How to Make Your App Go Viral: 8 Proven Ways

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Driving millions of downloads and becoming viral is the dream of every app startup founder, but not every app has what it takes. If you’re relying on traditional marketing and advertising to drive downloads and awareness, achieving virality is almost impossible.

So how do you go viral? Build in growth.

Virality doesn’t come from implementing a social media sharing feature to your app. You need to build your entire app to be positioned for growth. “Building in growth” is all about getting your existing users to share the app or invite friends to use your app. You can accomplish this by moving users through the App Virality Cycle.

How Does the Cycle Work?

Once someone becomes aware of your app and is intrigued by the concept, they’ll download it. The user will then move to activation. This stage is where people engage with your app. To move people from activation to sharing, you’ll need to provide a massive amount of value, entice your users to keep using your app, and then motivate them to share the app. Once the user shares the app, the viral loop successfully closes and repeats.

When you build in growth, your users will be handling your app’s promotion for you. This is also known as the network effect 一 the more people share, the faster it will growThis is the secret to viral growth.

1. Social Media Sharing / Social Capabilities

One of the most seamless and non-intrusive ways to build in growth is by implementing social sharing capabilities into your app's functionality. Regardless of what category your app falls under, it’s always smart to enable in-app social sharing. This can be done by integrating social feeds directly into your app or designing social media sharing buttons or CTAs.

Take the gaming app, Two Dots, for example. Once a user has completed a level, a pop-up notification will give the user the option to either continue to the next level or ask their Facebook friends to play with them in exchange for valuable power-ups.  Free powerups and the chance to beat their friends in a game? Who would say no!

Once the user connects to Facebook, Two Dots also gives their users a chance to share how many medals they have and where they stand in the leaderboard. This is a very subtle and enticing way to get users to post about the app. The average Facebook user has 338 friends, which means Two Dots has the potential to gain a lot of organic exposure if the user does choose to share the app with friends.

2. Ask For Reviews

Asking your users to review your app may seem like common knowledge, but a lot of marketers and developers pass up valuable opportunities every day. Your goal should be to receive as many positive reviews as you possibly canーwithout being pushy. Positive reviews will boost your app store search ranking (meaning more impressions and downloads) and will give other potential users a great first look at your app.

Best Practices

  • Ensure that your app provides enough value to justify asking for a review
  • Don’t overwhelm users with requests or interrupt experiences
  • Personalize your message
  • Consider asking a question such as, “Enjoying [app name]?”, instead of asking for five stars. A recent Appboy study found this leads to more and higher user ratings.
  • Only ask for reviews from the segment of users that is most likely to give a positive review. 

3. Contextual Deep Linking

“‘Contextual deep linking’ is a term coined by the company Branch. The idea behind this concept is that if users click on a link from their phones, their device will capture information, such as who the person is and what page they were viewing when they clicked on the link. From there, assuming the user didn't already have the app installed, their device would prompt them to install the app. Finally, once the app is installed, the personal information captured by the user's device would be passed onto the mobile app so the user could immediately return to their browsing experience.

Contextual deep links store information about where a user wants to go, where the link was clicked, who originally shared the link, and other custom data. This allows app developers to build powerful features like personalized welcome pages and referral programs that go beyond simple content links. App users benefit from this because it enables apps to provide better experiences and more relevant information.

4a. Great Onboarding

Did you know that user onboarding is the most important part of the customer journey? Perfecting your onboarding experience will captivate your user’s attention and increase your retention rate.

Best Practices

  • Emphasize the app’s value
  • Display key features and be concise
  • Explain functionality by a step-by-step tutorial (4-7 screens)
  • Don’t bombard users with information
  • Add a visual indicator of progress—this can increase conversions up to 40%
  • Keep testing

4b. Show the Wow Moment Quickly

Have you ever used an app and had an extraordinary user experience? We’re talking about the feeling that you experience when you realize that an app can improve some aspect of your life. Maybe you experienced this feeling when you ordered an Uber for the first time and the requested car showed up two minutes later right in front of you. If you're a Facebook user, you might have felt amazed when you received a friend request from your long lost cousin or high school best friend.

