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The Anatomy of A Viral Marketing Product Launch

John Doherty —  July 12, 2012
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“Virality” has been the talk of the Internet, and especially blogging and marketing, worlds for a bit of time now. In my day-to-day I work with and have a lot of conversations with startups whose investors are constantly pushing them to “make the product more viral”. I’m not convinced that “virality” within a product is necessarily a positive, as a lot of people have been frustrated by the forced sharing that is now occurring throughout Facebook and the social web.

Where virality is useful, though, is when launching a new product. Everyone has a book or product idea, but relatively few know how to market their product well, especially pre-launch, to have the maximum number of people possible ready and willing to buy, share, and promote the product for you once it launches.

So how do you build virality into a product launch? How do you build this set of people? This is the question I am going to tackle today.

I’m an Internet Marketer by trade, so I watch products launch almost daily (and I’ve given my email to way too many of these myself). Let’s look at a few recently launched products and their force multipliers that they have leveraged to get the maximum amount of sharing and buzz pre-launch for their product.

Qualities of a Viral Product Launch

Build Your Audience First

The step that most people miss is the importance of building an online audience before you even announce your project. The strength of an engaged audience is the most valuable force multiplier you can possess, as these are your true and dedicated fans who will spread your cause far and wide to their audiences.

I’m not talking about your friends on Facebook. Friends on Facebook are meaningless for the most part because they are not invested in your project other than that they are your friend and they want to see you succeed. Fans on Facebook are much more valuable than friends, so set up a public profile page and link to it in your presentations, from your website and other social network accounts, and even your business cards.

Even better than Facebook fans (in a lot of verticals, especially tech) are Twitter followers and email subscribers. We’re not just looking at numbers, but at engagement from these channels. You can know which channels are driving the most engagement for you by looking at your Google Analytics and finding where most of your referral traffic is coming from.

On your website, be sure to have an email signup form targeted to your readers with a strong call-to-action that encourages them to sign up for your mailing list. Once you announce your project, I recommend starting a new mailing list to directly target those explicitly interested, but you can also use your larger existing list to ask them to opt-in to your project list, and to make sure they all see your new project.

Glen from ViperChill (who recently successfully launched a premium WordPress plugin) captures email in his sidebar, above the fold:

I’ve chosen to do it on my site to visitors who have come back to my site after visiting it for the first time. I’ve put the email box at the top of each blog post with a unique “Give Me The Awesome!” call to action. I’ve exponentially increased my email subscribers in the past few months with this setup:

If you already have a product to offer, maybe give that away for free in exchange for signing up to your email list. This is what Michael Hyatt does on his posts:

What you’ve learned:

  • Facebook fans are more important than Facebook friends;
  • Know where your traffic is coming from;
  • Build your email list.

Pre-seed the idea to friends and influencers

You have your idea, you have built an audience with consistently relevant and high quality articles and opinions, and now you’re ready to start work on it.

Before you start writing or coding (pick your poison), you need feedback. I don’t care that you don’t have anything to show people – you have an idea that you are passionate about.

Find a couple of peers that you trust and ask them their opinion. This could be your boss, a peer in your industry, or an influencer who has experience with launching products in your niche. Tell them your idea. If they are a trusted person (and they should be at this point), don’t fear that they might steal your idea. People are generally more helpful than you might ever realize.

The goal at this step is to get external validation and receive ideas for features and angles that you might not have thought about yourself. Here is an example of validation that I received when I shared my new ebook idea with my friend Dan:

Of course, this works best if you also friends with an influencer. One of the best posts I have ever read about getting the word out about your project is called The Tim Ferriss Effect. I highly recommend that read.

What you’ve learned:

  • Have trusted friends to get feedback from;
  • Take their feedback into account;
  • Push forward once you have this feedback.

Now that you have received some feedback, the next step is the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) or launch video.

Minimum Viable Product

Now comes the fun part, the part where you actually get to build something. Actually, you don’t HAVE to build anything at this point; you simply have to produce something that shows people what your idea is and get them excited about it.

When we launched the announcement for DistilledU, our new online SEO training platform, back in January (which is now in Public Beta), we included this screenshot:

When the actual product launched though, it looked like this:

The goals here are to give people an example of what, an idea of why, and a reason to sign up (what will they get in exchange?).

What you’ve learned:

  • You don’t need a fully functional product (or even functional at all) to launch your intent;
  • Give people a taste for what the product could be.

Dedicated Landing Page

Alright, so now we have an audience (that we are continuing to build), have solicited feedback from trusted individuals, and have our MVP or at least a screenshot of what could be our MVP.

The next step is a dedicated landing page. There are many platforms on which to do this, but the key elements are:

  • Easy signup;
  • Emotional pull (what the reader will get);
  • Encouragement to share;
  • Enough information to get them excited;
  • An aesthetically pleasing layout (that instills trust).

