Key Ingredients To Make Your App Go Viral

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A viral app is the highest achievement on iTunes and Google Play. It’s an app that customers eagerly share across the Internet, through social networks, email, chat and word of mouth. It’s like rocket fuel, and it is the best case scenario for an app developer because word of mouth is far more powerful than any paid advertising. Ad clutter is everywhere, and people just ignore it.

No one trusts ads, and they cost too much for developers anyway. But humans have shared stories since we’ve been using rocks as tools. We’re naturally built for viral sharing.

Viral apps will connect to other networks.

But getting your app to spread faster than celebrity gossip takes a lot more than bolting on some Twitter and Facebook buttons. It requires strategizing a world of social interaction inside your app.

What Is Viral?

Virality is about interacting with people and enticing them to participate. Virality isn’t a marketing strategy that can be executed once you launch. It has to be thought through and built into your app from the beginning.

To succeed, your app must pass these four tests:

  1. It must have something valuable to share.
  2. It must make it easy for users to share and for friends to join.
  3. It must reward users for sharing and offer them incentives to come back.
  4. The more people use the app, the more value must be created for them.

First and foremost, your app has to have a gem — something valuable to share. That something could be a photo, a great wine, a turn-based game, an article, a playlist or a five-mile run. It’s your customer’s little pride and joy, and it has to be shareable.

When users share their little gem, they’ll get a warm fuzzy feeling that keeps them checking into the app over and over. The more they check into the app, the more praise and delight they will get from it. And when the app’s audience grows, the value just keeps going up.

To figure out whether your app has any gems, ask yourself these few questions:

  • Does my app offer something valuable to share?
  • Is it worth being shared?
  • How will users be rewarded when they share?
  • Why will users want to share?
  • Why would they want their friends to share?
  • How will my app motivate users to keep sharing over the long term?

Old-School Viral Models

The typical viral flow starts when the user creates something and then shares it, leading friends to discover the gem and download the app so that they can get in on the action:

The typical viral flow strategy of apps.
The typical viral flow strategy of apps.

With this approach, the most obvious way to offer social interaction in your app is to add buttons so that users can share their creations (or actions) on Twitter, Facebook, email and SMS. For example, the Faces app enables users to design silly faces of friends that can be shared on Facebook, Twitter and email.

Social interaction in the Faces app is an example of typical viral flow, because it only lets users share images.
Social interaction in the Faces app has a typical viral flow, because it only lets users share images.

Unfortunately, this approach misses a lot of opportunities, because only some of the users will share, and only a small percentage of their friends will actually see what they’ve shared, let alone click on the link and download the app themselves.

To go truly viral, you need to engage your audience. Every time they use your app should build on the previous experience, so that they get more value out of your app. And as the audience grows, that value should just go up.

Think of Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. No one sees the true value of these apps the first time they use them. But the more you put into Twitter, the more you get out of it.

Five Principles Of A Viral Strategy

You don’t have to dig too deep into viral principles before you come across something called the viral coefficient. In The Lean Startup, Eric Ries defines it as “how many new customers will use the product as a consequence of each new customer who signs up.” He claims that a viral coefficient greater than 1 will lead to exponential growth, and a viral coefficient less than 1 will lead to hardly any growth at all. I won’t get into the details, but the math looks like this:

viral coefficient = (average number of users invited by each active user who invites someone) × (proportion of invited users who actually join or become active) × (proportion of active users who invite others)

One important element missing from this formula is the time it takes for a customer to try the app and share it with their friends. The key is to get your users to invite their friends in the shortest amount of time possible. How do you do that?

The quick and dirty method is to just tap into their address book and spam their friends. But then you’d be abusing your customers rather than caring for them, and it will backfire in the end. Instead, try the five principles outlined below. (Most of the examples shown are iOS apps, but the principles apply to all platforms.)

Principle 1: Make It Effortless

The best apps appear so effortless that the design fades into the background, making the task at hand surprisingly easy. This is “flow,” and it has nothing to do with processes or charts. It’s about being completely absorbed in doing something you love and not being distracted by confusing or burdensome steps. The user loses a sense of time and self and becomes completely immersed. It’s why you can’t stop playing Minecraft and why your friend just spent three hours on Pinterest.

To create flow in your app, you’ll need to remove all obstacles and doubts that users might have about using your app and sharing it with friends. Let’s go through a few examples of how your app can do that.

Offer one-click sign-in via Facebook or Twitter, rather than with a dedicated user name and password. This not only gets users registered quickly, but lets you tap into important data to grow the network.

