Making apps that spread

I hear tons of app ideas that seem like really great ideas, but lack one critical feature: virality. It’s not just marketing speak, creating virality is something you should be responsible for if you are making an app without a huge budget. I’ve done a lot of research on users of my apps, of my client’s apps, and listened to tons of advice from other software entrepreneurs, and I’ve learned one important fact about making viral apps that I think is the key factor in determining viral success.

User’s share for selfish reasons.

Let me elaborate.
I’m not saying everyone is only self-centered, but sharing content has to be personal in some way. Simply sharing someone elses content is the result of it being highly interesting content. A great photo, an important message, or maybe an event you want others to attend. But that’s not why most sharing happens. Most sharing on social media is a form of self-promotion. And if you’re left wondering as to what unorthodox way can provide you with youtube likes and views, then you’d be surprised to know that there are many companies willing to do the job for you. Whether for business or personal reasons, people like to share things that make them feel good about themselves.

Some of the most viral marketing campaigns I’ve been involved in have involved a personalization feature of some sort. That’s why PhotoGoo has been so successful. PhotoGoo is all about creating something cool, and showing your friends. The same goes for all the apps in the genre. The ever-popular FatBooth is just another way to create something cool that other people will enjoy. It’s about user’s sharing content that they feel they had a hand in creating.

I think this is why photo sharing is such a big deal. When Facebook bought Instagram lots of people had questions about why. Well, think about it. Do you still have a photo album, or is it mostly digital these days? Is there a cutoff time where physical photos stopped existing and everything went digital? What did you do with those photos? The good ones get shared on Facebook. A flattering photo become the profile photo. Something showing off how cool, successful, or interesting a person is becomes a post. Everyone is a champion for themselves in some way or another.

No one is going to share your app just because it’s cool

People don’t care about being the person to have shared your app (unless it’s super cool.)  What they care about is exposing the favorable portions of their life or personality with their circle. This is why personality tests and “see who viewed my facebook” apps are so common. People are self-oriented, they want acceptance and feedback on the things they do from their circle of friends.

So if no one cares about your app, and only about themselves, how can we properly motivate growth of our user base?

Twitter is extremely selfish

Twitter’s growth since it’s inception has been phenomenal. Is it because posts of 140 characters are just that interesting? I think Twitter’s growth is the result of self-promotion. You tweet, it’s easy, it’s creation, why wouldn’t you recruit others to hear your great insights? Facebook is the de facto selfishness platform. It’s all about the individual.

What are you doing to make users feel proud of what they’re doing on your app? Do they have a voice? Do they feel personally connected to the content they make and consume? If you can combine the practical with a self-promotion strategy you will have users recruiting other users, and that’s what is needed for real growth.


I hear you saying, how do I make an app that allows for selfish behavior if my app is not about creation or sharing? Well, the easiest thing is to integrate sharing in to the basic functionality of the app. Is it possible to use the app without sharing? It may seem like a benefit to not require interaction in an app, but in the end it’s the co-dependent relationship between users that drive real growth. Think about Word, does it have sharing as a key feature? It doesn’t seem like it, I can’t share my content on any social networks. However, the first time someone sees a .docx file from me, they know they need Word to open it. This kind of word of mouth is unique. The same effect occurs on file sharing services like Dropbox. This is the golden ticket to growth, but I think you can implement the same kind of sharing functionality in any app, you just have to be creative about it.

When I released Finch, a Mac OS app that makes it easy to track your billable time, I had a very hard time thinking of ways to make the app spread. I put Facebook like buttons and Twitter share buttons on the app screens, but that didn’t lead to much sharing. But when I shared my usage data with reddit, showing 18 hours (WOW!) of usage on and 2 hours of “work”, the reddit community found this relatable. This was an example of content that allowed users to take pride in how they spend their days. So, after the success of this post I made it easy to share some pretty time reports for Finch, and soon after downloads rose. The number of users we gained from that concept was over 900% of the total userbase, all within a few weeks.

Sometimes it’s just something silly that leads to the great sharing concept. What can you encourage users to share within your app?


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