A couple of awesome examples exist. When we launched DistilledU back in January, we put up this landing page (it’s now been taken down, but here is a screenshot (source)):

Michael Hyatt has a dedicated landing page for his Platform book now. You’ll notice that there is no top navigation, he uses quotes from authority figures, and he gives multiple options for purchasing.

Personally I’d highlight one preferred place to buy (probably Amazon in his case) and put a call to action above the fold of the website (right above the video), but I think this page serves his needs very well:

What you’ve learned:

  • Have a dedicated aesthetically pleasing squeeze page (good post here) for people;
  • Require very little information (an email is all you need);
  • You don’t even need an MVP at this point.

Encourage social sharing

Now we get into the viral mechanics that can help your product launch spread wider than you thought possible.

After signup, encourage your new audience member to share the project with their own audience. Provide multiple sharing options for them, on the various social networks, as many people online have a preferred audience for sharing different information. They may share marketing links on Twitter, funny cat pictures on Tumblr, and a combination on Facebook, so provide them different options.

This is how a Launchrock landing page does it after you provide your email address:

Custom Tweets

When you ask someone to share about your project, have pre-loaded messages for them to tweet out. In the case of DistilledU, we had the following:

I just registered early for DistilledU on http://t.co/uOyRONjw. Come be my classmate! http://t.co/XV3xgJU0 via @distilled

I wish you could have seen these tweets blowing up our Distilled Mentions stream on Twitter, but this screenshot gives you an example:

Notice the elements we included in this tweet:

  • “I just registered early” gives a feeling of importance;
  • “Come be my classmate” is a non-imposing invitation;
  • “via @distilled” puts a trusted name to the source.

You should also do the same thing for the other social networks in case people want to spread the message via those channels.

It is also important to note that people are not forced to share. They have the option to not share, but are encouraged to do so. We are not trying to trap anyone into sharing.

Confirm the Email Address

When I announced my new ebook project recently, I used Mailchimp to store the email addresses and chose to have people confirm their email address so that my list stayed as pure and complete as possible.

Here is all the email said:

Michael Hyatt will then send you a Thank You email to follow up and set your expectations for what you will be receiving:

Custom Landing Page after Confirmation

Another way to approach the thank you, and my preference is a custom landing page dedicated to the people who have signed up to your mailing list. When people confirmed their email address, they were taken to this page to thank them, which then had a call to action to tweet the post if they had not already:

What you’re learned:

  • Have a dedicated landing page;
  • Encourage social sharing;
  • Confirm the email address;
  • Custom thank you page with social call to action;
  • OR thank you email setting expectations for what they will receive.

Tools/Platforms for Virality

At this point, I’ve walked you through the elements needed for a successful viral product launch. Now I want to talk about a few tools that may be helpful to you as you think about launching your next project, whether that be a full startup or something you plan on marketing such as an ebook.

LaunchRock

Launchrock is the tool that we used to launch DistilledU back in January. They take you through the full setup of your page, including your custom tweets and Facebook shares. They make it super simple to upload a custom background photo and customize your message to your users, and as Distilled co-founder Will wrote about here, gave us a 43% conversion rate, which resulted in over 1,000 email addresses in 24 hours.

The one downside to Launchrock is that they do not currently integrate with Mailchimp, our email platform of choice, but it is easy enough to download the contact details and upload them into a Mailchimp list.

Mailchimp

Speaking of which, Mailchimp is another great tool to use to store and send your emails. It is a free service, up to 12,000 emails a month, which helps you set up and customize your templates and provides you statistics on your email open rates. This way you know how valuable your emails are to people and if they are actually opening them.

Mailchimp is also the tool that Michael and I use to send the email confirmations, and I set it up so that once the person confirms they are taken to the dedicated thank you page.

Unfortunately with Launchrock this is not yet possible, though I hold out hope that it will be in the future as then I would have no reason NOT to use Launchrock.

Pay With A Tweet (or Share)

One final tool to use, if you have a free ebook to give away and want it to spread when people download it, is Pay With A Tweet. They also include the option to Share on Facebook to access the content. The effect of this is that the person must share your link in order to get access to your content, which then gets you in front of their audience as we have already talked about.

One caveat: Pay With A Tweet or Share will not work nearly as well if you do not have an audience already. In order for it to work truly well, you must already have proven that you know what you are talking about.

My friend Michael King did this well when he launched The N00b Guide to Linkbuilding on his agency’s site. As of the time of writing this post, the N00b Guide to Linkbuilding has 497 tweets, 77 total Facebook events, 20 Google +1s, and 125 shares on LinkedIn according to SharedCount.


