Some apps just keep growing and growing to the point where they reach a state of viral success. Their user acquisition rates seem to double with each passing day, and it feels as though nothing can stop them. The question is: how do apps reach this point, and how can other app developers repeat their success?
This sort of exponential increase in users is known as a “viral loop.” Essentially, it’s when an app manages to quickly grow in popularity by not only retaining users but incentivizing them to bring more users onboard.
Breaking Down the Viral Loop
A viral loop, as the name suggests, is a continuing pattern that makes the app “go viral” and increase its downloads from user to user. To put it simply, the viral loop consists of four key steps:
- A user downloads the product
- They like it enough to use it and recommend it to friends
- They’re incentivized to share it and invite new users
- The new user starts the process over from step one
If the app is good enough and offers a proper incentive, each new user repeats the process, bringing new users in at the end of their loop. It may sound like a simple concept, but executing it is a difficult task.
What Apps Have Looped
Some of the most popular apps have reached their success thanks to a viral loop. Yet, despite these apps seeing similar results, their means and methods for reaching that point can vary.
For instance, apps such as Uber manage to incentivize users with discounts for inviting friends. Referring new users nets the referrer savings on their next ride, so they’re encouraged to invite more friends to download the app. Those friends can, in turn, gain the same discounts and are encouraged to continue the loop.
Dropbox uses a similar strategy, offering incentives to both the inviter and the invitee. Referring a friend will reward both the old member and the new one with extra storage space, so it creates the perfect loop of incentivizing people to join and invite others.
Popular mobile games have found another way to start viral loops. They offer in-game benefits when adding friends, such as allowing players to send items to their friends for free and receive some in return. Of course, that requires their friends join the game in the first place, encouraging the original user to invite their friends to install the app and play with them.
For games with player-versus-player (PvP) or multiplayer options, the incentive is simpler but equally effective: add friends so you can play with them. Sometimes that alone is incentive enough.
Not All Viral Apps Looped
There are several apps and games that have achieved viral success that don’t match the criteria of a viral loop. Flappy Bird, for instance, saw a huge burst of popularity, spawning memes and knockoffs as the users downloaded the game in droves. This success was due to the power of social media, as the game’s unexpected difficulty made people constantly share their failures or successes and encouraged others to try it themselves.
Image from Wikipedia
While it did go viral, it was not done through a viral loop, as there were no incentives offered. Even without a built-in incentive, it still managed to increase in downloads through a similar pattern:
- People downloaded
- Played and shared success or failure
- Encouraged others to do the same
Some apps have a strong brand behind them, such as YouTube or LinkedIn, and that’s enough to convert their online users into app users. When Pokémon GO saw its successful launch, it already had a massive base of “Pokémon” fans ready to download, and that instant popularity helped it go even more viral. Users wanted to play with their friends, so they would invite them to download the app and walk around catching Pokémon together. Because of this, the game did not need to offer any referral benefits for it to go viral.
Image from Wikipedia
Other apps gain viral status through their utility alone. Spotify, for instance, certainly doesn’t mind if you invite friends, but doesn’t provide discounted upgrades to premium if users do. Instead, it’s simply a useful app that fulfills a need, and people are encouraged to download it for what it can provide.
These are all examples of an app “going viral” without a loop, rare successes that app developers hope to emulate.
How Does One Loop?
Going viral does take a degree of luck, but there are ways to improve an app’s odds of causing a viral loop.
Each step in the loop can be challenging and must be given due focus. However, the first step is just getting noticed. After all, a loop can’t start if users are unable to find the app in the first place. Before a viral loop can even begin, an app needs a solid App Store Optimization (ASO) strategy so that enough users will find it on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.
Following optimization, the user must actually enjoy the app. Not only that, but they must enjoy it enough to want to recommend it to friends, or at least want the benefits from sharing it. This could be in the form of external discounts and savings or in-app benefits, such as connecting with friends.
The second step depends on the app itself. A well-built app that’s user-friendly and serves a valuable purpose will have a better chance of going viral. This means developers should continue to test and refine their app to provide the best value.
The third step, incentivizing users to invite friends, is perhaps the most important for making the loop become viral. Just sharing the app isn’t enough – users must invite others and gain value from both sharing and having friends join up. That incentive is essential to kick off and continue the loop so that users will beget users continually.
When an app both provides value to users and incentives them to invite new users, and when it’s fully optimized for the App Store, that’s when an app has the best chance of beginning a viral loop.
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