🎯 Hotmail’s viral growth loop

PLUS: 3 modern twists on the strategy

Read time: 3 minutes 40 seconds

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The ‘Breakdown’ section is normally ‘The strategic playbook boiled down to 3x key takeaways

Today, it’s 3x different implementations of the same strategic playbook’

An old playbook. Plus 3x new spins.

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Hotmail’s viral growth loop

Chess Move

The what: A TLDR explanation of the strategy

Today’s Strategy Breakdown was inspired by the 2142 of you with @hotmail.com email addresses.

In fact, today’s strategy is the reason why 2142 of you have @hotmail.com email addresses.

Before Hotmail, only university students, corporate employees, and curious nerds with ISP-provided addresses were using email.

Hotmail was first to successfully bring email to the mainstream consumer.

Within 1.5 years of launching, Hotmail reached 12 million users (5.5 million MAU) and sold to Microsoft for $400 million.

(There were just 70 million internet users at the time).

The simple tactic behind their viral growth is regularly dubbed the ‘birth of growth hacking’: They added the following signature to the bottom of every email sent using Hotmail.

On the copywriting:

  • ‘PS: I love you’ was an eye-catching pattern-interrupt that didn’t immediately feel like an ad - rather an unusual footnote from the sender.

  • It communicated that Hotmail was free, and that anyone could sign up.

  • It positioned Hotmail as a friendly and welcoming brand.

On the viral loop:

  • Critically, the word ‘Hotmail’ contained a hyperlink directing recipients to a simple sign-up page, eliminating the friction to search for the website themselves.

  • The sender of the email was generally someone the recipient knew, so they had reason to trust the link; a supercharged testimonial.

  • As Hotmail’s user-base increased, and email communication grew in popularity, the volume and frequency of the referrals grew exponentially.


Strategy Playbook: Automatically add a referral link wherever your customers use and share your product.

Today, this playbook is so embedded into product design norms that it seems obvious.

Powered by WordPress” or “Powered by Shopify” tags seemingly feature on every second website.

Here are 3x interesting implementations that evolve the playbook.


The how: 3x different implementations of the same strategic playbook

1. Leverage the power-users

Beehiiv is a platform that powers email newsletters (including Strategy Breakdowns)

In the footer of each email sent with beehiiv is a ‘Powered by beehiiv’ button and logo.

Same mechanic, but higher leverage than the Hotmail loop:

  • The average office worker sends a lot of emails - around 40 per weekday (~1000 per month).

  • By comparison, Strategy Breakdowns started 8 months ago, and we send ~150,000 emails per month.

Across the whole platform, beehiiv is sending ~800 million emails per month (and growing +5.3% MoM).

Conservatively, 800m b2b brand impressions is equivalent to $10+ million of free marketing spend every month.

2. Kill 2 birds with one stone

Hubspot’s free form-builder automatically includes a link saying “Create your own free form with Hubspot.”

This generates free brand impressions and drives some incremental traffic to their form-builder.

But that’s not all.

Hubspot is known as one of the first b2b SaaS to crack SEO at scale.

A key driver in ranking highly on Google is ‘Domain Authority’: Google’s measure of your website’s relevance to a specific subject.

The most important factor for ‘Domain Authority’ is ‘Backlinks’: The volume and quality of websites that link to your website.

By adding backlinks to Hubspot.com wherever users publish their forms, Hubspot continuously increases its Domain Authority… on autopilot.


Related reading: Our breakdown of how Canva creates free tools to capture and convert search traffic.

3. Embed value into the viral loop

Statuspage is a page that informs your users about system outages and maintenance.

At the bottom of every page, they add “Powered by Atlassian Statuspage”.

Despite early hesitations to include the link, it quickly became their #1 growth channel, with “one-third of new signups and customers originat[ing] from our existing customers’ status pages”.

Plus, customers made them aware that the badge actually provided some value in itself: It let viewers know that the status page was hosted outside of the customer’s infrastructure.

Even if a customer’s service went down, their Statuspage would be unaffected, and report the outage data reliably.

The growth hack doubled as a value proposition of the product itself.

Rabbit Hole

The where: 3x high-signal resources to learn more

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1 old playbook. 3 new spins.

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