Lessons learned from “accidental viral marketing”

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In the Bay Area, we hear about “the hottest app or device” almost every single day. Yesterday, people were losing their minds over Pokemon Go, today people are obsessed with chatbots powered by the coolest AI (Artificial Intelligence) or a hip vegan burger that “bleeds” perfectly. Tomorrow, who knows? Maybe we will talk about the mirror that talks to us.

My point is that trends change, and everybody wants to keep up with it. If you are an entrepreneur or an investor, things get more serious. You have no other options but to study the trend. Let’s admit it. We all chase the next big thing. And if you understand the trend, you might find the next big thing before others.

When I took my very first entrepreneurship class in college, I didn’t have a Snapchat (oh wait, at that time, Snapchat didn’t exist). I didn’t expect that people would need a new chat app besides text message and Facebook Messenger. Now, I am (almost) in my early 30s, and I use Snapchat everyday, I can see why people love it so much. However, one question still remains unanswered: How and when do you know when something starts to trend?

In the past couple of months, I’ve been working on a new app called FashionStash. It is an iOS app to buy and sell used fashion items. In the beginning, my expectation was pretty humble as I was very well aware of the fact that they were many similar apps out there. However, after seven days after we launched the app, something amazing happened. Between 10/2 Saturday – 10/3 Sunday (aka “the viral weekend’), we reached 7000 signups. As you can tell from the graph below, the number of users increased from 100 to 650 to 7300 within three days (73x growth).


It was that moment that I realized what viral means in the startup world. During that one weekend, we got over 1000 emails sent to our customer support team. When the FashionStash team came back to work on Monday morning, we seriously thought about taking the app down from the app store as we were not sure if we were able to handle this much traffic. We didn’t expect this viral thing would happen to our app. We were not running any Facebook ads (we tested some ads previously, but from 10/2 to 10/3, all the Facebook ads were put on hold. And we didn’t run any other paid ads either during that time.) After some web search, my team found out that there were several blog posts written about FashionStash. They talked about our special promotion and urged their community members to check out the app. Also, I noticed that some young fashion bloggers shared images from the app on their Instagram so their followers can learn about the app. These young fashion bloggers listed and sold lots of Victoria’s Secret items which were in high demand among FashionStash users.

Ok. So what did I learn from this experience?

  1. A killer promotion helps  

We offered a big promotion. New users received $30 of credit to use towards their purchases in the app, and shipping was totally free. Also, when you shared your promo code to invite someone, you would earn another $30 of credit.

I thought that it was a pretty good offer. However, I didn’t expect that it would bring 7000 new signups. Actually, the promotion had been going on for more than one week before ‘the viral weekend’ happened. The challenge is that it’s not always crystal clear whether it is a killer promotion or not. For example, some people don’t care about $30 of credit. Before the app went viral, I personally shared my promo codes with my friends and family, but no one was super excited about it. Their reaction was more like “Ugh, another app promotion. $30 is not that impressive.”  It was actually one of the reasons why I didn’t expect to experience “the viral weekend”.

To sum up, when you plan viral marketing for your product, make sure you put a killer promotion that makes your target customer jump with  excitement. It doesn’t have to be appealing to everyone. Think about who your target customers are and find out what kinds of promotions they want to see from your product. Looking back, $30 free credits and additional $30 per each referral were killer promotions to FashionStash’s target customers (aka savvy ladies).

  1. Forget about your original plan. Follow the traffic.

Monday morning following the the “viral weekend,” we discussed what to do. We were overwhelmed by increased traffic. We had three options: 1) taking the app down from the Apple app store. 2) keeping the app alive but blocking new sign-ups. 3) stopping the promotion. We picked the second and third options and it worked. We could slow down the traffic and focus on customer support. Since the app was still pretty new, we had many bugs and users were complaining about it a lot. Also, there were some fraudulent users and fake orders that required our investigation. Also, users told us what new features that they wanted to see in the app. For example, some users sent us emails with complaints that the FashionStash didn’t have a search button. They wanted us to build a search feature so they could shop more efficiently. Also, some suggested that FashionStash should add better messaging or commenting features so they can communicate better with other FashionStash users. We listened to their feedback carefully and started building these features. Although we already had a product roadmap that we created prior to the “viral weekend,” but our original plan didn’t matter anymore. We decided to forget about the original plan and follow the traffic. Moreover, we let our users shape the product identity. Initially, we envisioned that FashionStash would become a fashion marketplace where users sell/ buy used clothing. However, soon after, we’ve noticed that users were more interested in selling non-fashion products including iPads, cameras, smarthome devices and even shampoos. It was not what we expected, but we considered it as an important signal that tells us what our users want.

  1. Some products are meant to go viral. Some products are not.

The “viral weekend” made me think about my previous startup, DearMissJ, a jewelry brand. While I was running DearMissJ, I ran lots of paid advertisements and tried multiple user acquisition tactics to boost web traffic. However, the ad performance was disappointing and the overall traffic growth was pretty slow. It was frustrating to see the slow growth rate. Later, I realized that It is not unusual to see a somewhat slow (but steady) growth rate considering the nature of the retail/ luxury business. It was like “knowing your battleground.” I had to remind myself that DearMsisJ is a fashion brand and I need to use the growth matrix that is used for other fashion brands.  After that realization, my marketing team started putting more money and energy to work with traditional marketing channels such as fashion magazine press coverage and jewelry trunk shows. However, it was very expensive and time consuming. I never witnessed a 5x or 10x monthly growth rate.

On the contrary, the FashionStash app achieved 10x user growth within ONE DAY, just one single day from 10/2-10/3. Surprisingly, during that time period, I spent $0 in marketing. This made me question myself: “What have I done differently with FashionStash?” Obviously I didn’t offer $30 of credit to DearMissJ users.  If I had offered $30 of credit for DearMissJ customers (just like what I did with FashionStash), would it have been possible to see 10x growth? Probably not. I believe certain types of products go viral easier than other products because they have the key ingredient: social aspect. For example, FashionStash has a better chance to go viral than DearMissJ because the FashionStash app is a marketplace where sellers meet buyers. In a marketplace, users are motivated to be social. Even without a special promotion, both sellers and buyers naturally feel encouraged to invite others to join the app, so they can sell (or buy) more products in the app. With a killer promotion added, their motivation tripled.  In contrast, DearMissJ is a jewelry e-commerce site with pretty expensive items (most of DearMissJ jewelry cost around $100). In this case, a $30 credit would not really motivate users to visit the site and purchase items

To sum up, if you are trying to make your product go viral, please remember that it is about having a little bit of luck at the perfect timing. The good news is that although you cannot control your luck, you can control your mindset. Tell yourself, “I will build a product that people need first. Then, I will make sure that my product is scalable. Finally, if timing works, the viral effect will come naturally.” Who knows? You might have more than 73x traffic increase 🙂

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