The Five Types of Virality

and choosing the right one for your product to grow

Josh Elman
10 min readSep 19, 2016

Every entrepreneur has the dream of making their startup’s product go viral. But too often this is couched in a naïve understanding of virality. “Let’s make our app viral!” Or your investors ask you, “Can you take your app and add a little bit more virality?” (I often hear this described as growth hacking, too.)

Sometimes it feels like people believe virality is just magic pixie dust that can be sprinkled on anything. Fortunately, it’s much more concrete than that. But to understand how virality works, you first have to know that not all virality is the same. Many successful companies have done distinct things to help make their products go viral, all in completely different ways. So I thought it would be helpful to try to classify the disparate approaches.

If you’re trying to build your company and grow your product, it helps to think as specifically as possible about how to get your product in front of people. You can engineer features that will amplify the chances that people will want to try it. Of course first, you have to make a great product that people love. Once they love it, they’ll talk about it more. But how do you actually feed them the language to talk about it and enhance that word of mouth experience? How do you remind them to talk about it when they’re having a great experience? Or later? You need to understand what’s inside your core users’ minds, and use that knowledge to help them share your product through whatever means makes the most sense.

Do you need to build incentive programs into your product and marketing plans? Or, if people are making something tangible and shareable with your product, like pictures, how do you get them to share it in a way that other people will be naturally exposed to the product? And then how do you make sure that the flow of interested people actually converts to new users as seamlessly as possible?

The most basic element common to all these different types virality is inception. The goal of all viral efforts is to insert (or “incept”) an idea of what a product can do into someone else’s head, and to get them so excited about it they want to try it and use it. That’s the most important component of any type of virality. What is that little sentence, that little hook, that little reason why somebody actually wants to try your product out?

So here’s what I’ve found are the five main types ways a product can do this. Do you have another way I didn’t cover here? I’d love to hear about it.

Word-of-mouth virality

This one is straightforward: It’s simply a product being so good that people can’t help telling their friends about it. For example, when Google was just taking off, people would notice you searching on Alta Vista or Infoseek or another search engine and they’d tell you “use Google, the search is so much better.” So the next time you did a search, you’d try it, and pretty soon you’d be telling others about it too.

A couple of years ago, when we got our first iPhone apps, geeks like me were telling everyone they knew about Evernote, because it lets you sync notes between your computer and your smartphone. It often happened when you’d see someone taking notes on their phone, and they’d tell you they were using Evernote and how simple it was to keep one copy of the notes everywhere.

One other key to word of mouth virality is making sure your product is easy to find later. Having a name that is easy to remember, *and to spell* certainly helps (Google is easier than Googol — the number it was named after). Missing vowels and doubled letters, not having the right domain name or app store name always make it trickier. One test I like to do when trying out new company names is check the typeahead in the App Store. If you are calling your application InstaGreatCoolThing, you might realize users typing ahead will see Instagram and similar apps before yours (until you are as big as Instagram).

The other key is to make sure your product is easy to describe. The words you use to describe your product — on your home page, in your press messaging, and in the product itself will be the foundation of how your users describe it. This is really important because it’s how your users will incept other users with what your product does. Funny side features like Google’s “I’m feeling lucky” or Facebook’s “Poke” often help to make the description memorable too. If you don’t have a pithy way to describe your product, you should assume your users won’t be able to either.

Incentivized word-of-mouth virality

This is similar to word-of-mouth, but with a little added incentive for people to refer their friends. For instance, 15 years ago, Paypal would give you $10 if you referred a friend and they created an account. Similarly, Dropbox and Uber have used incentives to great effect. Refer a friend and they’ll get more free storage (and you too), or a discount on their first ride.

It helps when the incentive works both ways, as a coupon for the new users as well as an reward for the referring user when the recipient creates a new account. Because you are paying for it and discounting your service, it’s not quite as clean or pure as word-of-mouth, but it can be very effective.

Demonstration virality

Demonstration virality is when the nature of a product is such that, simply by using it, people are showing it off. One great example is Instagram: In 2010 it was fairly difficult to get photos off your phone and into some useful place, so Instagram added tools for people to easily share their photos out to Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr. Instagram’s filters naturally caught people’s attention on those networks. It provoked an instant “How did you do that?” reaction.

You can see Prisma blowing up this summer in the same way. You can create these incredible, stained-glass-like artworks with it, and then share them on Instagram or wherever. Of course people want to know how did you did that, so they’ll ask you — or they can see the little Prisma logo on the image, and then go get the app themselves. spreads in a similar way as users and influencers create very cool music videos and then share them on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and people decide to try to make their own.

