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5 crucial stages in designing your viral loop

Designing a viral loop has multiple stages
Viral loops have been featured in mainstream media and there’s even a book coming out on it – but the step-by-step design of creating a new loop remains obscure, and for good reason. I’ve come to believe that creating viral loops is akin to building a software project – at best, it still comes down to a great team, a strong understanding of the tools available, and relentless iteration. There’s no recipe at the heart of it which guarantees a viral process every time, the same way that you can’t guarantee that any software project will result in market success.

There are no silver bullets in viral marketing
In fact, the core of virality ensures that there will never be a dominant “recipe.” If everyone knows how to build a viral loop around social network invites, then everyone will do it, resulting in consumers will become desensitized, which finally leads to lower response rates. Thus this causes the viral loop to unwind, which leads to long-term disaster.

The only way to combat this is to build a viral loop around the core of your product – something that no one will seek to duplicate, unless they are a direct competitor. These viral loops are incredibly effective because they are lasting and sustainable.

I wanted to jot down a couple thoughts on the different stages that viral loop design go through, so that the entreprenurs reading through this can imagine deeply ingrained, user-aligned ways for their products to gain distribution.

Strategize: Stage 1
The first stage of a viral loop is developing the core strategy around the loop. This requires the viral loop designer to think through, step-by-step, how a user will come to find their product and how they will ultimately pass it along to their friends. If you’re lazy, there are lots of recipes to follow from the Facebook ecosystem like quizzes, “find your friends,” and gifts. As discussed above, these opportunities are already becoming less effective every day.

Even if you decide to use an existing recipe, here are some higher-level strategy questions that should be answered before proceeding:

  • How does this viral loop fit into your core product?
  • What is the fundamental value proposition you are presenting to your users?
  • If your loop is successful, will users transition to your core product or will they bounce when reaching the switchover point?

As you might imagine, most of the discussion here is qualitative and there’s very little A/B testing involved.

Implement: Stage 2
The next stage is the rapid development of the core viral loop. This part should hopefully take days or weeks, not months. It will also certainly be wrong. The best advice I can give here is to follow agile development models and to build the smallest number of features and pages to create the initial flow of pages.

As mentioned before, the best implementations are strongly tied to the core product – as a result, if you’re a video site, it’s best if you can somehow involve videos. If you’re a dating site, you probably want to involve dating.

The other implementation advice I’ll give is to treat the viral loop code as an iterative, protoyping process. So copy and paste all you need, keep it in a separate codebase, and make it easy to refactor. You’ll need to do a lot of messy stuff like changing the order of pages or page elements later, and once you develop your own recipe, it’s easy to rewrite it in the “right way.”

Launch: Stage 3
The next step is to beg, borrow, or steal traffic :-) The easiest way is often to pay for it, $50/day or so, just so you have a trickle of traffic coming in.

Optimize: Stage 4
As you get a flow of incoming traffic, this allows you to deeply optimize the experience. This will involve building out some basic infrastructure to do A/B testing, or using Google Web Optimizer, and otherwise. The key thing here, of course, is to measure whether or not the $50/day you’re spending results in traffic above and beyond what you’re paying for – the more the better, and eventually you’ll cross the threshold where traffic scales infinitely.

In this stage, there are a lot of common fixes that you’ll want to consider:

  • Shortening the flow of pages (can you shrink a 5 page funnel down to 2?)
  • Rearranging UI elements to emphasize next steps
  • Testing different value propositions for going through the flow
  • Increasing the # of people invited

This optimization stage creates great conflict for product and customer-oriented people. Oftentimes, to get a number to move from 10% to 30%, there’s temptation to do things that users may not be happy with. This might include things like asking for invites multiple times throughout the initial session, presenting an opt-out process for selecting friends, etc. These are all bad and need to be fixed in order to create a long-term sustainable viral loop.

This optimization step can take a very long time (months is not uncommon) as you zero in on the dozens of small and large changes needed to create a viral loop.

After months of work, two outcomes can result:

  • You don’t reach your goal, and you’re stuck on traffic
  • You reach your goal, and your traffic is going bananas!

If you don’t reach your goal, then it’s time to stop your optimization process. Often the changes that result are just too small to drive substantial increases in metrics. Instead, you’ll have to rework your entire value proposition, which means to either go back to Stage 2 or possibly Stage 1. This means you’ll want to stop A/B testing and start building out a deeper featureset.

Refine: Stage 5
If your optimization step was successful, your work is probably not done. The final step is polishing your viral loop.

This includes figuring out issues like:

  • Making your loop as user-aligned as possible
  • Building a pleasant user experience and removing unnecessary flows or page elements
  • Refactoring the code to move it from prototype to production
  • Integrating it into your core product in a way that makes sense

A lot of people are tempted to skip this polish step, but don’t do it! Skipping this step means that your initial product experience will suck, or be offensive.

In fact, when there’s “excess” virality, that’s a great opportunity to make changes to the viral loop that make it nicer or friendlier. In general, if you are getting exponential growth, it’ll be great even if it’s a slower exponential. What’s more important at that point is spendfing your extra growth towards changes that positively impact long-term retention.

On the other hand, if your product is just meant to be short-term mad money, then by all means skip this step :-)

More on viral loops and marketing
For those that are interested, I’ve written more about viral loops and marketing here.

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