How to arm your customers for virality

If you ask growth product managers how to increase a product’s virality, we’ll usually talk about reducing friction and increasing motivation. And when we talk about increasing motivation, usually we’ll have in mind some kind of incentivized referral system: offering cash or prizes for a user to invite friends and for those friends to sign up.

Referral programs certainly can work (though they rarely do if the prize is something other than cash) but this is usually the wrong place to start. Here’s why.

Humans are deeply social beasts. Few things influence our behavior more deeply than the drive for status and connection with our social groups. In our interactions with other humans, we take pains to say and do things that will move our status and connection in a positive direction. We love to be the first to break some interesting piece of news.

If we tell a friend an anecdote and that friend is bored by it, we’re less likely to tell it again. If that friend is excited, amused, engaged, and interested, this feels great, and we’re likely to do it again.

It hardly matters at all whether we’re incentivized with some small prize like a free trial: if the thing is boring, we won’t tell people about it. If it’s exciting, we’ll tell lots of people.

So when product managers talk about reducing friction and providing incentives to increase virality, they’re mostly looking in the wrong place. Far and away the most important thing is that you arm your users with a story that will earn them social points when they tell people about it.

How do you do that?

It’s not easy. But it’s also not that hard. The key is not not try to solve this with A/B testing. Solve it with rapid prototyping and intuition. Try things on your friends. Try lots and lots of different ways of telling your story. Make stuff up to try as an experiment for learning purposes. Pay close attention to what resonates — what causes listeners to perk up, focus in, and engage further. Talk to people who are big fans and ask them to role-play with you and pretend that you’re a friend they’re describing the product to for the first time. Hear how they describe it. Talk to people who use your product as a result of a friend referral and ask them how their friend described it to them.

Hit the streets. Learn how to make a compelling story by trying lots of stories on real people.

Once you have a compelling story, arm your users with it. Make it prominent in the experience. Tell them about it by email. Repeat it again and again. Give reminders that point back to it. Repeat.

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