How Do I Make My App Go Viral?

Photo by B.J. Mendelson on New York City's UES

I’ve always liked Quora. It’s not sexy. Nobody talks about it much these days, but it’s a useful place to do some research. Or at the very least, start your research. I don’t think (like Wikipedia) that a visit to Quora should be the only research you do. But if you’re looking for a place to start? Quora isn’t a bad place to go. You can even find me on there answering a question every weekday morning.

I have this dumb morning routine that I do. Ear drops, mouthwash, stretch, say some affirmations in the mirror while trying not to feel like a douchebag for doing so,  use Headspace, read a comic (Currently it’s Marvel’s “Power Man and Iron Fist”), and answer a question on Quora.

All of those things are done with specific reasons behind them. I used to go to the gym regularly in the morning instead of this routine, but the gym here in Monroe is overrun by high school douchebags. The kind of steroid using high school football types that will get into their Mom’s truck and follow you to a gas station just so that they can yell “fag” at you from their window. (True story.)

Anyway, I try to write an answer every weekday morning on Quora in part to get my brain going, and also in part to help me work out some of the things I want to say in “The Internet is Magic.”

While I’m working on the book notes for “Start with Why” and this week’s podcast, I thought I’d post one of those answers here since it might be useful to you. Plus it’s a nice update to the post I did yesterday.

How Do I Make My App Go Viral?

This is one of those answers that probably would take a book to answer in such a way that you’d be satisfied with. That being said, I’ll give you the cliff notes version while encouraging you to read up on word-of-mouth marketing.

To get you started, these are my notes on “The Passion Conversation,” which is typically the starter book that I recommend on word-of-mouth.

OK, that said, here’s the least you need to know …

Most people quickly abandon an app either after they download it, or not long after. (Sometimes they delete it, sometimes it just lives cold and unloved on the phone’s home screen.)

So before you even go further ask yourself: Do I / Should I be working on an app, or is this better to do on another platform? This matters a lot because people are reluctant to share something that has barriers to entry. Even if your app is free, they still have to either find the thing or follow a link, download it, wait for it to load, then play with it. The fewer hoops people have to jump through, the more likely they are to A) Like something and B) Share it with others.

Let’s say they’ve jumped through the hoops. The next thing is: Is the app any good? You might think it’s good, but if it’s just “good,” nobody is going to share it. NOBODY. It has to be awesome. By awesome I mean, it has to give people an answer to the question, “Why the fuck do I care about this?” So you have to have a good story either baked into the app or around the app and you have to make sure the app is easy to understand, easy to use and easier to share. (All easier said than done. How do you answer these questions? THAT is the easy part: Talk to your customers and listen to their feedback. You won’t believe how few people actually ask questions of their customers in this day and age of our global obsession with data and metrics.)

So let’s assume your app is GREAT and you’ve given people a reason to care about it. Good news, people should now be passing it on. (That’s how you know it’s GREAT. If you see it organically being passed around, then you have a “viral” app. You might not have the numbers in your head that we associate with “viral,” but you’re halfway to where you want to be.

Now here’s the bad news. Most things you think of when you say “viral” really aren’t “viral.” Usually, there’s a lot of money or horse-trading going on behind the scenes to give something momentum and the appearance of “viral,” which leads to a little bit of a PR frenzy among media outlets which in turn push the product to the point of appearing like a viral phenomenon. There’s also the algorithms to contend with, so let’s talk about that, and then I’ll double back to this point.

Good news: Platforms are dumb and have algorithms that can easily be abused/manipulated. I say abused/manipulated because this view changes depending on how big of an asshole you are. The key takeaway though is that a lot of activity around your app, assuming that activity is legit or not an obvious attempt at manipulating the system, will activate a lot of the different platforms we have out there today, and when that happens, your product is pushed out more and more to other people.

(Caveat: What works today might not work tomorrow. Eventually, these systems will get smarter, but at the moment if you have significant traction among real people and inbound links/shares stemming from press coverage, it still seems to “lift” the product” in the way I’m describing.)

Here’s The Deal …

Here’s the deal: If you don’t have money to spend, the odds are good you’re not going to go viral in the way that you want. That’s the bad news. The good news is that if you utilize all the connections you have, partner up with people and companies who can boost the presence of your app, and arrange for a lot of press, you raise your probability of success. Especially if all that stuff hits as soon as the app goes live (which is tricky sometimes because of Apple and Android doing things on their own schedule.)

PR and those strategic alliances are the keys to success. Nobody wants to admit it because it’s not “cool” among the tech crowd because it’s a thing they can’t quantify, but that’s how you “go viral,” assuming you’ve done everything else I’ve talked about here.

Going viral is just a lazy way to describe good PR because the constant coverage and mentions of the product are what’s driving that viral growth, more often than not.

Sometimes, something comes out of left field, and it goes viral in a truly organic sense, but nine times out of ten it’s either:

  1. Someone is spending a lot of money behind the scenes to make this thing look viral
  2. Someone has a lot of relationships they’re leveraging to get mentions, PR coverage, and people spreading their product for them.
  3. There’s an offline network driving the thing that you and I don’t know about. (Remember: Online influence is usually bullshit, but offline influence? That’s a whole other story depending on domain and context.

Do what I described here, and with some luck, you’ll have something actually go viral, just make sure you set your expectations accordingly given the resources you have to work with.

Tl;Dr kids: Tell a good story, make sure your product doesn’t suck, and do shit that doesn’t scale. Then tell the MBAs and Ivy League douchebags to take a hike. It’s time for the people who actually know what they’re doing to take over.


You can get answers from me almost every morning on Quora here.