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Your guide to product virality
How to position nearly any PLG product for virality
👋 Hi, I’m Kyle from OpenView and welcome to my newsletter, Growth Unhinged. Every other week I take a closer look at what drives a SaaS company’s growth. Expect deep dive takes on SaaS pricing, product-led growth, public company benchmarks, and much more.
When we think about inherently viral products, what comes to mind are collaboration products like video conferencing (Zoom), meeting scheduling (Calendly), messaging (Slack), async video (Loom) and so on. Many of these products are only valuable when they’re used in multi-player mode, giving users a powerful incentive to share the products with others.1
Life is good for viral products since these products not only sell themselves, they market themselves too. OpenView’s Product Benchmarks report showed that the fastest-growing companies generate 2x as many new sign-ups from product referrals compared to everyone else. Who doesn’t love fast user growth with a $0 CAC?
Even if your product isn’t inherently viral like Loom or Calendly, it pays to give product virality a second look. Consider that it’s far easier to generate growth from your existing product users than it is to acquire totally new ones. This truism includes increasing the engagement and advocacy of existing customers as well. And virality can occur even in unexpected places. After all, who would’ve expected a single-player product like Wordle to become a viral phenomenon?
I investigated how to position nearly any PLG product for virality along with real-life examples from Calendly, Loom, Notion, Typeform and more. Below are some insights from that investigation.
Special thanks to Oji Udezue (Product Lead, Twitter; Former Chief Product Officer, Calendly; follow on Web - Twtr - Medium) and Nick Lafferty (Head of Growth Marketing, Loom; follow on Web - Twtr) for sharing their wisdom and advice.
What does it mean to be a viral product?
Oji is a product leader with experience at innovative companies like Calendly, Twitter, and Atlassian. When Oji talks about virality, he defines it fairly broadly and inclusively as customer-assisted marketing. In other words, anything your product itself does that enables your existing customers to create a tailwind that attracts net new customers. This applies to many viral strategies in products with raving fans whether it’s Slack, Superhuman, or Away.
“I call it ‘customer-assisted marketing’ - the root of virality is that your product is so good that people promote it to others. It’s not just NPS; done right, you can literally feel customers advocating for the product early on.” - Oji Udezue, Product Lead at Twitter
For Nick, virality happens when the act of using your product introduces other new users. At Loom, virality doesn’t occur when a user records a Loom video - it happens when that user shares the video and someone else watches it.
“A lot of the viral loop at Loom just happened over time so we didn’t have a dedicated marketing function for a long time. We still see virality as a huge potential source of future sign-up growth and one of the main ways to scale Loom.” - Nick Lafferty, Head of Growth Marketing at Loom
Just because a product is a communication tool doesn’t mean it’ll inherently become viral (and vice versa). As proof, Oji pointed to the example of Atlassian’s communication products like HipChat and Stride, which the company discontinued and sold the IP to Slack. Meanwhile there are many products that don’t have a built-in communication layer, yet still manage to go viral.
Step one to product virality: obsess over early user feedback and the extent to which users organically promote your product to others. People naturally promote products they love and brands they’re connected to.
How do you measure virality?
The simplest way to measure virality is based on the K-factor: how many additional users does one existing user bring to the product? That gets broken down a step further into (a) how many invitations do users send out (social exposures)? and (b) what percentage of those invites are accepted?
Easy to say, hard to pin down in practice. B2B product virality isn’t as simple as saying “user X invited five folks and 25% of them accepted so my K-factor is 1.25.” One key difficulty is that a lot of social exposures can still happen in real life, e.g. “I love this product!”, and that’s hard to track through analytics. Although that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try!
Consider Typeform, for example. Users create a new Typeform and share that Typeform with their audience, generating invaluable exposure for the product. The typical respondent probably doesn’t need to create their own survey at that precise moment in time and so direct conversion is likely anemic. But those invited users may remember Typeform later on during their moment of need, and either seek out Typeform via Google or go directly to Typeform’s website.
Jason Lemkin described that at EchoSign (now Adobe Sign) it took 8 months on average for one paid customer to produce another. And in many cases it required multiple exposures to motivate an invited user to sign up.
Loom measures virality using a strict last-touch attribution model, looking at whether the last touch a new user had was from the marketing website, watching a Loom, a paid ad, or something else. While a last-touch model likely underestimates the true impact of Loom’s viral loop, it helps Loom understand the ROI of any of their marketing efforts above and beyond the organic viral loop.
