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Five lessons in viral marketing from a crowd experiment July 15, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in advertising, Internet, self espression, social media, social networks, viral, viral marketing, web 2.0, widgets.

I’ve been traveling a bit this week, speaking at Widgetcon on Wednesday and at Community Next on Saturday. Both panels were on the topic of viral marketing; at Widgetcon with a focus on how brands can use widgets for marketing, and at Community Next with a focus on how to measure viral campaigns.

Dave McClure moderated the panel at Community Next and conducted an interesting experiment with the audience that really encapsulates some of the key lessons of viral marketing. He seeded two memes into the audience. One person was asked to start saying “meep” repeatedly. Another group of five people were asked to put their hand onto another person. The idea was to see which memes spread furthest in the audience.

The “Meeper” juiced up the visibility of his meme by adding an element of clapping as well (“meep”, clap, “meep”, clap etc), and walking up and down the front of the stage. Initially maybe 10 people near the Meeper started to meep as well (and clap – more clapping than meeping actually) but this eventually died down as it failed to get picked up more broadly. The initial early adopters started to feel self conscious when no one followed them, and stopped meeping.

At this point, the people on stage still had no idea what the second meme was until Dave asked how many people were touching someone else. About a third of the audience, maybe 50 people, raised their hand. Although it initially lagged, the second meme had far outpenetrated the first.

Although a somewhat artificial experiment, Dave managed to demonstrate a number of the key lessons about viral marketing in a very clever way:

    1. A “high visibility” app can get quick pickup among early adopters very quickly. “High visibility” can be caused by a high invite rate, inviters who invite a lot of people on average, or simply something that is extremely visible and obvious (e.g. music on your profile page, or some guy walking up and down the stage clapping and saying meep).

    2. High visibility can cut both ways. New users who are seeking social proof can see who is adopting, and decide whether or not they are “like me”.

    3. Early adopters can also be early abandoners and not representative of the broader population. (see Josh’s classic post on the 53,651)

    4. Product matters. While a highly viral app can get distribution quickly, if the uninstall rate is high then it never gets beyond a certain size. While virality dictates the speed of growth, uninstall rate (typically a function of product quality) dictates saturation size, which in many cases is a more important business driver.

    5. It helps to start virality from a larger base. Viral marketing is a probability driven game, and if you don’t have enough initial seeds then a failure of virality from any one seed can stop all growth immediately; with more seeds you have more “shots on goal”.

A lot of the same lessons came out of the panel discussion at Widgetcon. There was a real focus on asking what should be the right metrics for measuring “success” for a widget based marketing campaign. CPM and pixel count (728×90 etc) didn’t seem to be the best way to measure and sell advertising when users voluntarily affiliated themselves with a brand. Echoing lesson #4 above (Product matters), most of the panel came back to engagement with the widget as the key metric for success. If the widget isn’t good, users won’t engage.

As the industry’s attention turns to the tactics of viral growth (whether through email, cross sell, calls to action, optimization of color, font, copy and position etc) it’s a good reminder that, as has always been the case, product matters more than marketing (whether viral or not).


1. CoryS - July 15, 2007


I’m interested in the market power Facebook gets to enforce on future widget deployment. While free, widely successful widgets become a platform force, the host does have the potential to decide the rules (e.g. Google has a similar market power with maps over Yahoo).

A working premise on Facebook and widgets…

2. Five lessons in viral marketing from a crowd experiment - July 15, 2007

[…] jeremyliew Filed under Blog by Permalink • Print […]

3. joe - July 16, 2007

Really enjoyed this panel – especially your concluding statement that the dirty little secret of viral marketing is neither dirty, nor little, nor a secret.

Great to meet you btw! 🙂

4. Robert Franklin - July 16, 2007

Ditto. Your concluding statement hit the nail of the head and put a great spin on the disscussion, kinda like a good mystery novel does at the last moment.

Joe, thanks for reccomending that I check out the lightspeed blog and Jeremy, you were right – great stuff and I added it to my feed.

Jeremy, I will introduce myself to you at the next conference we are at.

5. Top Posts « WordPress.com - July 17, 2007

[…] Five lessons in viral marketing from a crowd experiment I’ve been traveling a bit this week, speaking at Widgetcon on Wednesday and at Community Next on Saturday. Both […] […]

6. Linkography: 5 Links for the Essential Asian Web Entrepreneur at Entrepreneur 27 Singapore - Web 2.0 Unconferences, Websites & Cool Tech from a Sunny Island at the Equator - July 17, 2007

[…] Jeremy Liew, who blogged about Dave performing a crowd experiment on viral marketing at the recently concluded CommunityNext conference in Stanford run by our E27 founder Noah […]

7. Amisare Waswere - July 17, 2007

To the above lessons, the following may also be added:

6) Virality is inversely proportional to the effort required for its propagation.

“Meeping, clapping and walking up & down the stage” is hard work (involving physical & mental coordination) and requires effort ( & enthusiasm) to keep it going. Contrast this to “touching someone”, which is quite simple, natural (personal expression of friendliness) and requires little effort to keep it going (restive position).

Keeping it simple (user-friendly, quick & easy, minimal steps,) and natural (e.g. completing the user name/password etc) will encourage viral growth.

8. links for 2007-07-18 « Simply… A User - July 18, 2007

[…] Five lessons in viral marketing from a crowd experiment « Lightspeed Venture Partners Blog (tags: Marketing viral tips **) […]

9. 4MySales - July 19, 2007

The experiment also demonstrates that a viral initiative will spread farther if it is concurrent with the beliefs or what is deemed socially acceptable by the spreader. i.e. it is forwards may be great, but if they offend the viewer, they won’t get passed on.

10. pjentrepreneur - July 19, 2007

Question about point 4: what is considered to be a high uninstall rate? Anything over 15%?

11. jeremyliew - July 19, 2007

PJ – Its hard to talk about thresholds of what is “high”, but think about it like this; if you have an uninstall rate of 15% per month then you need to have “new user growth” of 15% per month just to stand still

12. Kevin - July 23, 2007

Very interesting discussion — I’d be interested to read about the practical mechanics of creating something like this. Specifically, which pieces are important from a technical perspective to build something — and which order they are important to develop in. For example, is it more critical to develop a browser bar (a la stumble/reddit) or is it most important to build out site functionality first?

How should resources be allocated at the early stages?

Thanks for an interesting post –

13. WebKnowledge.info - Webmaster Resources » Blog Archive » Five lessons in viral marketing from a crowd experiment - September 15, 2007

[…] ayame_nekura wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerpt […]

14. highfiver - November 27, 2007

Truly believe in what the experiment resulted in. For a website content and solid content then rules.

15. ahndunk - February 16, 2008

Great post. That experiment result are very interesting, they key lesson of viral marketing also helpful. Thank you very much.

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