Ugly Viral vs. Pretty Viral

Recently I encountered yet another app on Facebook that required me to “become a fan” and install the app before I could even see what it was, much less whether I liked it enough to become a real fan.

Sorry, no.

That’s not viral except in the meanest, ugliest sense.  Like Ebola.  I saw a friend of mine — a trusted source of information — who ostensibly was a fan of this app.  So I clicked on it.  But when I saw the app’s reputation-extortion scheme, I surfed away, and wondered a bit about my friend.

This is only the most recent smarmy way that app developers have tried to extract virality from their users.  There are good ways and not so good ways to do this.  Why do developers persist in using techniques that fall into the doing “every horrible thing” category?  Isn’t there a better way to go about acquiring customers by social means?

You probably recall how some early social/viral apps scarfed up your entire address book and sent out invitations to your friends, whether you liked it or not, causing repeated streams of sheepish apologies from their victims.  These cropped up on the web and on Facebook, but the harsh evolutionary conditions online (if people hate your product, its virality factor quickly drops to zero) self-corrected for those. The market doesn’t support ugly for long.

Then there was a variant that spammed your FB newsfeed at every turn.  Those at least have been forced into being courteous: they have to ask you if you want to spam your friends before actually doing so.  Still ugly, but with your permission.

There’s been a more recent strain where some games hold something you want for ransom. But not for cash, no — for friends.  These games say you can’t have your barn or your house unless you go get friends to “help you build it” — meaning they have to come in the app, whether they’re interested or not, and click on your barn or house or whatever, because they’re your friends.

So what do all these methods have in common?  They’re all negative, all ugly, and are all ultimately moves of desperation and even disrespect on the part of developers, not moves founded on respect for the players, their friends, or the interests and time of either group.  They all, in one form or another, have you pimping your friends, encouraging them to do something that they likely have no interest in doing.  Sure, a few will stick around and try out the game, but many more will roll their eyes and ignore the app — and maybe you.

This isn’t a good scenario for anyone — the game developers, the players, or their friends.  These current ugly-viral techniques inevitably wear out their welcome and become their own worst enemies.  In so doing they cause the players — their own customers — to burn social capital and get little in return.  That’s a process people aren’t going to be willing to participate in many times.

So what’s to be done?  If there’s “ugly viral” is there “pretty viral” too?  You bet.  And you’ve seen it many many times.

Every time you see something and say, “oh that’s hilarious” or “wow, that’s cool” or “man, that was great” very likely one of your first impulses is to tell someone else about it.  That’s how customers become evangelists, as the marketing folks like to say.  My wife and I have been on Disney cruises multiple times – even once for our anniversary without our kids.  That causes raised eyebrows, but I’m quick to tell people about what a great time we had.  I’m marketing for Disney.  And not because they asked me to, or because I get anything back, or even because I’m ignorant of what corporate life in Disney can be like (I’m not) — no, just because I think they offer an incredible set of product and services that I’ll not only gladly pay for, but that I’ll happily tell my friends about.

So maybe Disney isn’t your thing – no doubt something is.  All of us have passed a link onto others for some product or service, or just something quick and cool.  For example, have you sent any of these on to others?

(Note, I resisted the temptation to include a rickroll in that list.)  If you haven’t sent those around, you’ve no doubt sent other cool, funny, poignant, impressive, meaningful or fun sites, videos, or apps on to others.

The point is, you sent these to others whom you trust because the person and the thing you were sending were valued by you.  And by receiving the link, the person on the other side valued you more — not less.  This is the difference between the endless chain letters and hoaxes that your in-laws send you and the jokes your friends send you that make you snort Diet Coke out of your nose or stare slack-jawed at the screen at the creativity of the people who made this thing (like the Bohemian Rhapsody video above).

This is viral — this is pretty viral.  Not social-ebola that destroys relationships, but some kind of virtuous virus that makes people more valued because they passed it on.

Right now we’re in the very early days of viral (so-called social) games and other apps.  As with early life on earth, strange forms that you’d never think would be viable lumber about.  The market is changing fast though, and soon some of the negative, bottom-feeding techniques to trick or shame players into bringing in new customers — their friends — will fail as they have in every other industry.

So now is the time to figure out how to move on beyond ugly.  What can your game (or app or service) provide that makes people say, “ooh, that’s cool“?  What makes your game fun or engaging or meaningful enough to your players that they want to tell their friends about it without being pushed into it by the app’s mechanics?

If you can’t really answer that question, it may be time to go back to the drawing board until you can.