The 500px app offers one-click sign-on via Facebook or Twitter.
500px offers one-click sign-in via Facebook or Twitter.

The Rockmelt app offers one-click sign-on via Facebook, Twitter or Google.
Rockmelt offers one-click sign-in via Facebook, Twitter or Google.

The Snapguide app offers one-click sign-on via Facebook or Twitter.
Snapguide offers one-click sign-in via Facebook or Twitter.

Display profile pictures of friends during authentication to increase their audience as well as yours.

The Foursquare app displays profile pictures of your friends during authentication.
Foursquare displays profile pictures of the user’s friends during authentication.

The Vine app displays profile pictures of your friends during authentication.
Vine displays profile pictures of the user’s friends during authentication.

Motivate users on the first screen to get started by clearly showing how they can grow their network and start sharing.

The first screen of the Foursquare app offers a clear path for users to get started.
The first screen of Foursquare offers a clear path for users to get started.

The first screen of the Hipvite app encourages users to get started.
The first screen of Hipvite (now defunct) encourages users to get started.

The first screen of the Toast app encourages users to get started.
The first screen of Toast encourages users to get started.

Prioritize what is on the screen, and show top actions right in view. Users need to know what they can do.

The SoundCloud app puts the top action right in front of you.
SoundCloud puts the top action right in front of you.

The Wrappit app has top actions right at hand.
Wrappit has top actions right in view.

The Snapguide app has top actions right at hand.
Snapguide has top actions right on hand.

Enable users to easily post to multiple social platforms with just one tap. Always make sharing part of the creation process, and let users post to multiple websites at once. One big advantage of the Android framework over iOS is that it allows apps to share anything with virtually any other app (as long as that other app can receive the “share” intent). This opens up all sorts of interesting viral potential.

The Krop Circle app lets users post to Instagram, Twitter and Facebook at the same time.
Krop Circle lets users post to Instagram, Twitter and Facebook all at once.

The glmps app lets users post to several websites with just one tap.
Glmps lets users post to several websites with just one tap.

The Rexly app lets users post to Twitter or Facebook, or send by email, all in one action.
Rexly lets users post to Twitter or Facebook or send by email, all in one action.

Principle 2: Reward Often

If you want to encourage a certain behavior, reward it. This basic psychological tactic has been used on us since we were toddlers, and it will motivate your customers to share your app with friends. Give them a gift for each friend they get to use your app.

Best of all, when someone gives a gift, the recipient naturally has the urge to give one in return.

Inviting friends and connecting with others should be a part of their daily usage. Daniel Tenner, founder of Swombat, suggests that the number of users who each of your active users invites will determine your success. Therefore, inviting friends should be a core process in your app, rather than an afterthought. Experiment with ways to encourage customers to invite friends at different points in the app.

The POP prototyping app rewards users for signing up early and telling friends.
POP’s prototyping app rewards users for signing up early and telling friends.

Reward the friend, too. Rewarding customers for their referrals can make them feel guilty that they are making money off of their friends. The best way around that problem is to also reward the friends who receive their invitations. Voila! Now your customers feel like they’re doing their friends a favor. Everyone wins.

Rewards could be:

  • extra storage,
  • free themes,
  • a character,
  • a free upgrade,
  • discounts,
  • sample sizes.

To create a sense of urgency in the invitation, offer a limited-time promotion. This can get people out of their holding pattern by giving them an incentive to take action before the offer expires. It costs you nothing and could be just the push your customers need to convince their friends to download the app.

Sneak in secret rewards and surprise people, then watch as the app goes viral. Clear unlocks hidden themes when you follow some of the app’s developers on Twitter or if you complete a task at 2:00 am (I discovered that one the hard way). These hidden gifts create a storm on Twitter each time a new one is found, giving the app all sorts of wonderful free publicity.

The Clear app gives as rewards free themes based on other apps installed on your device or based on when you use it.
Clear rewards users with free themes based on other apps installed on their device and based on when they use them.

Each time a new theme is discovered, a Twitter storm happens, making the Clear app more viral.
Each time a new theme is discovered, a Twitter storm happens, making the Clear app more viral.

Some apps even pay people to use them. Not that you’ll need to go to such length, but apps like Shopkick, GymPact and Viggle let users earn real cash and rewards by using them.

With Shopkick, users earn rewards, or “kicks,” simply by walking into participating stores and checking in via the app. They can earn more kicks by scanning items and purchasing them. As a reward, users get a first look at new items in the store, and they can use their kicks to unlock gift cards and products.

