There were several factors that contributed to YouTube becoming the #1 video sharing service on the web. But a lot of initial adoption was driven by the fact that it had pirated content hosted on it. If you wanted to watch the latest episode of Lost for free, YouTube was your best bet: no queued downloading through torrents, just stream it from the server. Kim Dotcom noted how pirated content was driving YouTube’s adoption and figured that seeding some of that could unlock traffic for MegaUpload. It definitely worked. But playing with pirated content, somebody was bound to get burnt. MegaUpload went under when it was alleged that the pirated content was, unlike the YouTube case, a deliberate part of the platform’s strategy.
Kim Dotcom’s mail to his crew, which ultimately damned MegaUpload, offers a rather brute-force but effective tactic for seeding platforms. Platforms and two-sided markets are difficult to kick off, in general. The problem gets a lot more complicated when both consumers and producers need to be on the platform simultaneously. For a service like Yelp, the consumer side can gather traction independent of merchants coming in. But for marketplaces like eBay and communities like Quora, the consuming side (buyers, question askers & readers) and producing side (sellers, question answerers) need to be on the platform from Day 1 for interactions to spark. (These may not be distinct groups of people.) This is because there is no inherent value in the standalone product for a user (eBay, Quora) without the participation of users from the other side who create complementary products (goods for sale, answers). When users come to the platform, they need to get an indication of activity.
Some community owners, as in the case of MegaUpload, solve this by creating a false aura of activity using a variety of methods. (Who would have tried MegaUpload were it a veritable video ghost town?) First-time users get the impression that the platform is already in business and stay on. Over time, the user base grows and the platform sustains activity without having to fake it.
There are typically three ways of going about this:
Seeding and Weeding
Dating services simulate initial traction by creating fake profiles and conversations. Users who come to the site see some activity and are incentivized to stay on. Marketplace sites may also show fake activity to attract buyers and sellers.
In the book, Paypal Wars, Eric M. Jackson talks about how PayPal grew a base of sellers who accepted PayPal by creating demand for the service among buyers. When Paypal figured that eBay was their key distribution platform, they came up with an ingenious plan to simulate demand. They created a bot that bought goods on eBay and then, insisted on paying for it using PayPal. Not only did sellers come to know about the service, they rushed onto it as it already seemed to be getting popular. The fact that it was way better than every other payment mechanism on eBay only helped repeated usage.