The "wow moment" or "wow factor" of your app should be powerful and provide enough value to make your users feel an immediate, strong connection to your app. Your goal should be to get users to experience your app’s "wow moment" as early in the user journey as possible. 

5. Referrals

92% of people say they trust recommendations from friends and family above all other forms of advertising. Word of mouth also influences up to 50% of all purchasing decisions. Referrals are the most powerful form of app marketing, and it’s in your best interest to take advantage of it! An app that flawlessly executes this strategy is Uber: the app offers new users a free ride valued at $15. By giving you a chance to test their services for free, they eliminate the risk inherent to the process of acquiring you as a user. If a product or service is offered for free, people will be more willing to try the service outright instead of contemplating the pros and cons before paying for it. Free trials allow users to be sold on the value your app provides before they commit.

The app also incentivizes social sharing. Once a user becomes an Uber rider, they can invite their friends to use the app with a referral link that's sent through Facebook Messenger, email, an Instagram post, or other social channels. If a friend downloads the app and takes a ride, both users receive a $20 credit. There’s no downside to such a referral program, and all parties involved benefit一 users and their friends receive free rides while Uber can grow their user base through positive word-of-mouth referrals.

Takeaway

If you do implement a referral system, leverage your app's biggest strength or unique value proposition. You should also consider making your referrals double-sided, like Uber's referral program. The more value you can provide to users upfront, the better chance you have of earning the trust of both users.

6. Gamification

Regardless of what category your app falls under, including elements of gamification is one of the best ways to build in growth. 

It’s proven that gamification can naturally increase your dopamine levels. When gamers finally beat a frustrating level or win more power-ups, your brain becomes full of excitement. Gamification makes everyday actions and tasks feel much more enjoyable. This enhances the overall user experience.

The Fogg model demonstrates the three elements that must converge at the same time for a behavior to occurーin this case, for a user to engage with a gamified app feature.

1. Motivation

2. Ability

3. Trigger

BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model is defined as B (Behavior) = MAT

The first element is motivation—what the user wants to do. If the user wants to accomplish a certain goal, they’ll become more motivated and will be more likely to complete that task.

Ability refers to how simple or difficult a task is for an individual to complete. The easier a task is, the more likely the person is to complete it, and vice versa.

The last element is a trigger. A trigger is an event that persuades the user at a particular moment to engage in an activity. The more ability and motivation a user has at the time when the trigger occurs, the more likely it is that the trigger will be successful.

Once these three elements converge, the user is destined to engage with the gamification you designed to take place.

How to Implement Gamification

  1. Get Specific: What actions do you want the user to take? You need to translate your target outcomes and goals into specific user behaviors.
  2. Make it Easy: How can you make the task easy for the user to complete?
  3. Trigger the Behavior: What event will prompt the behavior? Some triggers are natural, such as hunger, while others you must design into the app itself. No behavior can occur without a trigger.

“Gamification is not a panacea and is not meant for every app. However, depending on the context of an app, applying gamification techniques to an app’s design, can drive not only engagement and retention but also acquisition. Techniques like revealing scarcity effects, accomplishment moments, allowing users to be social and creative or embedding elements like progress bars, leaderboards, badges, can create addiction and obsession for an app, bringing this way users back on a daily basis.” ー Andreas Vourkos, Co-Founder, Pollfish

7. The Hooked Model

Behavioral designer Nir Eyal created the “hooked model," a four-step process embedded into the products of successful companies to subtly encourage customer behavior and “hook” them on the product. According to Eyal, a hook has four parts:

1. Trigger

Triggers are comprised of external or internal triggers.

The external trigger conveys the action that the user should take next. Examples include emails, billboards, push notifications, CTAs, or tweets. When an association within the user's memory conveys information about an action to take next, the individual has experienced an internal trigger, or a trigger that occurs naturally. Internal triggers can result from talking to others,  one's daily routine, emotions, or another individual experience. 

