Startup growth: How to start a viral campaign

Igor Shoifot, an investment partner at fund TMT Investments as well as a teacher at California University shares his experience. Igor has invested into more than ten startups — Sixa, Wanelo, Wrike and Le Tote are among them. He strongly believes that the dominant factor for the project is not the quality of the product, but the growth of the startup.

Growth factors define the startup's destiny

I've been living in America for more than 20 years, over 8 of them in San Francisco. I was lucky to be a witness of the Twitter blow effect. When it was launched there were a lot of similar services. However, soon a startup that was just like the others forced them out of the market. The word that used to describe the whole segment, “micro-blogging”, died. Now everybody says “twitting”.

Do you know why Twitter became a multi-billion company whereas competitors (with stronger, more stable, and well-invested products) went bankrupt? The clue is that in this company the focus was not on the ideal product, but on the growth — raising the client base.

I am not suggesting that you make a bad product but I am encouraging you to mainly focus on the growth. At the early stage of the project development it's more important.

To have a continuous increase in the number of clients, apply the methods of the startups growth.

Methods of startup growth:

  • Advertisement;
  • Traditional marketing (branding, positioning and segmentation, promotion, etc.);
  • PR (top news, experts' comments, social PR through the client, influencers, press releases)

*For example, a huge growth in Twitter began when Oprah Winfrey on evening prime time television said that she uses this social network. On the same night, more than a million users registered; it was an instant win.

  • B2B and distribution channels: leapfrog (big companies become your distributors, like IBM used to be for the Microsoft OS); rolodex (wide network of professional contacts); workshops and exhibitions; partnerships; piggy-back (using the existing distribution channels, connections, partners' experience), investors and advisers; white-labeled; co-branded.
  • Affiliates — own programs, experts, web masters, portals of affiliate program like etc.
  • Virality — I'll talk about it later.

These promotion channels are aimed at creating an icon of the product that would be understandable for people.

When people are in love, they love not a man or a woman, they love an icon, an impression left by that person. This happens with the client too — he falls in love not with a real product, but with the impression created for that product.

An example is IKEA, a Swedish furniture shop.

The company sells furniture that has to be personally assembled. First, the shops were opened in the USA in a very modest way — the reason was the lack of budget. But the clients liked the idea so much — to assemble the furniture by reading an instruction manual — that they began to promote the company. During the 3 years since its launch in the USA, Ikea raised more than $1 Billion.

IKEA job interview

Viral content: how to use it for raising traffic

Virality is a “virus” that infects users. When people talk about your product it is like a fire being spread in the jungle. Virality differs from other methods to boost a startup by the way it is spread: clients make you grow themselves and promote you.

Here are the stages when viral elements can be applied:

  • Viral elements in the product concept

A product can be viral by its nature. Any product that requires adding other clients (team computer games, exchange platforms such as Skype and ICQ) are viral by their origin. Try to insert virus elements into the product concept from its development.

  • User workflow — a sequence of steps

Imagine what a user should experience at a certain stage of interacting with the product: during registration, after the purchase, etc. Having that as a basis, decide whether at a certain step, he should receive a notification and be prompted to import his contacts or invite friends.

  • Positioning a product (incentives)

Try to catch a client in a “psychological trap”. Clients behave virally if they like the content, which helps them to become popular and maintain the reputation. Think from a psychological perspective, what should be added to the product in order to motivate a user to share it with others. A good example is Pinterest where users collect pictures, cute photos, recipes and life-hacks. The others want to save these posts and share them with their friends.

  • Teaching people how to use the product

You should explain to clients what should be done in order to use all the functions of the product. Let's look at LinkedIn. Here the users are reminded to fill in the profiles to help their contacts be found by potential employers. The product itself teaches you to be viral and to attract friends to the site page.

  • Searching for channels of users acquisition (seeding)

A frequent search of locations where new clients can be acquired. To do that, you can always try some viral trap — a trend hashtag with any activity like #IceBucketChallenge. If it's a highly specific product, for example, b2b, it makes sense to look for the corresponding groups in LinkedIn. Also search for opportunities to advertise your project offline (like in the example with Oprah Winfrey and Twitter).

  • Creating "baits" and working on repeat purchases

At this stage, you are trying to acquire clients again. Any viral communications will do — useful links (no spam, only relevant ideas), and along with them there can be discounts, suggesting that users share the post among friends and the redirect buttons. For example, if you use the Uber service and give a promo-code for a trip to your friend, both of you get emails with discounts for your next trip.

Anything that is boring, gloomy and not interesting can hardly be viral. Virality is something bright, unforgettable, gifted and full of life.

Even big companies (Intel, IBM, etc.) that represent a B2B segment, create original viral content. Just take a look at the advertising of the computer giant EDS (Electronic Data Systems). Their video “Herding cats” was shared by more than 1.6 Billion users on the Internet.

*“Herding cats” is an English idiom that literally means doing something very complex. The main point of the video is the following: “We work with telecommunications. This is just as complex as herding cats”.

Elements of raising the virality of the online platform

  • Verticals and groups

Goods are sorted by segments —  books, shows, makeup. This makes each segment of products more relevant to a certain group of people.

  • Toolbars for websites
  • Immediate relevance

For example, recommendations on Youtube that make you stay on the site 4 times longer watching videos relevant to your interests.

  • Profile & friends update

Creating a profile help your client to connect with other users of the service and stay up-to-date.

  • Internal tags & search

These elements facilitate a deeper interaction with the service and product by using tags and search tools.

  • Ranking & contests

For example, on the sellers do everything they can to get a high ranking as it impacts their sales.

  • Social linking websites

These websites all relate to different fields, all you need to do is to find a suitable one and work hard with it. Producthunt and Pinterest can also be useful social linking websites to use.

  • Gamification & social shopping

Any product may have the element of a game. Just be careful with this idea, today gamification is everywhere.

  • Newsletters
  • Integrated address book

It's about using a user's address book. If the API of this address book allows you to communicate with his/her 5 top contacts or the user can refer these people, you have found a goldmine. LinkedIn was that lucky, now Opportunity uses the same strategy.

  • Notifications

A good example of using well-timed tips is Youtube and its “suggested video”. The average watch time of a Youtube video in the USA is 40 minutes. A user comes to watch one video, but he is tempted to stay longer on the page.

Youtube recommended

A similar solution is used on Amazon. There is a caption for users “Customers who viewed this item also viewed”. This stimulates you to keep reviewing the catalogue.


Here is an example of the application that built up its business model using rankings as a basis HOTorNOT. It used to be very popular in the USA. A user can post his/her photo of themselves and the other users rate them from 1 to 10. It was so involving that one could spend the whole day looking at pictures of cute people.

Rankings help to get users involved. People will do anything to get the high rank as it means that they will be higher on the list and other people will be more likely to want to get acquainted with them. Talking back about HOTorNOT, the ranking increased the probability of dating with a beautiful girl or boy, so, of course, everybody liked it.

Smart virality is the one thing that contains the spirit of competition. If users need a high ranking in order to win don't tell them about virality. They will find a way to acquire users for so they can get better competitive grades on the website.

Here is my advice — pay attention to the websites that are full of viral content: Pinterest, Reddit, Digg, Delicious, etc. Their ideas can come in handy for your startup.

And once more: it's not the product that is important in a startup, the growth is. Remember how Twitter was failing. YouTube was about to fail — servers were down, videos could not be run and their competitors servers, specifically Dailymotion, worked like clockwork. And where are they now, and where are the guys from YouTube who sold the platform for $1,65 Billion?

Preview photo: Variant /

Header photo: Leonardi /

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