a mistake, nobody else has to know. They can choose to publicly complain (i.e. leaving bad reviews), but this is a voluntary and relatively rare action.

However, if users SHARE your product and it ends up being a mistake, that mistake is public. 

They put their own credibility on the line to promote you, and as it’s often more difficult to build and maintain social credibility than it is to make a few bucks, this can be a more difficult ask.

This public mistake is the perceived cost – and it’s what you have to ensure your perceived value outweighs in order to get (and keep) your viral marketing machine humming like a champ.

value proposition

When you demonstrate enough perceived value in the minds of your users to outweigh or erase the perceived cost – which in this case is the fear of losing social credibility – and instead are able to replace it with a feeling of being “in the know”, you win.

This then plants the idea in the minds of your users that sharing or inviting others will actually INCREASE that same social credibility they’re typically so protective of.

For clarity’s sake, I’ve reassigned the type of perceived value that directly refers to your viral loop as viral value, and it’s a far more advanced form of value in comparison to the perceived value required to convert a visitor into a customer.

A common mistake is to confuse a viral incentive as the singular form of viral value you’re offering.

Extrinsic rewards and incentives can augment the rate and frequency at which users send invites once they’ve seen viral value – but unless your incentive is ridiculously outlandish (which slashes profitability), your incentives won’t convince a user to do something they don’t see any value in otherwise.

Take PayPal for example. Yes, users got $10 dropped into their account for every friend they referred, who also got $10 for joining.

However, that incentive was not the core value.

The value was the ability to send and receive money to and from friends. The cash bonus simply pushed users on the fence over the edge and sparked them to more immediate and profound action.

If PayPal hadn’t had this intuitive incentivized viral value add, they would have still seen some invites sent by people trying to game the referral program – but they would NOT have acquired active, high-quality customers, and would NOT have seen the substantial and profound viral growth in a cost-effective way.

Overcoming “inviter’s guilt”

A common phenomenon that occurs in any viral marketing program is what I call inviter’s guilt. This is when a user will see the value THEY get from inviting others, but the guilt they feel about exploiting their friends to acquire that value prevents them from taking action.

Thankfully, this is easily overcome. You simply need to inject double-sided value into your viral value proposition, and ideally also augment it with double-sided viral incentive marketing.

In the PayPal example above, as a member, YOU obviously got viral value by being able to send money to and receive money from friends, and you got $10 from every additional member you referred.

If that were all they offered, you’d still get invites, but your viral growth would be inhibited by inviter’s guilt. So they added a double-sided viral value prop and a double-sided incentive.

Not only did the user sending the invites immediately see the value their friend would get for joining (for example, often they invited a friend because they wanted to send them money, and PayPal was a quick and secure way to do that), but their friend also received $10 for signing up.

Get the picture?

Dropbox is another example of using viral value as the foundation of their viral marketing campaign.

  • Users sign up to get value – specifically space to store their files in the cloud.
  • They get MORE value from being able to share access to those files with others.
  • They get EVEN MORE value because their incentive to send those invites is additional space for no extra charge.

Starting to make sense?

Measuring viral value

Viral value is NOT a soft-skill metric like emotion or anything. It has very little to do with branding, and a lot more to do with how quickly, easily, and cost-effectively you solve the core problems of your users.

For this reason, by focusing more on specific metrics than on branding, you can get more of a quantitative, data-backed view of the value you’re ACTUALLY adding. After all, branding is a fun thing to show your mom, but if the changes you make to your branding don’t drive key metrics in a significant way, it’s just more wasted time and resources.

At all costs, take steps to increase your viral value in comparison to the user’s perceived cost.

You can also take steps to mitigate this perceived cost by adding elements like social proof (such as tweets from influencers). This type of thing acts in the same way as customer testimonials or free trials act within a sales funnel, and help you tip the scales in your favor.

Lastly – your users hate being “sold”, but they love getting value. Just like in your sales funnel, you’ll want any share or invite calls to action within your viral loop to lead with the benefits users get from completing the action.

This helps ensure your users see the viral value FIRST before seeing what they need to do in order to unlock it.

It also helps you visualize how to speak to your users later on – namely to invite others at later junctures while using your site or application, which increases the likelihood and frequency of a continued stream of invites

SO – here are the million-dollar questions…

  1. Are your users CURRENTLY sending out a ton of shares and invites?
  2. If not, is the viral value prop you have REALLY compelling enough to get customers to share?

Either way, go back to the drawing board to figure out how to either add more ACTUAL value, or at least more PERCEIVED value to your viral calls to action.

What’s Next?

Next, I’ve been talking a LOT about your “viral loop”, but I haven’t given much of a robust definition or visualization of exactly what this is yet.

That’s about to change.

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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