Growing your audience by empowering users


What is it about apps like Instagram that result in such explosive growth? I think it is fair to say that most social networking apps and sites have grown organically. The apps receive word of mouth from users who enjoy using their software. So those with the most explosive growth must simply have the highest percentage of users who share with others in the shortest amount of time possible. I think making viral apps is a combination of two efforts:


  1. For an app that has users feel they are able to create content that is interesting to others
  2. For users to be empowered to easily share that content

When I first release my photo manipulation application PhotoGoo, I did not think what I was creating would later become a sort of social media platform. The app originated from seeing some interesting tech demos made by Apple to demonstrate the OpenGL capabilities of the original iPhone. The Apple demonstration showed a simple image on a 3D mesh that could be pushed, pulled, and distorted using the touchscreen. It seemed interesting that you could deform an image in realtime that way using an iPhone. This seed eventually led to the idea that I would create an app that made it easy to deform meshes of images.

I had originally thought the app might be useful to video game artists who wanted to draft 3D animations using mesh distortion. It was for all intents and purposes, designed to be a tool. It was only during development that I thought to myself, “hey playing around with this mesh is kind of fun.” I followed that instinct instead of my original plan and made a toy that let people play around with their photos. Eventually this turned in to an app that let users manipulate, and then save their photos. Then I added sharing features for Facebook, then Twitter, then finally gave it it’s own social network.

PhotoGoo iPhone App

Initially none of these efforts resulted in much. The app’s downloads were still roughly the same day to day. At the time, there was a programming issue with the app that caused it to run about half as slow than it really should, and it was a relatively hard issue to fix. I never thought it made that much of a difference. The essentials of the app were the same, just slower. On a whim, I decided maybe I’ll take care of that just because it would make the product a little cleaner to use. Much to my surprise, this seemed to be the biggest thing holding PhotoGoo back. I released the update, and found shortly after a huge spike in downloads, and an even larger spike in the percentage of users sharing content. This is when the app really took off. It is evident from the analytics data that sharing PhotoGoo photos was a huge hit.

Adding a social network and sharing functionality worked in PhotoGoo, because users feel empowered by the application, which I think was a direct result of improving the framerate of the app. They can create highly unusual photos that is normally the domain of only graphics artists. People now had a reason to share content beyond simply showing each other their pictures. They because they felt empowered by the apps capabilities. The social impact of all this is that users of PhotoGoo feel they have a unique tool to create interesting photos without graphics editing expertise, and share this “skill” with their friends and the world. They become compelled to share by the utility of the app.

What is the personal impact of sharing photos on Instagram?


Think for a moment about what Instagram really is. It’s ultimately a photo sharing app, not unlike the hundreds of other photo sharing apps, including PhotoGoo. Like every social app on the planet most of it’s social components seem to be based on the Facebook feed, and the Twitter stream. If that’s all Instagram was, it would probably be in the same position as every other photo sharing app, lying around in relative obscurity. An obscure app that allows users to share photos with a more limited audience than Facebook or Twitter isn’t particularly compelling. I think it’s the filters feature of Instagram that makes the app and it’s enormous social network such a success.

Instagram grew primarily as a result of word of mouth. The reason I think so many users recruited other new users is because they wanted to show off “their work.” The social experience with Instagram is different, and it’s because of the filters.

The Instagram filters are designed to create professional looking effects, but is simplified enough so that anyone can use them. The end result is a photo sharing network where everyone seems to be really great at taking photos, even me! Hey, follow me on Instagram! I take great photos when I use that app!

When a professional photographer sees a filtered Instagram photo of your dog looking out the window on a rainy day, they may not be thinking “wow that’s a magical photo, this person is an amazing undiscovered photographer!” But that’s kind of how it feels to share Instagram photos, and it makes us feel good about ourselves. And more importantly, it makes the model we think others have of us seem more interesting. In a way it’s a form of introspection. It allows us to view ourselves from the outside, using a conveniently organized list of photos we’ve taken. We manage and prune this list, and make sure it represents who we want to be seen as.

Facebook and Twitter allow us to indulge in and showcase the happenings and relationships in our lives. Instagram gives us the experience of feeling like a photographer, taking beautiful artistic photos as the product of our every day lives. So all this is great, but without validation of our efforts and knowledge that someone is looking, the exercise become tiring and meaningless. The best thing that can happen in the environment is that someone can comment on our photos. However, users might not always have anything to say, but still want to acknolwedge that they’ve seen a photo and enjoyed it. This is why I think the Like button works so well.

The Like button confirms that we are taking great photos, that our stories are compelling, that someone cares that we ate a doughnut this morning. It confirms our suspicions that we might just be the greatest photographer of all time.

If you can encourage users to feel good about the content they are producing in your app, then they are much more likely to share it, and as a result your app is more likely to be a success. That is why I think it is so important to empower users, and give them the tools they need to effectively use your application, because nothing is more universal than the desire to say “hey look what I did!”

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