When something goes viral it can seem like magic. Sure, it's a great whatever it is, but there are tons of other great products and posts out there that only circulate modestly. When something suddenly launches into the stratosphere, it often appears touched by the mysterious hand of luck.

But ask anyone whose content has gone viral and they'll tell you the truth -- behind every new viral phenomenon is whole lot of hard work. Not just the hard work of making something worthy of sharing, though that's a necessary prerequisite of success of course, but the hard work of positioning and promoting the thing you want everyone to be talking about.

Virality is much more science than magic. And like any scientific endeavor, to do it well, you need to dig into the details, really getting your hands dirty with the mechanics of how and why things go viral. And if you do that, Josh Elman, a partner at VC firm Greylock Partners, recently explained on the firm's blog, you'll discover that what looks like one phenomenon is actually five.

"To understand how virality works, you first have to know that not all virality is the same. Many successful companies have done distinct things to help make their products go viral, all in completely different ways," he asserts before listing the five different ways he's seen products go viral.

1. Word-of-mouth virality

Word-of-mouth is probably the first type of virality that pops into entrepreneurs' heads. "It's simply a product being so good that people can't help telling their friends about it," Elman writes.

If this is what you're aiming for, obviously you need to make something pretty stellar, but you also need to make sure your product is easy to pronounce, spell, and describe. That way when someone loves it, they can actually remember its name and what it does to tell friends later.

2. Incentivized word-of-mouth virality

This is the same as the first type of virality, only with a little bit of an economic sweetener, like a coupon, discount, or upgrade for sharing the product with others. "It helps when the incentive works both ways, as a coupon for the new users as well as an reward for the referring user when the recipient creates a new account," notes Elman.

3. Demonstration virality

"Demonstration virality is when the nature of a product is such that, simply by using it, people are showing it off. One great example is Instagram," explains Elman. Pinterest and Uber are other examples. "Just by using Uber, you were a walking advertisement for the product and how much better it was," writes Elman.

4. Infectious virality

This one sounds sort of medical and nasty, but it's actually "when a product is designed in a way that people will work to get other people using it because it will make it better for both of them." Think of how people pester others to join their social networks as social networks are pretty useless unless your friends cooperate.

"Invitations are the key to spreading infectious virality. However -- false invitations or overly spammy invitations often have a deleterious effect on virality," cautions Elman.

5. Outbreak virality

Again, menacing name but profitable reality. "Some things just spread because... they've got a lot of popular momentum and people want to look cool by sharing them," says Elman. Pokemon Go is the obvious recent example of this hype-driven type of virality. 

Intrigued by Elma's break down of the different ways things can go viral? Check out the complete post for more advice on how to put these insights to use in practice.

Published on: Sep 27, 2016