As a venture capitalist, I spend a lot of time thinking about how new products and ideas go viral quickly. One extremely low-tech thing I’ve been fascinated by recently is Silly Bandz. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, Silly Bandz are those colorful rubber band bracelets that are shaped like animals and objects. These kids toys have swept the country in the past year, and by my estimates, have sold nearly 1 billion bracelets this year alone.
One important determinant of virality is discoverability: when one person uses it, do other people know? For the best viral products, your early users become salespeople for you, spreading the product or idea to their friends faster than you ever could alone. Several features of the Silly Band make it both very visible and discussable:
- Firstly, Silly Bandz are brightly colored and worn on your wrist. Wherever you go, people will easily notice you wearing them.
- Secondly, they’re cheap and varied, which makes them giftable, tradable, and collectible. These things all encourage discussion and interaction around the product, which helps spread the word.
- Finally, and I think this is really clever, you can’t tell what shape a Silly Band is unless you take it off your wrist (while wearing it, the shape is stretched and distorted). This forces people to ask you what types of Silly Bandz you have and also causes you to play with and pass around the bracelet.
Another important determinant of virality is diffusion: how does a product spread from group to group? Facebook, for instance, started at Harvard, then spread to other college campuses before reaching the population at large. Fashion typically diffuses downward-- celebrities and the elite wear something and eventually everyday people begin to emulate it. Little kids copy the style of their older siblings. Older siblings immediately cease doing anything their younger counterparts do to avoid being uncool.
The diffusion of Silly Bandz is incredibly unique—as a fashion product, they’ve somehow gone against the current by starting with young children and then spreading to older groups. For instance, I’ve seen trendy 20 and 30-somethings on the subway wearing these around lately. And look at the cover art from Shakira’s new album— Silly Bandz was able to get celebrities to take fashion cues from children!
Silly Bandz illustrate how techniques of virality can be applied to any product—not just internet businesses. Think carefully about how to make your product discoverable (i.e. visible and discussable). And also consider the best way for it to diffuse across a population—virality is often path-dependent and you can ruin a great product’s prospects by targeting the wrong group first.