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Everyone wants to make their site/product/app/widget go viral. Unfortunately, most of the time when people say that, they mean “I want the world to do all my marketing for me.” Good luck with that.

Let’s start with some wisdom from about 2500 years ago, when mobile apps were long, sharp, and nasty:

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

– Ecclesiastes 9:11

In other words, marketing dweeb, going viral has a lot to do with luck. That is, unless your mobile app jumps up and pokes users in the eye. Unless it makes a dent. Unless, in other words, it rocks.

But there are some things you can do to tip the scales of fate. Here’s a quick primer.

Works for one

You desperately want people to share your app, so that user numbers will skyrocket and you can sell the company to Zynga for $500 million dollars six days after launch. But before people share, there needs to be something to share.

That something is value.

Yeah, sorry, but this is the hard part: you gotta actually create something of value to someone. It’s very challenging to get around this almost-always-essential first step. (If you do find a way around it, however, be sure to share it with me, privately.)

You need to have actual value for the first use, because (oddly) there is not just one first user. There are many first users: the genuine first, the first in her circle of friends, the first in his company, the first in her city. Your app needs to be useful for each of these firsts.

Better together

Anything that gets more valuable and useful when there are more users or instances benefits from network effects. The classic example is the fax machine: one is completely useless. The same could be said of a social network — Facebook for one is pretty much a diary. Good luck IPOing that.

Build in value that grows as the user base grows. And do it in two ways.

First, make your user better when she shares something from your app. Give her props, give her warm fuzzies, make her seem hip and cool, or let her give something of value to her friends.

Second, make the service more valuable for every user when he shares with his friends. When we all got Hotmail email addresses back in the 90s (remember HoTMaiL), we could communicate better. When all of your family is on Path, you stay in touch easier.

Built-in, not bolted on

Social is not a plug-in, nor is it an API. Social is an essential layer or a core component of a viral app.

Draw Something may be going the wrong way right now, but it’s still a great example. The app absolutely requires social interaction, leading users to, in some cases, actually force their friends to install the game.

Now that’s viral contagion!

Essentially, this requires thinking of social from the beginning, rather than after you’ve finished your app and just started dreaming about marketing, and then building it in to the user experience.

Chuck the churn

This is not advice for your friendly milkmaid. Instead, it is an exhortation to keep the users you get.

Unless you want to run a continual pyramid scheme, losing users quickly will kill even a hot viral product. The danger is that you will spend your entire business existence running the hamster wheel of simultaneously acquiring and losing users, and never develop a mature, stable, and solid user base which can actually be monetized.

That may not be a problem, of course, if your strategy is just to get acquired in the mad-scramble-for-scale phase. If so, more power to you. Like OMGpop, however, you will have some long-term issues.

To prevent excessive churn, design your app so that it has not only initial value, but also long-term value. And update regularly with little extra gifts of capabilities that existing users will appreciate. Think of them like the chocolates on the pillow at the hotel.

Grounded gamification

Games are great, and gamification brings the best part of games (targets, competition, scoring, and trophies) to processes and events that are not traditionally games. But that doesn’t mean that Microsoft Word should give you points for every TPS report that you remember to put a cover memo on.

Gamification works best when it is not forced, when it feels natural. Gamification elements should emerge from the application rather than be pasted on in a “There, I fixed it” manner. For example, if there are actual achievement levels, or if the achievement is believably real.

I was not impressed in late 2011 when Klout awarded me a new achievement for visiting three days in a row when I hadn’t even visited once (besides the time I was awarded). Nike+, on the other hand, is a great example of gamification that rises directly from the core value of the service itself.

Time and chance

In your pursuit of virality, remember the ancient wisdom: “time and chance happeneth to them all.” Position yourself to take advantage of viral effects, but don’t short-change the marketing budget!

Image credits: Contagion, Shutterstock, one cake/Shutterstock, ants/Shutterstock, rusted bolt/Shutterstock, milk churn/Shutterstock, game Shutterstock