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Viral Growth Pisses Me Off

John Doherty —  June 1, 2012
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Let’s talk about virality and viral growth. I live in New York City and work in online marketing, so I’m on the Internet pretty much all the time. And since I am on the Internet all the time, I notice trends. One trend that I have noticed is that a lot of tech startups are focused on viral growth. When asked how they plan to go, I get an answer along the lines of:

Oh, you know, we’ve got this rockstar developer guru who has hooked us into the OpenGraph, so we’re going to autopost everything you do on our site onto their wall. Then, their friends will see it and we’ll have millions of users in no time and we’ll get bought for 1 billion dollars just like Instagram!

Newsflash for you: this is a terrible idea if your only way to grow is through Facebook.

It’s bad for a few reasons:

  • Your reach will not be as much as you think. In fact, each user’s posts only reach about 12% of their friends. If they have 1,000, you’re lucky to reach 120.
  • If Facebook goes away, you’re screwed.
  • If Facebook shuts down your OpenGraph integration, you’re screwed.
  • If you want any users that are not on Facebook, you’re screwed.
  • If your users turn off the auto-posting, you’re screwed.

Is that enough for you? I’m going to rant for a bit about some “viral” things that REALLY annoy me, and I am sure many other people as well. Doing these things will NOT endear you to me, and I will not talk about your product.

Don’t make me tweet your link

I received an email yesterday inviting me to a private event with a bunch of tech influencers. Pretty cool, I thought! Then, I went to sign up, where I entered my name and information. I was then taken to a squeeze page where, in order to get to my ticket, I had to tweet the link to my followers.

Follow me here on this logic:

  • I get invited to a private party.
  • I sign up.
  • I have to tweet a link to my followers (who I care about) in order to get in.
  • They will not be able to get in.
  • They will be annoyed.

Does anyone else see the lapse in judgment here?

Lesson: Don’t make people tweet your link to get something. Some people want something more private, such as to provide their email address (and while we’re on that note, don’t spam people with emails). I don’t want to share your link to my 3k+ followers, because I don’t want to annoy them. So give other choices.

Don’t make me automatically follow you on Twitter

This next one grates on my nerves as well. How many of you have ever signed up for a service and seen this:

I’ll never forget Rand Fishkin talking about how he does not believe in any kind of shady marketing, including even when the person has opted in. For example, they email you if you have not used the software after you have taken a free trial, which requires a credit card, to let you know that they will be charging your credit card if you do not cancel. Most companies do not do this. Moz’s position shows that they care about people, not just money.

Making someone automatically follow you, or forcing them to tweet your link, will often not make you friends. If I must follow you to sign up, guess what? I’ll follow you to get in, then instantly unfollow you. And I won’t like you.

So don’t do that.

Don’t make me pay to get simple data

I’m a big believer in free things. Most of us online are. I am not adverse to paying for a service that offers me a lot of value, something that I will use every day. A lot of services, though, try to make you pay when you want simple data. Today I went to TwitterCounter to try to get a historical count of the number of RTs I get compared to the number of tweets I send. Basically, I wanted to track it over time for a post.

But when I tried to get this from TwitterCounter, I saw this:

Or this when I try to get 6 months worth of data:

Are you out of your mind? If your product is so weak or niche that I have to pay for this sort of data, you need to re-evaluate how you are going to monetize your business and if you should even be in business in the first place. People hate being squeezed for stuff like this.

Provide me value first. I see nothing special about TwitterCounter as compared to services like Followerwonk or Crowdbooster, so what impetus do I have to pay for this data? I’m not even sure it’s going to have what I need!

Final Words

As you can tell, these sorts of marketing and growth tricks really annoy me. As I wrote about last month, you need to provide people as much value as possible if you want them to sign up. I would happily pay $5/month to Crowdbooster if they came out with the retweets over time option, because they have provided me value through my free account for almost a year and a half now.

I guess this all comes down to how you think about growth. I have seen products work better when someone influential likes and talks about your product. Why do you think Robert Scoble is asked to endorse products, or why there is a service to have a celebrity tweet about your service? Celebrities and influencers can drive a lot of users.

If someone who is an influencer likes your product, they’ll naturally share it with friends. You don’t have to trick them into doing it. Think about who your Tim Ferriss is.┬áTo be realistic, you’ll probably lose the influencer’s support if you make them do the above things I’ve mentioned.

Viral is not a prop for growth. It’s most often used by people without a real business model or quality product. At least provide an opt-out option.

The choice is yours.

John Doherty

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I'm the Senior Marketing Manager of HotPads.com, based in San Francisco. Previous to Hotpads I worked at Distilled for 2 years as an online marketing consultant. In my spare time I shoot lifestyle photography, ski, rock climb, and update my Twitter and Google+ accounts.