Measuring virality is baked into just about everything Loom does. When Loom runs product experiments or marketing experiments, they’re carefully watching whether the experiment has an impact on Loom’s viral multiplier effect. The company even has a weekly virality operating meeting for cross-functional teams to stay aligned on that metric.
“We measure virality on everything. Even something as simple as a headline test on a sign-up page, we still want to measure how that cohort of sign-ups behaves compared to historical rates.” - Nick Lafferty
Oji recommends fingerprinting or cookie-ing any invited visitor who’s interacted with your product. Whether the user comes back immediately or a month later, you can find out if they encountered your product before they actually signed up and develop relatively high confidence that the product exposure was the reason why they came back.
A fallback metric if you’re just getting started: direct traffic via Google Analytics.
“In all cases what you generally see with viral products is direct traffic - people who come to your website without doing a Google search or clicking on a paid ad. You should see high direct traffic for highly viral companies and you should see it be consistent or increase over time. Even if you can’t fingerprint users, that’s a good metric.” - Oji Udezue
What tactics help increase virality?
Ultimately, driving virality means adding social features. Social tools, or tools meant to be used by teams, will naturally be more viral than single-player tools. You need to build and promote social features inside your product, then reduce the friction of adopting these features. You can accelerate virality by adding social elements outside of your product as well.
Let’s jump into different tactics that successful companies use to become social tools.
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1 - Add and promote social features in your product
Some products are inherently social: Zoom, Calendly, DocuSign, Typeform, Slack, etc. They’re just built that way and require two parties to use it in order to fulfill the promise of the product. You simply can’t benefit from Calendly without sharing your Calendly link with others. Ultimately, what you choose to build is a question of product strategy and resource prioritization.
“If virality is important to you, you have to ask yourself early on: how is this a social tool?” - Oji Udezue
There’s an important distinction between external versus internal social capabilities.
While Calendly is well-known for its external viral loop, they’ve also built product features to encourage social sharing internally within an account. One clear example is around creating a new event type. Calendly lets users choose from four distinct options:
One-on-one meetings (the classic Calendly use case)
Group meetings, where multiple invitees can meet with the user at one time
Collective meetings, where a user can host a meeting jointly with someone else (ex: a joint meeting with a sales rep and a solution consultant)
Round Robin meetings, where an event can cycle between multiple hosts (ex: demo requests can cycle across the SDR team)
If someone wants to schedule a collective meeting with a colleague, they’ll naturally invite that colleague into Calendly, helping the product ‘go viral’ inside an organization.
Don’t just assume that the user will think of these social capabilities on their own. It’s important to promote social use cases in the context of helping the user achieve their goals with the product.
Airtable, for example, does this by pre-populating any bases that someone else has already shared previously. They also have a green “Share” button positioned in prime real estate on the home screen. And Airtable even offers free account credits when a user invites friends and co-workers.
Loom has a major focus on teaching the behavior of using async video at work. The company recognizes that video at work is new and many people might not be video-first or video-native. They tackle that challenge by helping show the behavior in order to get new users inspired.
That’s one of the drivers for the recent launch of Loom HQ, Loom’s video system of record. Loom HQ allows users to see all of their company’s Loom videos in one workspace. Internally at Loom, everyone starts their day in Loom HQ, building connection and inter-company virality. The more people see other Looms in their company, the more they create themselves.
2 - Remove friction from being social
Once you have social features, you need to make it as easy as possible for users to adopt them. That means a low or no marginal cost for inviting other users into the product. There are different ways to achieve that:
Charge based on usage rather than user seats.
Make it free for invited users, for example with a free viewer-only seat.
Consider a ‘soft’ paywall approach, where invited users can take high-value product actions up to a usage limit before they’re asked to pay.
Introduce a free trial period for invited users, for example 30 days for free after the user has been added.
Employ a true-up model where invited users are free to start, but user seats get trued up on a quarterly cadence.
Notion, for example, charges its customers based on the number of users in their workspace. A new user might therefore be incentivized to start with Notion’s Personal plan, which is free for individuals. Notion wants to encourage social adoption and so has made it as frictionless as possible to try Notion for free as a team. Team account owners can invite multiple members without paying for the product. It’s only after an account hits a 1,000-block content limit that they’re asked to upgrade from free to paid.