The Shopkick app earns you points for going into certain stores.
Users earn points on Shopkick by going into certain stores. (Image: Hongkiat)

GymPact entices users — non-exercisers, in fact — to go to the gym, work out and earn cash. Users start by making a pact with their friends, promising to work out at the gym a certain number of days, and they set the stakes of how much they’ll pay if they skip a day. Those who go to the gym claim cash from those who don’t!

The GymPact app rewards you for going to the gym.
GymPact rewards people for going to the gym. (Image: Hongkiat)

Viggle is for TV junkies. It practically pays users just to watch the tube. Users earn points by checking into any TV show on the air. Users just tap the “Check-in” button, and their device listens to the TV, earning them points. More points are earned by answering trivia questions. The more points accumulated, the bigger the prizes, which vary from Starbucks gift cards to MacBook Airs.

The Viggle app rewards you for watching TV.
Viggle rewards users for watching TV.

Principle 3: Give Users Control

Because virality and privacy are polar opposites, transparency is a must. Be up front about what your app is sharing, and give users full control over whether to share. If users don’t trust the app or suddenly see content appear on social networks that they don’t want to be shared, they’ll stop using your app or, worse, leave negative reviews on iTunes.

Be transparent about what is being shared. The social fitness app Teemo tells users what will be shared before they even log into the app. Sonar (iTunes link) reminds users that it won’t post to their accounts unless explicitly told to.

This nice little message in the Teemo app gives users confidence in the app.
This nice little message in Teemo gives users confidence in the app.

The Sonar app reminds users about what will be shared.
Sonar reminds users of what will be shared.

Always allow users to control what is shared. This can easily be done by including a settings screen with toggles for controlling the sharing options, like in Pinterest’s app.

The settings screen in the Pinterest app lets users turn off publishing to their Facebook timeline.
The settings screen in Pinterest lets users turn off publishing to their Facebook timeline.

Principle 4: Keep Pulling Them Back In

The more people use your app, the longer you’ll stick around. The longer you stick around, the more that customers and onlookers will say good things about you, spreading word of mouth and increasing your profits. So, think about people downloading your app as a springboard to achieving more, rather than as the finish line.

Send users useful notifications that motivate them to return. Don’t wait for them to start using your app. Keep sending them useful messages, as well as showing them tips to encourage them to use your app. This should be a part of your core features.

Also, keep sending friendly reminders and rewards to invite more friends, but be careful not to send out notifications that are worthless and annoying. That’s called spamming. Give users control over what notifications they receive and how they receive them, as We Heart Pics does.

The settings screen in the We Heart Pics app lets users turn off any notifications.
The settings screen in We Heart Pics lets users turn off any notifications.

Create challenges in which users can partake. When Diamond Dash introduced weekly tournaments, users went ballistic. When a player beats a friend’s score, the victory is posted to the winner’s Facebook timeline. When they reach a new level, win a medal or unlock a feature, Diamond Dash announces it to their entire Facebook network. This dynamic has created a friendly competition, pulling users back to the game a stunning 18.5 million times in just one month.

Let users create exclusive groups and invite others to participate, as in the case of a team of supporters in a weight loss or training app.

Promote users with exceptional content or activities. Target power users who have the most connections — these are the mavens who will create the best content. Reward them with freebies and promote them to be managers so that they can set up special groups, create high-end invitations and keep the conversations going. And set them as an example by suggesting that others follow them.

The Viddy app suggests following the most popular users, helping those users grow their audience.
Viddy suggests following the most popular users, helping those users grow their audience.

Let users promote each other. This will help you discover trendsetters. These people might not have the largest following, but they are using your app in new and exciting ways.

Principle 5: Be Useful to a Lone Person

Your app should be of benefit to users, even without the social aspect. This isn’t a requirement, but it does make your chances of going viral much higher. It gives people a chance to kick the tires first. Most people won’t invite others to join the app unless they already know it’s good. To find that out, they have to road test it a few times first.

Your app must have something meaningful for the user to do right away, without inviting friends. When your user base increases, the value of the app’s main function increases as well.

Conclusion

You can’t make your app viral as an afterthought, like pixie dust that magically gives you a ton of users. It has to be designed into the app’s core functionality and features.

