The Science Behind Apps Going Viral
Going viral has become the holy grail for online businesses, particularly those that produce apps. International phenomena like Pokémon Go and Candy Crush represent the ultimate success for brands that want to reach millions of people with a single offering. In this post, I’ll walk through some of the key factors that lead to an app going viral.
The ideal scenario is to launch a new game or piece of content and drive massive traffic to your app. If you have the right game plan, you can turn that initial surge in interest into sustained relationships with those early users.
That game plan might include a shrewd PR campaign, for instance. Evernote generated buzz by discussing its app with high-profile media outlets such as TechCrunch even when it was still in a closed beta period. The coverage sparked interest among tech-savvy readers, laying the foundation for a big launch.
Instagram’s founders drew on their Silicon Valley clout to make waves with their apps debut. By letting bigwigs such as Twitter’s Jack Dorsey have early access to the app, the Instagram gained instant street cred and onboarded 300,000 users in its first three weeks.
Of course, not every company has friends in high places or gets featured in TechCrunch. Those that lack those kinds of contacts have to rely on other strategies to gain traction, and that’s no easy feat. Some viral trends have more staying power than others — and virality eludes most businesses.
You need a unique, engaging offering to hook people and get them to spread the word about your app. However, you can’t seem too desperate or as if virality is the sole goal. It should appear to be a side effect of the awesome product or content you created. Understanding the psychology of virality can seem daunting, since the internet tends to latch on to some pretty strange trends.
If you look closely, though, patterns emerge — and they offer important insights into how apps go viral. To the naked eye, going viral seems a mythical, once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. But companies that have achieved this coveted status actually applied meticulous strategies to reach a wide swath of audiences.
Before diving into some of the specifics of how brands go viral, it’s worth making a general comment on the tone of viral content. Seventy-three percent of widely shared content evokes feelings of joy, awe, and laughter. Despite the proliferation of fearful and even hostile content in the wake of 2016’s Brexit and U.S. presidential election, positivity still rules the day.
Smart brands know that people are more likely to rally behind funny or heartwarming content than apps and articles that are little more than emotional downers. Fractl found the dominant emotions evoked by top-performing photo posts on Reddit were happiness, surprise, and admiration. People like to feel good, and they like to share content that makes other people feel good. So keeping it light and uplifting significantly helps with going viral.
Beyond tone, there are a few other principles that correlate to internet popularity:
The timing must be right.
In the 24/7 news cycle, it can very difficult to cut through the noise and make sure a launch doesn’t drown in the sea of products and content. Savvy brands know that weekend launches tend to be duds, as do Monday debuts. People are simply inundated with information, entertainment, and other distractions on their phones during these times.
A Tuesday launch, however, often proves to be the sweet spot. Not only are people craving a little novelty to shake up the workweek, there are several days left to drive increased engagement toward the weekend. By the time Friday rolls around, a well-marketed app can be a hot happy hour topic or a prime weekend activity, thus inspiring even more downloads.
Variety is the spice of virality.
Although everyone wants a smash hit on the App Store, smart brands know there’s more to going viral than wooing iPhone users. In addition to developing for iOS and Android, these savvy brands also get their apps into less popular app stores to reach Windows and Opera users as well. Not only does this expand the potential user base, it also increases the number of people talking about the game or app product. And conversation is essential to virality.
As the saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression, and that’s especially true with apps. People have so many options for which apps they download, articles they read, and videos they watch, they will not waste time on something that doesn’t immediately spark their interest. Using upbeat, specific, and engaging language are critical to enticing users to check out an app. A direct yet conversational tone also enhances usability. Consider popular apps such as Snapchat or Spotify. Any text involved is subtle and reflects the tone of the app, further enhancing the overall experience.
Intuitiveness is everything.
Apps that are hard to use do not go viral. Period. Early adopters of Flappy Bird and Farmville didn’t obsess over those games because they were exceptionally challenging. They were fun, intuitive, and challenging enough to keep people engaged. There’s no confusing interface or cumbersome onboarding process. The navigation is simple and straightforward, allowing users to become immersed in the experience right away.
People deal with enough problems and obstacles in their everyday lives. They expect their apps to be so intuitive, they barely need to think about what they’re doing. Drawing on commonly used standards for menus, sign-ins, and functionality decrease the friction so people can immerse themselves in the app experience.
Incentives drive social sharing.
The key to developing a viral app is making people want to share it. Part of the appeal of Pokémon Go or Candy Crush is that they enable users to play with their friends and family members and give them something to talk about. Burst campaigns, in which companies purchase a significant amount of advertising within short periods of time, are great ways to get people’s attention. If the game or app is good enough, they’ll become hooked and will share their experiences on social.
Apps that inspire FOMO have a real competitive edge, which is why casual games, video streaming, and multi-functional messaging apps have dominated in recent years. No one wants to be out of the loop when their friends are all playing a new game or chatting in a new service.
Some apps succeed because of their potential for social experience. WhatsApp, the most popular app in the world as of May 2016, allows for one-to-one and group chats, free voice calls, voice messaging, document syncing, and photo sharing. In one app, people can connect with friends and family in a variety ways and the social nature of the app contributes to its popularity. The app’s functionality incentivize people to use it and spread the word so they can connect with their communities in one place.
And some do well because they’re so remarkable, people can’t help talking about them on social. Yo confounded and delighted the tech community and broader public when it rocketed to fame in 2014. The app’s only function at the time was to send the word “Yo” to a friend’s phone, yet it caught on like wildfire. Whether they thought it was the most foolish or most brilliant app they’d ever seen, people couldn’t stop talking about it.
Integrating social sharing into the app not only makes it easy for users to post about it on Facebook or Twitter, it also encourages them to seek out other enthusiasts through hashtags and social searches. All of this engagement promotes retention, which is necessary to sustaining the app’s popularity.
Apps go viral when brands master the perfect formula of relevance, tone, and execution. But they also have defining features that differentiate them not just from competitors, but from every other app on the market. With millions of pieces of content generated every second, in the form of articles, blog posts, Facebook posts, YouTube comments, and countless other ways of sharing and interacting, even really great companies can struggle to stand out.
Those that rise above package a compelling message, a user-friendly product, and a killer marketing strategy — and that’s what it takes to go viral.