Dec 2, 2009

You Can't Make Word of Mouth Viral

"Virality is something that has to be engineered from the beginning…and it’s harder to create virality than it is to create a good product. That's why we often see good products with poor virality, and poor products with good virality. The reason that over $150 Billion is spent on US advertising each year is because virality is so hard. If virality was easy, there would be no advertising industry."

Josh Kopelman
This is self-evident, of course. But raises another issue, a common misconception, that bugs me.

Positive "word of mouth" - the passing of information person to person - is an important (maybe the most important) component to growing a service. However its not the same thing as service being viral. Virality at its purest and most scalable form means a service that through it's very usage advertises and spreads itself.

Word of mouth is casual, yet the active sharing of brand - positive or negative experience with a good or service. Virality is causal, yet the passive compound effect of interconnections being maxed out.

They are totally different things.

The Pay Pal service is viral. So is Venmo. As is bitly. A user's usage of those products - without anything more - markets the products themselves. This has nothing to do with word of mouth, which is not viral, and is also not directly trackable from the usage itself.

Viral is interesting because of the compounding network effects that result from the usage. With the right use case usage can explode, literally, and it can be measured.

In the past few years a newer, and potentially more interesting, type of virality is emerging - virality via API. Because the idea of virality is about interconnecting nodes, where a product or service is built using the API of another - the API providers service spreads, automatically. TweetDeck utilizes the Twitter API; TweetDeck's growth and usage thus increases Twitter's usage, without any explicit action by the user. The nodes interconnect. API sprawl enables virality (as Greg Battle once told me)

But this ain't word of mouth. Word of mouth doesn't scale. Virality does.

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