Another example is Pinterest. If I create a pinboard of fun GIFs or wedding ideas or recipes, and I share it, the act of sharing is a built-in advertisement for Pinterest’s awesomeness.

Even Uber benefited from demonstration virality early on. You’d show up to a meeting in a black car and people would be like, “Dude, where did you get the limo?” Or you’d be leaving a party and you’d just press the Uber button and a car showed up for you. Meanwhile, your friends were trying to hail cabs or call for rides. Just by using Uber, you were a walking advertisement for the product and how much better it was.

Infectious virality

Infectious virality is when a product is designed in a way that people will work to get other people using it because it will make it better for both of them. It’s when one user is “infecting” another with the virus, I mean the product so that they are both hooked. For example, Snapchat users have a big incentive to encourage their friends to download Snapchat so they can send photos back and forth in a more authentic and safe way. Twitter works the same way: If you follow me on Twitter I’ll have more followers, and you can see what I’m doing and tweeting, and it’ll be great for both of us. Nextdoor is a really interesting example where even though people might not know their neighbors, they can send them postcards to invite them and make the neighborhood community larger and more productive for everyone. And of course LinkedIn and Facebook are the canonical examples of infectious virality where people invited you to be their colleagues or friends on the service.

Invitations are the key to spreading infectious virality. However — false invitations or overly spammy invitations often have a deleterious effect on virality. When someone invites you to a service only because they invited their entire address book, it doesn’t feel personal or connected. And if you sign up and the person doesn’t even use the product, then the likelihood for the next person to become active diminishes greatly.

This is what most people think of as classic virality, because it’s how we’ve seen social networks and communication networks spread. And who doesn’t love the special feeling of being “invited” to a product by their friend? But infectious virality doesn’t and shouldn’t apply to all products. Being invited into a product that isn’t naturally social doesn’t really work. So use this method carefully and make sure it really applies to your product.

Outbreak virality

Finally, some things just spread because they’re fun to share, or because they’ve got a lot of popular momentum and people want to look cool by sharing them. YouTube videos blow up because they’re funny, or addictive, and it’s just fun to share them with your friends.

In a similar way, Pokémon Go took off this summer in part because everyone was doing it, and it was just fun to tell your friends about it and to participate yourself. Of course, there are other aspects to this game’s success, such as the fact that it was leveraging a very established, beloved brand, but it also benefited from this virtuous circle of fun, popularity, and sharing.

Putting it all together

When you understand the different tools and that they all work differently, you can design or build virality into your product in a way that’s very natural.

I often see founders saying something like, “I’m just going to add an invite flow to my product.” That doesn’t work in most cases. If it’s not well positioned and well integrated, an invite flow is just going to produce a bunch of ineffective invites that won’t convert into new users. It might just bring in a bunch of transient users who don’t stick around. You don’t want to try infectious virality unless it really is applicable — that you want each user to bring another user into the product experience so that it will be better for both of them. If your product is about creating content or having experiences that are easy to show off, it’s often much better to focus on demonstration virality. And if your product costs money and has value, an incentivized word of mouth strategy can really pay off.

When you successfully create that moment of inception, and get the idea of your product into someone’s mind, you do need to follow that up with a smooth new-user flow. The person who shows up to your website or the App Store is ready to try it. They are excited to try it and give your product some attention. This is your best chance ever to get them to learn more about what the product does and get it set up for their value. You need to start the onboarding process right so the product has a chance to become a habit, and then for that user to spread it to the next set of people.

It’s entirely possible to have mass deception, where you find a good growth hack and get a bunch of people show up and try your product quickly. But if you’ve enticed them for the wrong reason, they don’t actually adopt the product, or if they do, they don’t stick around long enough to feed the next round of viral adoption. So whenever you’re thinking about engineering virality, you need to be sure that it’s reaching the right people, gets them interested for reasons that align with the intrinsic value of your product, and leads them to the right actions.

I still remember when I was first invited to Snapchat. A friend texted me to join them so we could send funny faces back and forth and they would be deleted. When I joined up, the first thing he did was send me a funny face and we ended up having a lot of fun with it. The viral hook connected directly with my first use. Over time we learned to send a lot more types of communication together and added more and more friends and it took off. But if Snapchat had offered free beer to everyone who signed up for Snapchat, they might have driven a lot of new users even faster, but those people would all be gone as soon as they finished the beer.

Remember, at the end of the day, there’s only one metric that really matters: How many people are actually using your product. Not downloading it, not clicking on it, not trying it for a day. Actually using it. So your viral techniques all need to be aligned toward the goal of increasing the number of actual users.



Josh Elman

I love building products that people use. I‘ve helped build Twitter, Facebook Connect, LinkedIn, Robinhood. Investor in Medium, Tiktok/, Discord