2. Action

Actions are behaviors that take place in anticipation of a reward. For example, simple activities such as scrolling, searching, and playing videos could be considered actions—the user expects to obtain a psychological reward from completing such behaviors.

3. Variable Reward

Variable rewards are rewards that app users receive based on a variable ratio schedule. For example, when you open Instagram and see that your newest picture has received several likes, you receive a social reward. You didn’t know you were going to receive those likes, but it feels great. In fact, 62% of adults feel better about themselves after receiving positive reactions to what they shared on social media.

Variable rewards cause us to focus and engage with the app, and this engagement increases in-app actions. When designing your app, your goal should be to create variable rewards that “scratch an itch,” (i.e. social recognition) but still leave the user wanting more of the reward.

4. Investment

Investment happens when the user completes an action that increases the app's value to the user. Examples of investments include:

  • Creating a profile
  • Inviting friends to join the app
  • Storing personal data (photos, videos) within the app 
  • Buying additional features

When users invest in an app, their likelihood of returning increases. If you can create features that encourage users to invest time and energy in your app, opening the app will become a habit for your users. For example, every time you add a new friend or post a status update on Facebook you’re making an investment. Small investments add up over time, so the more you can entice your users to take action, the more your retention rate will increase.

Practice the principles of the Hooked Model by thinking of an app you recently opened. What caused you to open it? What did you get out of that specific interaction? How can you create a hook for your own app?

8. Push Notifications

Have you ever been in the middle of a task and were distracted by a push notification? It’s likely that you have. Why does this occur?

Like the Hooked Model describes, push notifications are powerful, engaging external triggers or cues that people feel an urge to engage with. They can be considered a link between an emotional itch and the salve the service provides. Don't just take our word for it; it’s been proven that those little red badges and messages can boost app engagement by 88% and increase retention rates by 3-10x.

Elements of an Effective Push Notification

1. Great timing. The timing of your notifications is crucial because it needs to align with the user’s behavior. Sending notifications at random times will yield little to no returns. For example, if someone was using your eCommerce app to purchase new sneakers and abandoned them in the shopping cart, you might consider sending a notification to remind them to complete checkout.

2. Actionable. Notifications only drive engagement if they have an end goal. Bland, irrelevant messages that serve no purpose to the user will eventually turn users away from using the app. Make sure that each push notification persuades your users to take a definable action.

3. Engaging. Create messaging that people will want to engage with. Conventional messages are becoming outdated. Align your notifications with your app’s brand image and don't be afraid to get creative!

Tip: Use Emojis to increase your open rates by 85%

Types of Push Notifications

  • Welcome: A branded, inviting message sent to the user within 24 hours after the initial install.
  • Behavioral: Messages that are sent after a user takes a specific action. These include reminders, achievement notifications, etc.
  • “Zombie:" Targeted messages to elicit a response from users who haven’t engaged with your app after a certain period of time.
  • Time Sensitive: Messages that revolve around an event, such as sales, events, and so on.

10. Build a Remarkable Product

Best-selling author and marketing guru Seth Godin popularized this claim in his wildly popular TED talk, “How to get your ideas to spread.”

The products and apps that go on to disrupt industries and change the world aren’t simply goodーthey’re remarkable. Why does the word "remarkable" matter? When something is remarkable, it’s worth speaking about. After all, there's no better marketing than developing a product that speaks for itself.

Conclusion

“Virality is something that has to be engineered from the beginning…and it’s harder to create virality than it is to create a good product. The reason that over $150 billion is spent on US advertising each year is that virality is so hard. If virality was easy, there would be no advertising industry.” 一Josh Kopelman, Venture Capitalist, Founder of Half.com

Implementing these eight strategies to build in growth doesn’t necessarily mean your app will go viral. However, it will certainly increase your chances.

If you have a great app idea that you want to go viral, bring your app idea to life today!

Special thanks to Andreas Vourkos, Ambroise Debret, Adam Geitgey, and the team at Branch.io for their expert insight.