How to create a product that gets shared

Jan 08, 2014

Table of contents:

  1. The habits of internet users
  2. The exhaustion of viral loop hacking
  3. You need to give people a reason to share
  4. What is an atomised value nugget?
  5. Reasons why people do share
  6. Example of products that used sharing to grow
  7. Lessons to learn
  8. Conclusion

With so much going on in the world of the consumer internet, it can be difficult to get your product noticed. Every day there seems to be a hot new kid on the block that is grabbing attention.

Acquiring users for consumer products is especially difficult in the early days when you have no money to invest. The only real option is to acquire users through “viral” means, but this can be an incredibly elusive unicorn to catch.

The problem with trying to get your existing users to grow your user base by inviting their friends is, it is very difficult because not many people are inclined to share on the Internet.

In this post I’m going to look at the problem of getting traction through your current users and how to create a product that encourages sharing.

The habits of internet users

The big problem with basing your future success on a viral growth strategy is, only a very small percentage of people will actually share something on the Internet. When a product is right in the middle of the tornado of Internet attention, it can seem like everyone is talking about it, but in reality, these movements are started by only a very small amount of initial people.

The 1% rule is a well known phenomena on the Internet. This rule is basically an observation that 1% of users create the content, 9% curate the content and about 90% will only ever lurk.

So in order to make this a viable strategy you really need to get more than 1% of your user base to create content and share it on other networks.

The exhaustion of viral loop hacking

However over the last couple of years, the notion of the viral loop has been pushed to exhaustion by companies looking for meteoric growth.

Companies like Zynga grew extremely quickly in the early days because they could dominate Facebook with friend requests to their games.

Recently a number of companies have been publicly shamed for auto inviting the entire address book of a user or using dark anti-patterns in order to trick the user into sharing on social networks.

I’ve wrote about Finding your Viral Coefficient in the past so I won’t cover old ground again.

You need to give people a reason to share

So we basically have two problems here:

  1. Only a small percentage of people share on the Internet
  2. People are exhausted from the scammy tricks of companies chasing virality

The problem with inviting your friends to an application you are currently using is, there is really little context or reason around the invite to make it a valuable proposition.

The inviter isn’t really getting anything from hassling there friends, and the invitee can’t possible tell whether this new thing is going to be a waste of time or not.

I think the emphasis needs to be drastically moved away from the invite and towards the atomised value nugget.

What is an atomised value nugget?

An atomised value nugget is a single bit of content that gives context to the application for the outside world. This value nugget is created within the application but shareable to the outside world with a single permalink.

This seems like an incredibly obvious thing to focus your viral acquisition attention on, but it’s amazing how many companies totally neglect it. By creating your atomised value nugget to work beautifully outside of your app, you give people the context they need to be curious about your app without relying on a generic invite email or text.

Reasons why people do share

Creating the context around your application is only the first step towards sustainably acquiring users through viral means. The second important thing is to understand why people share and why they would want to share from your application.

I think sharing on the Internet really revolves around one core proposition.

People want to make themselves look good.

Human beings are incredibly self-absorbed and will do almost anything in the name of vanity. Sharing to public networks is a form of social proof and a way to make yourself seem interesting.

Whilst I do think there are other reasons why people share, I firmly believe that if you can target a user’s vanity, you will be on the right track to viral adoption.

Example of products that used sharing to grow

There are many, many examples of products that have used vanity and virality to fuel their meteoric growth. One of the most recent and prolific is of course Instagram.

Whilst Instagram did a lot of things right, I think one of the most important things they got right was appealing to the vanity of it’s users. By adding filters to a photo and sharing them within a network, Instagram’s users were able to produce better photographs and get the social feedback humans desire through the connected network.

Instagram also massively benefit from having Twitter as a network that was slightly further along on the journey. Instagram was able to hold on to the coattails of Twitter by creating a product that just begged to be shared through a tweet.

Whilst Instagram is an obvious example, I want to look at three products that are not so obvious to see what they did right. is a simple application to describe yourself in three words and then ask others to describe you too. When you sign up you can share personalised links to other social networks so your existing connections can describe you too. is such a simple application, but they have totally nailed the whole appealing to your vanity thing. The whole application is focused on getting anonymous descriptions from your friends, and so the sharing component of the application is of vital importance.


When you visit an amazing new country, restaurant or attraction it’s natural to want to be vain and share that with the people you know. Foursquare was one of the first applications to allow you to share your location with other social networks through their application.

Again this is another application where vanity is such a core component. It can be argued that Foursquare hasn’t been able to “own” the location checkin the way Instagram “owned” the sharing photos mind space, and there are now many ways you can share your vanity checkins, but nonetheless, the location vanity share is absolutely still an excellent way to grow an application because you give context to the location through the atomised value nugget.


And finally, Dribbble is of course another application that enjoys the natural persuasion of appealing to it’s user’s vanity. When a user share’s a shot on Dribbble, it is only natural that they will want to drive as much attention to that shot as possible. Getting hearts and comments on a shot gives you a better chance of getting on the popular page and exposing your work to a new audience.

Again, Dribbble make this really easy by having the sharing mechanism of simply copying a URL. This might seem obvious, but the easy sharing of a permalink has been a major driving force behind the growth of YouTube too.

Lessons to learn

So what are the lessons to learn from the examples above?

Appeal to vanity Try to appeal to the vanity of your users. When sharing your application you should try and make your user look interesting. The fact that they are using your application should not take precedence over who they are and what they are sharing.

Create atomised external content Ensure all content of your application is available outside of your walled garden. Create atomised content that encourages unauthenticated users to sign up and take an action such as leaving a comment or adding it to a list. Make each bit of content available through a short permalink.

Make sharing as easy as copying a link Don’t create a convoluted process for sharing from your application. Make sharing as easy a copying a permalink from the browser to the destination. Don’t require a user to click a button or make a choice of where they want to send it, just make it easy.


Acquiring users through viral means is always going to be difficult. The whole viral bandwagon has been in full effect for a couple of years now and so it is clear that a lot of the early techniques have been exhausted. I also think a lot of users of these services are sick of the incessant nagging, popups and scammy tricks that companies use to try and increase engagement and eke out more page views or activity.

So instead of jumping on the latest “hack”, why not go back to basics?

Instead of trying to trick your users into inviting their friends or spamming their contacts, why not stop putting the emphasis on your product or growth and put it on creating value for your users?

Instead of putting your content behind a walled garden and forcing an email address or signup, why not create beautiful atomised value nugget that encourages potential users to actually want to use your product?

And Instead of nagging, tricking or forcing your users to share your product on other networks, why not make sharing as simple as a permalink so your users can share content outside of your network if they choose to or not.

I think sometimes we need to take an introspective look at our work and what we are hoping to achieve.

Philip Brown


© Yellow Flag Ltd 2024.