The 8 Cs : A framework for product virality
Updated: Nov 10
Virality is an obscure art, the goal here is to try and simplify it and give it some structure.
(The focus here is on when product usage organically brings in other users. This does not include word of mouth, if not as a positive side effect).
I love performance marketing, perhaps because I have seen it work so well. I like its data driven aspect, its iterative form and its immediate impact. Having said that there is no doubt that if you can attract customers for free it’s always preferable.
I also believe that viral mechanisms are one of the few ways in which products can really lead Growth (unlike the much-promoted PLG tactics of free trials and freemium, that will only work with the adequate distribution strategy).
I always hated hearing people say things like “you can’t rely on paid marketing”. It seemed blasphemous to me – and I was right.
Often people refer to a product being viral when it has a K factor of 1 or more; meaning that each customer brings in at least another customer. The truth is that this is possible only for very few products.
Having said that a K factor of 0.2 will still have a substantial impact on any business: it’s an additional 20% customers at very little cost. Most businesses can achieve this and more.
This 8 Cs framework is designed to give product managers and strategists a snapshot of all the various viral opportunities available and an estimate of their effectiveness.
It’s important to note that products can fall into multiple viral categories, and indeed the most viral products often do.
Let’s look at each one of these in more detail.
Communication: this is for products where communication is the core product value, it is not a feature. In this category we find communication tools like Whatsapp, Hotmail, all social networks like Facebook or Whatsapp, and P2P content sharing solutions like Dropbox. Usage of the product makes sharing inevitable, this virality is very strong, but of course this only applies to few product categories. (The old school phone network also falls into this category. That’s why people say selling the first phone was the hardest sale ever).
Cash transfer: this applies to products that facilitate P2P cash transactions, like Paypal or Wise. It’s a restricted to few products, but will always have a high viral coefficient.
Collaboration: product that facilitate cooperation inevitably will lead to multi-user actions. Collaboration as a user case can have different implementations. At times products are exclusively about helping people to cooperate, I’d argue Slack falls into this category. Other times products will have a strong stand-alone user case on top of a strong collaboration: Google docs is a perfect example here. Other good examples of products that strongly rely on cooperation are Miro and Canva.
This category skews heavily towards work related tools. The higher the value add from cooperation, the higher the virality.
A sub-category of cooperation could be around copying, (which coincidentally also begins with the letter “C”). This sub-set may be small but still worth considering. E-Toro would fall in this category, (famous for its copy-trading feature), as well as any class notes copying solution.
Competition: this category lends itself well to games. It’s intrinsically baked into multi-player video games, but also present in digital versions of old school games e.g. Chess.com.
It’s important to not that in both cases the product still functions well in solo-player mode. Chess can be played against a machine, while multi-player games can be played with strangers, (inviting your friends to play just adds to the fun). This implies that while there will always be an element of virality, it may not be very strong – improving it will require optimisation work.
Benchmarking can be a gamification feature that adds incremental virality.
Collective buying: buying items in bulk often unlocks group deals. This incentivises customers to bring in other customers. The most famous example in this category is probably the Chinese app Pinduoduo. Uber launched this as a side feature, (Uber Pool), that proved to be rather successful. In the best cases group buying decreases the price of services, or goods, enough to make them accessible to a new customer segment.
Creativity: this only works when tied closely to a sharing feature. As humans we have an innate desire to be creative and show our creations to others. While this may not seem like an obvious way to boost virality, there are many success stories, the biggest one being Instagram: originally designed as a photo editing tool with a feature that allowed to share on Facebook. That led to the creation of a huge social media platform.
Other great examples are Pintrest and Trading view. The first allows to create mood boards and ranks them on Google images, organically attracting more users. Trading View is a charting tool for traders, with easy export features on top of listing all trading analysis on Google organic search results.
While in some cases the sharing is done actively by the users, in others it can be done independently by the platform e.g. when someone creates a chart on Trading View, that content will be automatically ranked by Google, thus attracting more users.
Community: community led businesses, start with a community and use it as the core growth engine of the company. While this isn’t an option for most companies today, most products can have a community, even at a later stage in their lifecycle.
Communities naturally create content, thus creating a content-loop similar to the one described for the category above. The reason communities merit their own category is that, when well formed, they naturally create brand ambassador, thus giving an extra boost through word of mouth.
The Nike app is a good example of a community built around an existing product, (and an analog product). Tracking data, sharing it, setting goals, benchmarking and challenging has strengthened the relationship with customers, helped them gain more data, and created word of mouth.
There are other benefits to community led businesses such as deep insight into customers and the potential for co-creation and rapid testing – but these should be covered in a separate blog post.
Co-ownership: the concept here is very simple, if your customers own a part of your business, they are naturally incentivised to promote it.
Crowdfunding, (also beginning with a “C”), can partly fall into this category.
Generally this model works well with platforms that also allow users to create, as they are then doubly incentivised to promote their work. Historically this model hasn’t has much traction as it was difficult to remunerate users proportionally to their contribution. Blockchain solutions today enable this.
Music creation start-up Delic, (that also leverages cooperation), rewards its early customers with an equity part of the business. Bored apes, a creative NFT project is another good example.
It is likely that platform businesses at the intersection of creativity, community and co-ownership will thrive in the web3 world.
While not all products can go viral, and very few can achieve exponential hockey-stick growth by relying solely on virality, most products can obtain significant gains from virality.
Understanding the various levers, how they apply to a product and estimating their impact will allow to inform product strategy in this area and help deliver true and organic product-led-growth.