Explore posts in the same categories: Facebook, games, social games

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14 Comments on “Ugly Viral vs. Pretty Viral”

  1. Jared Says:

    There is one thing I need to inject here. While I agree with the general tone of your post, Facebook is not the easiest api to work with, and creating a Fan and not Fan version of an app can increase cost. So many smaller shops use the must be Fan to get access not because of malicious intent, but because they don’t have the time, money or expertise to make two different entry points into their app.


  2. Jared Says:

    Ignore this comment, just becoming a ‘fan’ of the blog. 😉


  3. Mike Sellers Says:

    LOL, thanks Jared. At least you were able to read the post first. 😉

    Recently I posted as my status on FB that I wanted to become a fan of not being a fan of having to become a fan of something before I could see it to see if I wanted to become a fan of it.

    I considered starting a fan page of that, but I was afraid that degree of self-reference might cause the universe to collapse on itself.


  4. Jared Says:

    Yeah, my main point though is that Facebook requires some level of ‘fan’-ness before your app gets access to user info (I believe). So in order to have an app you can use before becoming a fan, that app would have to be a complete non social style thing. Which is fine, if you have a team and money enough to pull off making a ‘starting user experience’ style app to lead into your main app.


  5. Mike Sellers Says:

    An app-user doesn’t have to be a fan before you can get access to their info on FB. They just have to install the app and grant it access (and then it gets complete access). They recently added the change where you have to specifically request the email… but honestly, that wouldn’t stop an unscrupulous app from getting it from your records anyway.


  6. […] The folks who make Facebook apps need to learn the difference between ugly viral and pretty […]


  7. Brian Moore Says:

    Maybe I’m just ignorant of it, if they have, but why has no one written a virus that installs anti-spyware, anti-virus and other security programs? It seems like that would “good viral” if not “pretty.”


  8. Jared Says:

    Gotcha, I see! Here all this time I thought you meant fan=add app/grant access. My bad. Yes, you are right then. Ignore me. 😛


  9. Matt F Says:

    This is so true. Unfortunately, with more and more analytics programs appearing, I think we’re going to see a boom in ugly viral tactics.

    Now that we have the ability to track K Factor, social gaming marketers for less-than-ethical companies will be pushed hard to get that measurable virality up. It’s a bit like how department stores force their employees to hawk credit card applications. They see revenue coming in, and ignore that it damages their brand.

    How do you fight against an analytics program that says “we got 1,000 installs yesterday thanks to our K-factor of .7”? That K Factor is obviously important, but it won’t take a backseat to branding and user experience until we exit this wild west stage of development.


  10. Mike Sellers Says:

    Matt, I think it comes down to a short-term vs. longer-term outlook. Measuring virality on a daily and monthly basis is good for seeing how your game is doing and where the trends are, but you can’t build a business on one day’s or one month’s virality.

    Moreover, in the online world, 1000 installs doesn’t mean much. If those people are turned off by the app’s tactics and never come back or never monetize, then they are a drag on the system.

    Developers and virality-watchers are starting to figure this out. A few years ago people used to tout their “registered users” number. Now people understand (well, mostly) that that’s a meaningless number. People are now more focused on active unique users measured on a daily or monthly basis, and how well they monetize.

    There are games out there thatstarted off with a bang and quickly cratered because they had no actual virality. Their K-factors may have been great at one point in time, but you can’t build a business on that.


  11. Nedrra Says:

    I found your blog through FB. Good to know you! Thanks for your thoughts.


  12. Matt F Says:

    Mike, I’d love to hear your opinion on something.

    The big changes to Facebook “liking” last week have already given rise to Facebook aggregate sites similar to Tweetmeme. Two of these that I’ve seen are LikeButton.Me and

    Do you see these having a big impact on how social games go about generating virality? Are these sites, especially the “gaming” subsection of ItsTrending, important to start targeting right away?


  13. Mike Sellers Says:


    Sorry for the late reply.

    FB’s changes are causing upheaval (again) in how social games promote themselves — and this time, it’s against a background of new uncertainty about FB overall. Too early to tell the overall effect but there will be one. is an interesting site, but I don’t see it becoming a new center for finding cool games. It’s not that different from Digg in that regard. OTOH, every little bit helps in getting word out about your game; you just never know where the new viral vector will be.

    This level of uncertainty is going to drive some people crazy, btw, and is going to drive others — especially the larger companies — back toward traditional carpet-bombing style marketing. Watch for it.


  14. […] in a state of being “viral” by making players literally beg their friends for help. “That’s not viral except in the meanest, ugliest sense.  Like Ebola”. It ties in with the analysis of Farmville as a web of social obligation and I had the same […]


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