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Viral Product Adoption ... Build a Pipe, Not a Funnel

We all want wildly successful products like Facebook and Instagram.  Products whose viral nature allows them to experience astounding exponential growth.  How do you create a situation where an existing customer exposes your product to their friends, and who in turn adopt it to become customers themselves?  And do it in such a way that the process is sustainable and just continues to feed on itself.  This is Viral Product Adoption.  So how do we achieve this?

I believe the best way to explore this is to recognize that viral adoption is not a singular event.  A new prospect does not see your product and instantly become a customer.  Instead, it is a series of linked steps, each of which provides a risk of loosing potential customers if that individual step’s experience is not created well.

Therefore, our goal is to create a product adoption process whose steps are all "Compelling", "Obvious", and "Easy".  

I would like to break this down into two major parts.

  • Identify situations which are great opportunities for a viral adoption strategy
  • What is required of the steps in a successful viral adoption process

Opportunity - It Starts With Communication

Think of many of the super successful online services.  Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter to name just a few.  In very general terms, most are about connecting people and helping them to communicate.  That communication takes many different forms (text, pics, video, and so on) and serve different purposes.  These people are communicating with others who are like themselves, or at least others with similar communication needs.  Rather than inventing new channels of communication, you want to leverage these existing ones.  

For your target customer, this is the criteria you should use to determine if a communication channel is worth leveraging for viral adoption:

  • Are there many people like themselves who they communicate with?
  • What is difficult, preferably frustrating, about that communication?
  • How frequent is the outbound communication? 
  • How many different people do they communicate with?  Do they have many loose connections vs. just a few strong connections?

A Truly Effective Solution?

After you have identified a suitable opportunity for viral adoption, the next big questions are ... Do you have a solution that is truly effective?  Will this solution really solve your customers’ frustration in a way that they will be satisfied with?  And are you answering these questions from the perspective of your customer, or through the eyes of a product person who is already enamored with his own solution?  Honesty with yourself is very important here.

If your solution is NOT truly effective, don’t waste your time, and eventually the time of your customer by trying to wrap a viral adoption strategy around an inadequate solution.  It just won’t work.  Before proceeding with a viral adoption strategy, find or invent that truly effective solution.  

To be clear, this viral adoption strategy is about packaging up and presenting your solution in a way that it is easy to appreciate and adopt.  But to work, you must have a solution that is worth appreciating and adopting.

Less Than Optimal ... The Sales Funnel

For people who know sales and marketing processes, the "sales funnel" should be a familiar model.  Marketing, through advertising and other means, collects a large number of potential sales leads.  The leads are qualified as best as possible and then handed off to sales.  Sales follows up with most of the leads and tries to move them through the sales process to an eventual close.  But at each step, people fall out of the process.  So there are fewer and fewer people to eventually close a sale with.  At the end, only a few sales are closed for the many leads that were started with.  Close rates far below 1% are considered typical.  So for every sale a company hopes to close, they must generate at least 100 leads (but typically way more).

Sales Funnel - People are lost throughout the process, including those that should be kept

Each step in the process loses people for one of two possible reasons.  Reason 1, through the qualification process, it is determined that a prospect will not make a good customer.  They are of the wrong demographic, do not need the product, do not have budget to make a purchase, and so on.  It is a good thing when they are taken out of the process.  And the sooner, the better.

Reason 2, people are lost in the process due to ineffective steps in the sales/marketing machine.  Leads are not followed up on in a timely manner, prospects not presented with product benefits in a compelling way, out sold by the competition, and so on.  This is the bad way to loose people in the process.  It is like carrying cool fresh water from the well in a very leaky bucket.

Absurdly Ideal ... A Viral Adoption Pipe

Viral product adoption can be thought of as a hyper-condensed sales and marketing process.  Each step in the process can take only moments, and the entire exposure to adoption process may only take minutes.  But the goals and potential pitfalls are the same as in the longer sales/marketing process.

Viral Adoption Pipe - Remove non-qualified people early, and retain everyone else

You should strive to create an adoption process which:

  • Maximizes the number of prospects that are exposed to your product by each of your existing customers.  This is why I refer to it as a “pipe” and not a “straw”.  You want a high volume of people flowing through your process.
  • Qualifies prospects early in the process, and immediately removes those people who will not be good customers.
  • The initial experience by prospects should be easily recognized as relevant and very compelling.  “Wow ... this is for people just like me, and I really want this!”.
  • Ensure that every step in the process is compelling, obvious, and easy.  These three words are very actionable in their own distinct ways.

Compelling - the sender (existing customer) or receiver (new prospect) must be intrinsically motivated to perform each step.  The “why” she is doing this should be clear or still a fresh memory from the previous step.  The “why” can either be emotional (i.e. “makes me look cool”) or practical (i.e. “I must get this info to ...”).  In a poorly designed process, steps can demotivate people from continuing.

Obvious - it must be very clear “how” to perform the current step.  It must be simple.

Easy - it is effortless to perform this step.  People should not have to navigate a cumbersome interface or registration process.

The General Adoption Steps

When we break down the steps in a viral adoption process, we recognize that there are some steps which are performed by the sender (your customer), and others by the receiver (your customer’s friend, peer, etc.; who is also your prospect).  Here is how those steps generally break down:

By the Sender (your current customer): 

  1. Use - product is used to create, process, capture, organize, and/or format information or physical material.  Think of Microsoft Word being used to create a document, CAD to create a 3D model, or Instagram being used to take and augment a photo.
  2. Publish - the product’s deliverable may be reformatted to facilitate sending to others for their consumption.  Examples include creating a PDF, or posting photos to an online gallery.
  3. Send - published content is sent or made available to recipients.  This could be a web link in an email or text message.  It could also be the sending of the actual published content.

By the Receiver (their friend and your prospect):

  1. Receive - the content reaches the receiver.  May arrive in his email client, phone, or on a website that he frequently visits.
  2. Consume - Information is in a form that is easy to comprehend and use.  Read the document or view the picture.
  3. Compelling & Relevant - Not only does the recipient easily receive value, but she also recognizes the extraordinary value to her if she were to use this product as well.
  4. Adopt - Steps required to acquire and setup this product for use.  This broad adopt step will likely be broken up into more detailed steps such as: find; install; register, and setup.
  5. Use - the receiver is now your customer, and the process starts again.

It may seem tedious to break down the steps to such a granular level.  But if you are going to design for a viral adoption strategy, each of the above steps must be compelling, obvious, and easy.  You will achieve this by being deliberate about each of these detailed steps.  If you don’t, then you are leaving the success of your product merely to luck.


Viral product adoption is a strategy that takes a product which should already be an effective solution, and packages it up in such a way that your existing customers reach new customers for you by just using your product.  For this strategy to be successful, we must recognize all of the distinct steps in the adoption process.  And we must craft the experience so that each of those steps is compelling, obvious, and easy.

The situations where this works best, are those where your customers already communicate with people like themselves, but there is some difficulty in the communication, which leads to frustration.  Our goal is not only to enhance this broken communication, but also make it compelling, obvious, and easy for others to adopt the solution to gain the same benefit.

Get this right, and you will enjoy exponential growth in the adoption of your product.  Good luck!

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