How did Twitter go viral before there was Twitter?

How did Twitter go viral?

In a chat while we were reviewing the INNOVO Social Marketing strategy recently the CMO, Mark West, asked “How did the likes of Google and Twitter become seemingly all pervasive overnight…before the likes of Twitter and Google existed to drive that viral growth?” I thought – “what a great question!”

From nowhere to everywhere in 12 months

There is no doubt that these two phenomena went from new idea to world fame in a very short space of time. From the first message sent by Jack Dorsey on 21st March 2006 to 60,000 tweets a day being exchanged during the 2007 South by Southwest Interactive conference, it was just under 12 months. 3 years later 65 Million tweets a day were being sent. Larry Page and Sergey Brin made their ‘BackRub’ search tool available to fellow students at Stanford in August 1996 and by the end of that year, in just 4 months, it was processing 10,000 searches per day. Less than 3 years later this was at 500,000 searches per day, and in only 10 years they had caused the introduction of a new word into the Oxford English Dictionary – the verb ‘to Google’.

It wasn’t down to Social Media!

If you believe the ‘young turks’ of the digital world – this sort of rapid growth in awareness is only possible with the aid of Social Media networks. But, obviously, Twitter wasn’t around to hep Twitter get recognition, and it certainly was not available 10 years earlier to fuel the expansion of Google users. So what was behind this rapid market penetration? I believe that it was good, old fashioned, marketing, albeit executed intuitively rather than necessarily planned and mixed with more than a smidgen of luck.

They understood their ‘buyer personas’

In both the cases they were initially providing a solution for people just like themselves – Jack Dorsey had come up with idea of using SMS to communicate with groups of colleagues and friends at podcasting company Odeo and Larry Page wanted to make the searching of research articles simpler for academics like himself. They not only knew what they needed functionally from the solution but also how to spread the word to like-minded individuals.

A laser-like focus on solving one problem

In both cases the inventors focused on solving just one problem, and making the solution very simple to use. Larry Page wanted to be able just to analyse ‘relevance’ of articles to make search results more meaningful – competitive search engines ‘portals’ such as AltaVista and Lycos were becoming cluttered and confused with many functions. This was putting the more ‘geeky’ users off. Some luck was also involved – neither Larry or Sergey were expert HTML programmers so necessity meant they built the simplest of interfaces. Jack Dorsey focused on mobile messaging, as initial users wanted to know where friends and colleagues were and what they were doing. This meant restricting the message to the SMS limitations of many of the carrier networks in 2006 – 140 characters. Any discussion I see on forums about why people started to use either solution seems to include mention of their simplicity. Again, I am sure that Jack, Larry and Sergey did not start with clear product plan on paper – they built what they wanted to use themselves.

Getting the message out

In each case the inventors just spread the word to their own network initially – they were talking to like minds and so instinctively knew what messages to give to maximise the take-up. Yes – it was old fashioned WOM (Word of Mouth)! Even when more elaborate marketing actions were added into the mix, such as the placing of 60 inch plasma screens at the SxSWi conference in 2007 by Twitter to show continuous streams of tweets from visitors, it was done with the knowledge of exactly what would appeal to ‘techie’ attendees. That is why the Twitter traffic grew from 20,000 to 60,000 tweets per day over that weekend.

Social can help – but it is not the only answer

As I have often said in the past – no matter what new shiny tools arrive in the Marketers kitbag, to be successful you must get the core marketing right:

  • Understand your target buyers,
  • Be clear about your value proposition to them, and
  • Understand where they go for information about your type of product

Social media might be a great help if it is relevant to your buyers – Jack Dorsey and Larry Page didn’t need it to build their empires! Well, I guess you could say Jack did as that is his empire, but you know what I mean.

As a matter of interest – if you were around then, can you remember how you first heard about either Google or Twitter and why you started to use them? I’d love to know.

First published on the INNOVO blog.

Image courtesy of Feelart at

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