Many web startups are based around the basic principle that more users equals greater success, and more revenue. Whilst getting traffic to your site is one thing, getting users engaged enough to actually signup, and convert into active, repeat visits is quite another.
One technique that many businesses use to increase their growth is what’s known as a viral loop, a way to create perpetual motion, and increase sign ups within your application. This technique is being used to great effect across many platforms as a business accelerant, and to grow a user base to tens of thousands of users in a short space of time.
Whilst viral processes has existed on the web for some time, social media platforms have helped to connect us closer together, resulting in new ways for the loop to be initiated.
I’ve decided to highlight some of the vital elements which are essentially in understanding, and initiating viral growth on the social web within any application.
Crucial to a viral loop gaining momentum, is that your application still needs to be useful, even if there is only one solitary user. No-one is going to be inspired to share an app, that doesn’t solve their basic needs, or requires other people to be members prior to gaining value. In many cases, this is the reason that forums are so hard to get started, they need to be active to receive new sign ups.
Utility is a measure of the happiness or satisfaction gained from a good or service in game theory. Think in terms of stroking the users ego. Twitter and Facebook have both done this with their followers / friends counts. Whilst the web is filled with articles on why these numbers don’t matter; clearly this simple pandering to basic human desire has lead to increased growth.
Your users are likely to be some, or all of the following. Narcissistic, lazy, greedy, and vain. Can you code for that? Probably not, but if some element of your system makes life easier for them, or gives the bragging rights, or makes them feel good, or makes them feel like part of an elite invite only club – you are probably onto something.
Increase Network value
It’s important that at the outset, you build a system whereby value increases, as more people join the network. Email whilst a disconnected network is one of the best example of this. If you didn’t have an email address in 1990 people would have told you to go set one up, and so the value of the network for the users is multiplied. This in itself can be a motivator for users to invite their friends and family.
Start with the Invitation Process
Instead of making inviting others an afterthought, build the invitation process directly into the signup process. At the outset, Facebook, Bebo and others connected directly to people’s hotmail accounts, sending auto-invites based on existing friend connections. Facebook also spammed Harvard mailing lists at its inception.
Whilst this is without doubt unethical it without a doubt lead to increased exposure. Now, there are Facebook application developers which are now using the data which is available via the API within Facebook to send signup messages, based on existing profile data, leading to increased conversion rates.
Whatever way you decide to invite your users, if you reward this behaviour with greater privileges (think more points, users getting badges or bonuses) you’ll be well on your way to getting the loop started.
Other applications have been smarter again. Google Wave invites were released slowly, resulting in some even being sold on Ebay, such was the demand to be ‘part of the club’. Often beta invites are provided to high profile bloggers to get the ball rolling, and increase awareness about the app. The very fact that doors are closed, but some people are getting in, generates desire. Web applications such as Prefinery, are taking the stress out of this for developers, who can tap into their software to manage the entire invitation process.
Use existing communication channels
There’s no point in reinventing the wheel when it comes to your invitation process. The majority of people on the web now have email, Twitter or Facebook accounts, and in the case of the latter their API’s are there for the taking. In particular Facebook connect offers an easy way to authenticate your users. Your users are going to want to see if existing friends and family are using the system (and if they are, they are more likely to signup), and get the task done as quickly as possible. Using multiple authentication processes such as clickpass also lowers the barrier to entry.
Ensure you can Scale
No point attracting all of those visitors, if you can’t support them. In many cases, the additional server capacity needed to support extra users can cripple the application financially or technically. If you architect your initial solution in a way where it can grow and support itself as additional users join, you stand a much better chance of success, don’t however, make the mistake of underestimating your potential success.
Kissmetrics present user flows to allow you to see how other apps do it.
Viral Loop: From Facebook to Twitter, How Today’s Smartest Businesses Grow Themselves (Adam Penenberg)
The Viral Loop Workshop (Slideshare presentation including formulas to calculate potential growth
Some great material on the engine of adoption from Andrew Chen