You can do these things to improve your app’s chances of going viral:

  • Offer something meaningful to share.
  • Be transparent about what your app is sharing and whom it is contacting.
  • Connecting with friends and inviting new users should be at the core of your app.
  • Reward both your users and their invited friends for signing up.
  • Keep pulling users back with meaningful notifications, competitions, rewards and promotions.
  • Be useful even to the lone user. This is the start of your viral circle.

Unlike the Snuggie Blanket, there is no one-size-fits-all viral strategy; some apps simply won’t benefit from viral tactics. While adding viral features to your app might increase its virality, to really make your app spread, you’ll need to start with a clever idea and a good design. Combined with a fantastic viral strategy, these will surely make your app go Gangnam style.

(cp al ea)

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Author of Idea to iPhone, Carla has been creating apps since 2008. Her apps and book have been featured in USA Today, Oprah, NPR and Forbes and other cool places. She runs her app agency Happy Tapper where she offers consulting and design services. She once drove backwards through three states in under thirty seconds. Learn more true stories by following her on Facebook & Twitter.

  1. 1

    Thanks for the hands-on summary on viral marketing.

    Are there any examples of viral marketing for apps, which aren’t based on social networks? For example an app for annual tax declarations won’t ask its users to share their revenue data, but nethertheless it could try to engage users to recommended it to others. Or is viral marketing not applicable in such domains?

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    • 2

      Getting users to recommend the app to others is a great idea for pretty much any app – and you don’t need social integration to do it. You can build this feature in a few different ways. The most straight forward is to include a button that allows users to send an email to friends with the app’s iTune link. NOTE: You won’t know the iTunes link when you build the app. The way around this is to use a URL which you redirect once your app has been approved and you know the iTunes link. You can reward users for sharing their app. For example, if they share it with 5 friends, they get a free theme (or whatever you app offers).

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  2. 3

    Ricardo Muniz Crespo

    August 19, 2013 5:07 pm

    Granting rewards for certain activities is probably a bullet proof solution for getting users to actively participate, similar to a completion bar, which only fills up to 100% once the user shared the app on social media, filled in all of his information and completed particular other tasks. Although both the rewards and the completion bar should never be too difficult, but rather realistic. A buy 20 and get one free wouldn’t make any sense.
    Also I am lucky not use the GymPact, as I’d be broke quickly. They should do the same with procrastination.

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  3. 4

    Great article. Thanks. I’m trying to work out how to make my blog go viral with good content. Unfortunately I haven’t had as much success as I would like.

    Keen to hear your thoughts on how to get content to go viral.

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    • 5

      There isn’t a quick answer to making content go viral. In my book Idea to iPhone I dedicate a chapter to marketing on a shoestring budget. The simple answer is you need to either have a famous trendsetting spot your story, create something that lets the world participate (think of all the parodies of Gangnan Style), or create something unexpected (like a video of of a cannonball leap into a frozen pool). But the basis of any story is that it is simple and touches the audience’s imagination.

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  4. 6

    You should also submit your app to app directories. Examples:
    appolicious.com
    iosapps.com
    appsafari.com

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  5. 7

    Royal Flush Studios

    August 20, 2013 1:31 pm

    We have used several of this tactics on clients that we’ve serviced and they work. Find you a gem and the rest is all strategy

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  6. 8

    lorem ipsum

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  7. 9

    Fräulein Unverständnis

    August 23, 2013 7:31 am

    It’s not viral – viral is when people *want* to talk about something because it’s great. Viral is not if people are forced or pushed to post something or are “suggested” something which the app shouldn’t care about. What you call viral is in fact annoying for the user. Users don’t want to be flooded with “Share at blah” and many just delete an app that wants access to their Facebook account for login. They already know: Something unpleasant would happen because these apps want access for a reason – spamming their wall or access to their data, even if the app promised not to do so. Most people are just fed up with those automated app postings from their friends. Just provide copy-able links for posting on networks instead of integration and people are happy… no “share now”, no “login with”, no “suggesting” – those apps just scare their more intelligent users off.

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    • 10

      The Inspired Product Manager

      August 25, 2013 1:12 am

      I agree with Fräulein Unverständnis that “Share” buttons can be pretty annoying. However, when used unobstrusively and the purpose of the app is not solely “sharing content”, the principles can HELP creating a viral strategy if the content is good enough for users to share.
      Carla, I would like to link this post on my blog http://inspiredproductmanager.wordpress.com if you don’t mind.

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  8. 11

    Making mobile apps is no longer a problem. Anyone can use already built Snappii apps and get them 100% customized if needed.

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  9. 12

    Wow, nice summary. Lot of good stuff here.

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