17 responses to Viral Growth Pisses Me Off

  1. Anthony Pensabene June 1, 2012 at 10:12 am

    Good thoughts, John. It would be nice for these kinds of posts to get picked up by more business owners.

    I was exchanging emails with someone discussing similar topics recently. I’m not really sure if it’s that people don’t get it, or they do, but rather circumvent providing quality for the pursuit of money.

    Also, I hope the social spheres of the Web help some business owners wake up. Maybe there was a time when the masses as consumers were not heard as often, or our views of poor business practices did not have a platform. They sure do now.

  2. I’m 100% with you that OpenGraph spam != viral success and mandatory “pay with a tweet” functionality is a huge turn off, especially when that tweet is basically “look what I just got that you can’t have because you’re not as special as I am.” Both are hugely annoying.

    As for not requiring payment for simple data… if the data was really all that simple, somebody else would be providing it for free. If you’re the only purveyor of information that people want, you can (and probably should) charge for it — regardless of how simple it may seem.

    I’ll never begrudge a company for spotting an opportunity and squeezing a buck (or some free marketing) out of it. Capitalism at work.

  3. I tend to agree. I don’t like being forced to do things, though I can understand the rationale behind it – for everyone who follows and unfollows there will be a bunch who don’t unfollow, whether through apathy or disinterest.

    I guess it comes down to what these vendors value. If they’re going to potential backers saying “Look, we have an engaged community of X” is it the ‘X’ or the ‘engaged’ that gets questioned?

  4. Agree with Eppie here – truly simple/non-value added = i can do it or get it myself. If that’s not the case, then there’s something worth paying for either in $ or marketing. That said, agree with the intent of the post – don’t trick me or extort me into paying/advertising for you. Convince me it’s worth it first.

  5. Good post, I agree that you can never bet on the Viral.

    Your product needs to be REALLY good as a prerequisite for it to get the benefits of the social/viral spread everybody’s talking about, but forcing people to signup/tweet doesn’t work.
    Similar to when sites auto-check the “email signup” box: why would anybody want to lower the quality of a list and increase the unsubscribe rate at the same time?!

    I assume all investors would love to see your product go viral, but hopefully business plans with a slower, more realistic growth rates are considered above those “viral” ones.

  6. Thanks for saying what I’ve been thinking, John. It’s uncomfortably sad that companies rely on and demand that their users do their marketing for them to their friends and families.

    If it’s good, the only encouragement I need is the sharing button as an OPTION. If it’s not good, I’d feel like the guy who invites people for a dinner party, then tries to sell them all insurance. I may as well share, “hey everyone, I sold our relationships out for a prize!”

    +1 to Minchala – “convince me it’s worth it first.”

    • “…the guy who invites people for a dinner party, then tries to sell them all insurance…” – haha, that just about sums it up!

      I strongly agree with John and everyone else here. What’s the use of having a lot of followers when they only followed you because they were forced to or at least was “kindly” asked (in your face) to do a favor? I doubt most of those will even RT or favor your future tweets. As John has said, “provide me value first.”

  7. Well said, John! I agree that jumping through hoops as a way for businesses to justify their social media activity is increasing and annoying. It feels like many of these companies are headed by the “late adopters” who don’t understand that value, and not cheap tricks, is the only way to really engage, and gain, followers. So, tweet the link to my site, will ya?

  8. Whoa. We’d LOVE to have 12% reach on FB. Ours has hovered around 7 or 8% since the last algorithm change, with an exceptional piece of content getting 11 or 12%.

    Reinvesting in owned properties = critical.

    Thanks for a great article!

    -Sara

  9. “Provide me value first.” I agree with you in that viral is annoying, and that it does not = true value. Viral is simply a social fad. However, I am opposed to the freemium model. I feel that free trials are perfectly acceptable, but you cannot expect a business to run based on providing a free product. Yes this model has proven successful with various companies, but the Facebooks and Twitters are not the norm.

  10. A very reasonable article John. I hate these paid services of the same reason and I completely agree with you that they should re-view their monetizing models. However, I think they still have enough target audience to not pay attention to your or my opinions.

  11. Viral growth does not piss you off, it’s people trying to coerce you into spreading their word for no good reason. That’s different. Social media bribes piss most people off.

  12. Ouch…

    That one slipped through the net eh?

    These guys in the comment above are innovative SEO experts obviously XD

    Hehe, sorry for the sarcasm!

    Loved the angry post anyway John. Totally agree that if I find a service awesome, I will share it anyway. If I dislike something about it or the page annoys me like this, the likelihood is I’m not going to share it and maybe not return to use their site again!

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