I hope these steps and resources have been useful to you. Here are a few more case studies that have been done about viral product marketing that may be of use as well:

How I Created A Viral eBook Landing Page (Unbounce)
ViperChill’s Product Launch Recap

John Doherty

Posts

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.

23 responses to The Anatomy of A Viral Marketing Product Launch

  1. This is a great article on how to launch your new website, blog, and product(s). I think that if more people were to see this blog post that they will be encouraged to go after their dreams.

    At BoastingBiZ.com, we use several different platforms to get the buzz going for our clients website/product launch. Social Media is one of our main marketing vehicles, but we don’t solely depend on that platform. We conduct SEO suing the top keywords for our client’s websites. Getting them on the top of the search engines are our top priority and increasing their brand through social media helps with building the necessary business relationships in the business world today.

  2. John! This is brilliant. Not just the actionable guide, but the additional reading that you integrate into your step-by-step. I also really like the “What you’ve learned” wrap up for the takeaways of each section. Thanks for some good stuff!

    • Thanks Mack! I really appreciate the feedback. This was actually supposed to be a guest post for a well known site, but they said they didn’t want to use it, so I decided to put it here :-)

  3. Inspired by http://anthonypensabene.com/2012/07/10/what-you-comment-upon-now-echoes-in-bar-crawl-commentary/ which you happen to be called out in, requires me to comment on this post. In addition, it caused me to post on http://www.cucumbernebula.com/blog/why-most-seo-agencies-suck/#comment-10557

    First off great resource links and hitting the nail on the head in terms of building an audience first.

    After your presentation the other day, I have been thinking more and more about my own personal brand as well as what my own passions/interest are and how I can really step up my game. I know the biggest thing to do is get started, which I have already done. I have started to write some articles, but knowning how bad my spelling/gramar is so I know I need to get them reviewed before putting them up and out there. I am already super excited to get some thoughts out there and into the world. In addition, I am looking forward to getting a video/podcast started with a few ideas that are LONG over due.

    In terms of going from Idea to MVP – lots to chat about – tell Tom screenshots will be on the way tonight ;)

  4. Your first point is key: an audience validates that anybody gives a crap about your idea and what you’re saying about it.

    If you can’t ignite a following initially, it infinitely increases the risk when you launch, even if it’s an MVP.

  5. Good stuff, John. Build an audience first seems to be the step everyone skips. ;)

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this recent Mitch Joel post, which argues against the whole “pay-with-a-tweet” concept in favor of a more community-oriented idea: http://www.twistimage.com/blog/archives/you-cant-pay-me-to-do-that/

    I think there’s probably a way to use it appropriately for a low-investment item like a guide or list. Just wanted to introduce an alternate viewpoint.

    • I agree Courtney and John. People tend to forget that you need a following before you can successfully promote your products, services or events.

      There are many people getting tricked into thinking they can simply

    • I agree Courtney and John. People tend to forget that you need a following before you can successfully promote your products, services or events.

      There are many people getting tricked into thinking they can simply buy their followers and make sales. Purchasing followers will only make you look like an expert but spiders can’t write, retweet or engage with you. I’d have to look into the pay with a tweet blog post. Thanks.

      Again, Great Article John!

  6. Wow Great Timing With This Post John!

    I am working on a new business Idea with an old band mate from my music days, and this is exactly the strategy that we will be applying once we have everything finalised.

    Perhaps you could write a follow up post, that goes into maintaining and building upon the success of a product launch?

    Great stuff though mate.

  7. Echoing what John Murch mentioned above and taking your advice in Anthony’s post on blog commenting, wanted to say this is a great post and really shows the value of preparation and planning when it comes to successful marketing. Looking through all the advice here, from building the audience to pre-seeding the asset (which can feasibly be it’s own project in and of itself!) to developing custom social shares and landing pages…almost everything can and should be determined before you even consider launching the asset.

    As @victorpan said on Twitter, this is great overall marketing advice that extends beyond viral products…well done as always!

  8. Awesome promotional ideas, I like the Pay With A Tweet tool. What I love about MailChimp compare to it’s competitor is their free subscription especially if you’re just starting to create your list and I think that was very clever of them as they help newbie users to be familiar with the process as they develop their skills in email marketing.

  9. Simple, Short and Straight – Keep it simple, write in short and direct to what you want from users. I believe in just three principals. Landing page is a tool for you and your potential users together, via email, phone, social networks, chat or any other medium of communication your business meet.

  10. Sandeep Gulati July 31, 2012 at 4:28 am

    Hi John, great post, love the way you have systematically explained step by step. I have one question what’ the name of the plugin you are reffering to above you used on your blog “give me the awesome”
    Thanks

  11. Well thought out article. Do you have one you have written about that first step of building an audience as well?

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