In the early days Loom only had two types of product users: paid creators (who could record Looms) and free viewers (who could not). This model worked well at the time, but it didn’t easily enable new folks to give Loom a try and become creators themselves. And so the company launched its Creator Lite tier in June 2021, encouraging Loom creators to invite more of their team members into Loom. Creator Lite users can record up to 25 videos with a five-minute limit before they’re asked to pay.
An added bonus of Loom’s Creator Lite tier: it allowed Loom to introduce a successful user referral program via storage incentives. Loom will increase a user’s limit depending on whether (1) they invite another user, (2) that person accepts a workspace invitation, and (3) the invited person records a Loom. This gamified approach has worked well for Loom according to Nick, both in terms of the number of invites per user and the acceptance rate of those invites.
While Loom’s storage incentive-based referral program has worked extremely well, Nick confided that the company saw less success with direct monetary incentives. A prior iteration of the referral program was aimed at workspace admins and rewarded them with a discount or credit based on how many people the admin invited to their workspace. Loom learned to target the end user rather than the admin and to focus on product incentives rather than monetary ones.
Oji, who has previous experience with messaging products, has seen success with allowing the first 10 user sign-ups to be “medium super users” who have additional viral and administrative authority in an account. Once an account hits a critical mass, default permissions get changed. That’s in essence the Slack model.
If you design a sufficiently low-friction team invite, Oji recommends trying to put team invites directly in your product onboarding flow as an optional step. You’ll want to make sure to have the customer invite module available later on as well.
One lightweight way to test the waters: conversational onboarding. You can ask your new users questions like “how do you plan to use Product X?” or “do you plan to use Product X for personal, team, or company-wide use?” Then personalize the next steps to match what users are trying to achieve.
3 - Add social elements outside of your product
Even if your product isn’t a social tool, there are things you can do to become viral by making your product easily shareable with others.
Oji cites Wordle as a case in point. Wordle is a single-user tool, but its results can be shared on social media so it can become viral.
This applies in a business context as well and you want to help power users show off their work to others. The B2B equivalent of sharing your Wordle: sharing the results generated from the product via Slack, email, or slide deck. Insights are moments of victory. They celebrate the user, highlight the tool, and add value for non-users. Everyone wins.
This approach implies investing further in product analytics and beautiful dashboards that wow your users. Then, make it easy for users to share those dashboards with their boss or team whether via email, Slack, product invites, or sharing their screen.
“Fundamentally I believe B2B products are B2C products. B2B customers are just consumers at work.” - Oji Udezue
Another example is TikTok. One element of TikTok’s virality is that its videos end in a specific branded way whenever they’re embedded outside of TikTok (think: Twitter, Instagram, and so on). These last for two seconds and happen consistently, helping users show off their TikTok videos to folks outside the tool.
In a B2B setting, you can similarly add your watermark, especially for free or self-service customers. Bonus points if that watermark is URL-enabled. Reserve removing the watermark for Enterprises that want to pay for it.
For Loom, this means teaching folks how to use the product for just about any job to be done, whether it’s how to do a design critique or a code review. Loom employees (affectionately called Loommates) regularly dogfood the product and showcase how they use Loom in their day-to-day workflow. Nick might share how Loom helps him work with a freelance copywriter or how he uses Loom to edit a landing page. Eventually, Nick would love to see this spread beyond Loom, where more people from the outside talk about how they use Loom themselves.
The takeaway for other software companies: marketing should prioritize inspiring and educating folks about how to use the product. Bonus points for partnering with creators or influencers in your space to spread the word on your behalf.
How do you decide what to do next?
Nearly every product has its own set of power users who provide customer-assisted marketing. You’ll want to identify those early champions and unpack their distinct product journey. Ask them:
What was their initial use case or motivation for the product? How did that evolve over time?
What capabilities did they adopt in their first day, week, and month?
At what moment did they share the product with someone else, inside or outside of their organization?
Who was the second, third, fourth, etc. user who joined from that account?
That analysis, also called a ‘patient zero’ analysis borrowing from the world of infectious diseases, provides invaluable clues about how to engineer more viral opportunities among less forward-thinking users.
Meanwhile, you’ll want to baseline just how viral your product already is and what are the drivers behind its virality. Not only will that measurement allow you to identify improvements over time, it’ll help you make the case for investing further in your viral loop. It’s not a bad stat for an investor presentation, either.
It’s hard to beat a product that not only sells itself, it markets itself too.