I was at this conference over the weekend on viral growth. It was largely focused in the Web 2.0 space (social networking, widgets, the Facebook platform, MySpace, etc. ) and an entirely word-of-mouth user acquisition model. I asked the question "Where does PR fit into a viral strategy, if at all?" I also asked Jonathan Abrams (founder of Friendster, and now Socializr) the same question. The response in all cases was clearly "PR is a waste of money". I agree and disagree, and I'll tell you why.
But first let me introduce a concept which I call Viral Growth Optimization (or VGO) -- hey, that has a nice ring to it, doesn't it? Just as online marketers establish metrics for, measure and optimize SEO (search engine optimization), I think today's Web 2.0 companies need to (or are already) focus on optimizing their "viral engine". I think VGO ultimately breaks down to these components:
- Value proposition -- the product/service has to solve a basic human need (communication, generating traffic, community, getting laid, getting paid, entertainment, or information)
- Base -- viral doesn't start with zero. You have to seed a base of initial users, and hope it spreads.
- Infection model -- this relates to how your users spread the love. Email? Invites? Blogging? To friends, colleagues, etc? Is word-of-mouth tightly or loosely coupled to the value proposition?
- Retention -- how long do users stick around and continue using the product, inviting others, etc.?
You can measure the base pretty easily, it's just your first initial users who heard about it from YOU not someone else. And you can measure retention fairly well too, in terms of average churn, user lifetime, etc. The infection model measurement is probably a multiplier -- as in the number of new users per month result from each current user. (I'm sure there are many other such concepts introduced across the blogosphere, by much smarter people -- I just wanted to get some thoughts down quickly, rather than bog down the process with research, etc.)
The ideal scenario is obviously one where you start with a low base, a high viral multiplier factor, and high retention. In this case, PR is a waste of money. You're better off letting the users do the PR for you.
PR is also a waste of money if you have a low multiplier and low retention. In this case, your value prop isn't working quite right and you're only going to grow your user base by brute force (ie., huge acquisition costs). And at some point, you won't be able to add users as fast as they go away. If you're a typical social network, which can only succeed if the users invite their peers/friends, then PR isn't going to help much if you're not getting that multiplier effect going.
I believe PR is money well-spent if you have a low multiplier and high retention, because it's a great way to build your base. And let's face it -- some very good products aren't inherently super viral. For instance, what I heard from Meebo at the conference tells me they fit into this category: their user growth is linear, and they're currently using three PR firms! If you think about their product, it utilizes people's existing IM networks -- they aren't required to invite people in order to get value from Meebo. They are also focusing all their efforts on retention.
I also think PR is money well-spent if you're experiencing rapid growth, everything is going well, and you want to parlay that into a thought-leadership position, a lateral move to another market, etc.
So I guess the point to this post is that PR can be a waste of time and money, or it can be money well-spent -- it really depends on your product and your VGO model.