Can you make a product “go viral”? And how do you best ride the wave if it happens?

paparazzi Hamburg
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James Hill, the head of international business development at Taiwan startup Cubie, is lucky enough to have experienced viral growth firsthand. Cubie, an app that lets user draw inside mobile messages, is now at about six million users since starting up about a year ago. Here’s what they did right and what Hill wishes they’d known earlier.

Many successful startups will tell you that luck played a significant part in their story, and to a certain extent that is true. What is also true however, and what startups usually don’t tell you, is that how they responded to that early growth was also key to the final outcome.

At Cubie Messenger, we know firsthand how unexpected initial viral growth can be. We were blown away by how users in countries we hadn’t even considered were downloading and using our application, how they were talking about us on Twitter and sharing photos on Instagram.

CubieCubie – quite possibly Taiwan’s cutest mobile app

From our early “success”, we’ve decided on a few tips that we share with our startup friends here in Taiwan, and around the world. These are things that can be planned from day one, while others are reactions to initial virality.

#1 Make it easy to share

People enjoy sharing cool stuff. If you’re building a product that is aimed at the consumer market, those consumers are your best marketing tool. They will evangelise on your behalf, telling their friends, their fans and their followers. By baking social tools into your app from the start, you stand a better chance of this happening. We added these functions after we launched in March 2012, so who knows where we’d be if we’d had them from day one?

The key is also knowing which platforms to integrate with. If your app is inherently visual, go for Pinterest, Instagram or another photo-centric service. If it’s text, or article based, perhaps another service would be more appropriate. I’m extremely excited to be trying out Vine, for example.

#2 Identify influencers

We got significant traffic from the Middle East by being tweeted about by influential Arabic tweeters. We didn’t pay for this, it was purely serendipitous. What a startup can do is identify people in their target market with large followings, and interact with them, raising the chances of being “discovered”.

Who is the most followed person on Twitter in Germany? In Thailand? In Japan? How many retweets do they get? What are they tweeting about? Having this knowledge can vastly increase your chances of a tweet or mention.

#3 Make it easy on yourself – go global

All apps should be in at least two languages: English and another of your choosing. It goes without saying that if an app is in English it can be downloaded and used by pretty much anyone, anywhere. Why limit your early growth to one market when, who knows, you could be really big in India?!

From day one, Cubie was available in English, Chinese (Taiwan’s official language) and Japanese (one of our developers is half-Japanese). Having English allowed our app to gain traction in South East Asia within the first month, when we hit one million downloads. Without English, we would’ve been stuck with modest growth in our home country.

#4 Reach out – niche audiences can become strong communities

While most techies are early adopters, they’re often not the intended user. Speaking to a friend who works at Pinterest, I was told their early adopters were designers and interior decorators, people already using pinboards in their daily lives. Getting them to switch to digital boards was easy, and over time the team expanded to different groups of people.

Who would best benefit from your service? Find them, whoever they are, and get them on board. Better yet, get them on board before the product is even live. We’ve made an effort to reach out to artists and creative people for advice, partnerships and evangelism. We’ll be doing more of this in the future as we try to gain traction in other markets.

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#5 React – go where the noise is

Over 15,000 photos with the #Cubie hashtag have been shared on Instagram. Seeing this we realised we needed a company account to interact with these users, share photos and build an audience. To be honest, we were caught off guard. When the app was first released, we didn’t have a post-to-Instagram function. Once we saw all the noise, we quickly added one to encourage more sharing and posting. Where are you being talked about?

#6 Metrics, baby!

Knowing your product inside out and how users interact with it can be crucial. We track everything our users do, average number of messages, which functions, and so on – to increase stickiness, and thus more content users, and ones more likely to evangelise for you.

In Cubie, for example, we know the difference which users are likely to stay and which ones are likely to leave. At Twitter, they realised that users were more likely to stay if they were following at least 30 people. What’s your sticky metric?

#7 Make noise

Everything a company does is newsworthy to someone. Adding a new feature or raising funding? Go for a tech or financial news site. Launching in a new language? Find a blog in that market that would benefit from that news.

Approach media ahead of time to ensure it’s still newsworthy – many are happy to accommodate startups and, as with influential tweeters, make sure you research which news outlets are right for you and your news. Coverage in the right place can give your app extra lift and create buzz.

#8 It is Hollywood – get over yourself and get out there!

While I realize that for some being “showy” might not come naturally, startups have to shout louder than larger companies to be heard. If you’re not talking about yourselves and leading the narrative, other people will. The motto for 500 Startups at demo day was, “Kick Ass, Take Names”. Perfect for scrappy companies with limited resources. Nobody’s going to discover you in a garage unless you actually leave the garage.

Image credits: surf, by Flickr user szeke; photographers, by Flickr user Thomas Leuthard

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