Your website is probably unviral.
Everybody wants his or her website to go viral. As web designers and entrepreneurs it is our goal to create buzz; an unstoppable avalanche of traffic; a self-feeding hurricane.
For many entrepreneurs PayPal, YouTube and Facebook are the alpha and omega of marketing and strategic growth. The goal is to emulate the distinguishing characteristics of these products in an attempt to achieve similar heights.
Some websites succeed and grow on the same trajectory or faster. They usually exist in fundamentally social businesses like email, payment services or social networking in places without such networks.
However, there is also a special cadre of websites which lies in a no-man's land untouched by virality. Not only is it difficult for these sites to become viral, but the nature of the business actively fights its own online growth, behaving much like a tumor suppressor gene. These businesses never experience exponential growth and all of their growth paths, even if strong, are linear. Some examples quickly come to mind: male enhancement pills, adult diapers, schizophrenia medicine.
The online world is in the habit of thinking itself as viral by nature. Virality, some think, is built into the very fabric of the Internet. It is not. In fact, one of the most profitable online businesses is unviral: online dating.
Dating websites carry such a stigma that some couples successfully matched online invent a fictionalized romantic encounter to conceal the fact that they were mouse-selected by a filtering process and a geographic search. Although dating websites provide immense value, arguably more than almost any other online service, users will often strive to hide their enrollment from even their closest friends. Maybe especially their closest friends.
Dating websites are unviral. They do not spread by word of mouth. As a matter of fact, they actively suppress this form of growth due to the nature of their service. Many an experienced entrepreneur has made the mistake of underestimating the unvirality of online dating.
Your website may be unviral too, although it may be less than obvious. Perhaps it only demonstrates certain elements of unvirality; for instance, would your users tell all of their friends about your service, or only some? Would they actively deny using or even knowing about your website to certain friends, acquaintances, or co-workers if asked? Is it embarrassing? That would be pretty bad for your virality.
If this is the case you must face the facts: your website is unviral.
Look at examples of of purely viral websites: PayPal, the old Hotmail, YouTube and the current Facebook (not the old version that limited itself to college students) all display or once displayed growth without any symptoms of unvirality. I told everyone about Hotmail when it was launched: cousins, teachers, pen-pals. Users of contagious sites like this may not actively evangelize to literally everyone (as they do with, say, YouTube) but they certainly wouldn't avoid a discussion or hold back praise once the topic was broached. In contrast, there are many sites that quickly provoke responses of "yea that's weird," when mentioned. In these instances unvirality dominates and kills growth.
Though unvirality is not a death sentence, it does limit a potential for greater growth. In some instances, unvirality is inherent to the service or structure of the business. But if this is the case, why should an entrepreneur involve himself with it and how can he manage to save it from the depths of unvirality?
Two Answers: Anonymity and Covert Transformation
- The Internet supports anonymity which allows users to praise a product they love to others--thousands or even millions of other strangers--while avoiding the embarrassment and reluctance to share a product or website that often results in unvirality. Anonymous forums and reviews abound for even the most unviral of products.
- Secondly: The web entrepreneur can covertly transform an unviral business into a viral one by euphemizing or disguising its true purpose. For example: Create a website with dating tools but market it as a social network. Facebook at Harvard worked this way with its subtle but pivotal "relationship status." Give users a guise under which to refer their friends and thus avoid the focus on unviral traits, such as the embarrassment endorsing a dating site, that would otherwise prevent the expansion of your user base.
Utility vs. Virality
Many people confuse utility with virality, but these are actually very independent qualities. Entrepreneurs may believe that if they have developed a good product it will naturally become viral. This could not be further from the truth.
Often, people will want to tell their friends about a product they find useful but this is not a necessarily so. Some of the most useful online services actually discourage such talk. Something can be useful and viral (such as Facebook), useful and not viral (dating websites; most products ever created), not useful and viral (lolcatz; chia pets; almost all 4chan memes) and something can most definitely be neither useful nor viral (almost everything). Utility and virality are therefore orthogonal. They represent two different dimensions which can intersect but do not necessarily do so.
In fact, something extremely useful--something that you and many others may pay thousands of dollars for to bring yourselves joy for a lifetime--may be strictly unviral. As I mentioned earlier, people will actively go out of their way to not talk about some very useful products. Many medical products fall into this category. Utility is one dimension of a service and it is clearly distinct from virality, though by no means mutually exclusive. The realm of influence between utility and virality is vast and depends mostly on the nature of the business.
The lesson: just because your website is useful, does not mean it will be viral. Just because it is viral, it may not be useful and thus will die once the virus finishes spreading. First, solve the utility problem: build something useful. Then, you have to solve the distribution problem, and I gave 2 techniques for doing so: anonymity and covert transformations. Do you have other ideas?