Viral growth has become something of a holy grail for online businesses. Entrepreneurs lose sleep trying to come up with PR stunts, relatable videos, and other strategies just so their product can “go viral.” And can you blame them? Who can turn down the allure of a growing user base and tons of positive buzz?

This is precisely what viral growth is all about – attracting many users in a short time, free of cost, and generating press to fuel the viral loop.

Viral growth may seem like something that happens by chance, but fortunately, that’s not the case. We bring you nine actionable steps to increase your business’ chances for viral growth.

Viral growth: Never an accident

Don’t mistake viral growth with a random, happy coincidence. This is a highly calculated strategy designed with the intention of promoting viral growth right from the start.

A business will achieve viral growth only if it:

  • Integrates the right set of “hooks” into the user experience
  • Combines viral mechanics with a value proposition
  • Creates a use case that fuels the referral loop

Sounds like a plan? Before you get started, see some of the most useful tips to transform viral growth from a pipe dream to a more realistic goal:

1. Start by calculating

Viral growth doesn’t happen overnight. There’s a difference between word of mouth and viral growth. The latter is more product-driven, involving a sound insight into human behavior, a growth hacker-like perspective, and effective product design.

Calculate viral growth by familiarizing yourself with its five key drivers:

  • Invite calculations: Find opportunity points where your customers are inclined to invite their friends. For example, you can award users with points and accessory vouchers for every person they refer. Carefully track your referral rates for each opportunity point.
  • Conversion rate calculations: Determine what it takes for new users to convert, whether it’s improved landing pages, an incentive, or something else. Carefully track conversion rates with each strategy you improve, and use the data to inform further improvements. A WordStream study found the average conversion rate across different industries is 2.7% on search networks.
  • Viral cycle time calculations: This is basically the time it takes to transform a referral into a customer. Think about how to remove friction so more users sign up for your business. Find ways to secure a “wow moment” and overcome consumers’ hesitation so they share and fuel the viral cycle.
  • Retention vs. churn calculations: Your retention rate measures the percentage of customers who stay loyal to your business, while your churn rate is the percentage who stop buying over a particular time frame. How can you increase your retention rate and decrease your churn rate? After all, the more loyal a customer is, the more likely they are to refer friends.
  • Market size calculations: Expand your possible pool of customers by targeting new demographics and extending product functionality.

calculating viral growth

Think about each factor and what it means for your business. At the same time, remember some of these factors are mutually inclusive. Thus, your efforts in a specific area will benefit a different factor.

2. Determine your target customer and the value they seek

Always keep one thing in mind – only engaged consumers will share. Come up with a viral strategy only after you’re sure your business can attract and build a relationship with customers. Give customers enough time to warm up to your service – and then encourage them to invite friends and family.

To reach that point, you’ll need to show your customers you offer value. Highlight the advantages of your product, not just for the referrer, but for the friends they invite as well. Just don’t complicate the value proposition. Keep it simple, or you might spoil the conversion without knowing it.

You’ll likely have to wait a while for your paid customers to virally lead to other paid customers. But the rewards are worth the wait, and over time. you may see fourth or even fifth generation viral users.

3. Know the rewards that will “hook” your audience

The biggest motivation users have for sharing your product is the satisfaction of knowing it helped the person they referred it to – that’s the intrinsic reward.

But you can speed up the process (and improve your chances of getting referrals) by identifying what users want beyond intrinsic rewards. Think cash rewards, new features, free presets, better subscription plans, free credits, gift cards, VIP accounts, and more.

Use this information to create your user flow – from motivation (investment) to trigger to action and finally, reward. Together, these factors are known as the “hook.” Combine the correct motivation with the best reward for the best possible success. The act of sharing is promoted by developing specific triggers into your user flow.

the hook of viral growth


4. Turn to ecosystems used by your audience

No matter how good your rapport with a user is, they won’t leave refer their friends if it takes too many steps – it’s just too much effort. It’s a good practice to integrate with other platforms and ecosystems to boost your chances of viral growth. Social networks and other APIs, phone apps, mail systems, and the like can help usher users to the next step. For example, consider how Spotify has integrated with Instagram to encourage users to share their songs and playlists – and ultimately, the Spotify app.

5. Keep the sharing process easy and natural

A business goal should always be to develop a product that spreads easily among its target audience. Look at Yesware as an example. Considering the necessity of the product, aharing is simply part of the process when you display your documents to others.

Most of the sharing takes place via word of mouth since Yesware is combined with Gmail. Writing an email encouraging people to try the product takes seconds. Integrating with Google and Facebook does away with needing to ask for the email address of potential collaborators. And the best part is, it’s all very easy and natural. Needlessly complicating things with extra sharing features isn’t going to be of much use when the email already contains a strong hook.


6. Make your presence felt where your users are

Never force consumers to share their activities via email or social media. Wait for them to do it by themselves. Simply suggest when the right moment for sharing comes up in the user flow, and ensure these shares align with the user’s motivations.

For example, Spotify used Facebook’s OpenGraph feature to flood tickers and newsfeeds with various music news and activities into the user interface. The strategy worked, but mostly because the majority of users do not have problems sharing their music. However, steer clear of sharing private activities. Passive shares may also go unnoticed, so it’s best to rely on a combination of active and passive sharing.

7. Promote your business through referrals

Sometimes, sharing activities and content isn’t sufficient. A referral program is a stronger strategy to build community. Focus on the quality of the shares instead of the quantity. However, avoid spam invitations and convey the message to those who fit your target consumer profile. Offer benefits to both parties to keep them engaged during the invitation process.

For example, many companies offer cash back or coupons for every invited friend, which is a major growth driver as it caters to  the consumer’s love of free items and attracts the right kind of publicity. Just remember to stay in control of the situation by not handing out free cash and using integrated referral systems.

8. Create referral viral loops

Incentivize users to refer others by providing rewards for all new customers who sign up with your business through a referral. Then, implement a referral loop that rewards both parties once the new purchase is complete.

This method is a win-win for both your business and your users. Referral loops encourage customer to refer more people to your business, with you fulfilling your end of the bargain only when a referral turns into a paying customer.

Intrinsic rewards are often the biggest motivation for sharing, but the most effective reward for creating viral loops are the tangible, extrinsic ones.

So, what tangible rewards will motivate your users? Free products? Upgrades? Cash?

Aside from identifying who your customers are most likely refer, also determine what will best motivate these referrals to actually try your product.

Dropbox referral program

See how the Dropbox referral program offers a quick email send. 

9. Leverage market trends

Gartner survey found 71% of business leaders understand the relationship between success and key performance indicators (KPIs). Take the time to measure the effectiveness of your viral marketing techniques. Notice if your website registers increased activity, times when you get more inbound leads, or any changes in social media attention.

Then, when you do start seeing viral growth, identify and measure its performance in order to make better business decisions. This helps to eliminate any future guesswork, help clear communication and expectations, and execute your strategy better in the long run.

Concluding remarks

Viral growth comes with numerous benefits, the foremost being increased brand awareness and more sales. But it doesn’t just happen without a solid plan – be sure to test, grow, and calculate which techniques work best for your business.