How Do I Make My App Go Viral?

How Do I Make My App Go Viral?

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.

A Reply To A VC-Funded San Francisco Based Startup

A Reply To A VC-Funded San Francisco Based Startup

I’ve been on the road this week. So while I work on getting the new podcast and book notes online, I thought I would post this in the interim.

Occasionally I get pitched to promote things for startups and tech companies, and even though it could be extra money for me, I don’t (usually) do it because I feel like I’m taking advantage of them.

So last night, when I got an email that had the subject line, “SF startup about to launch. Want to pay you $1,500 to try our app and tweet about us”, I decided to respond. This is the email (mostly) verbatim. I just took out any identifying details of the startup because I’m not posting this to poke fun at them. I’m posting it to illustrate a larger problem regarding how startups and tech companies want to promote themselves and the same mistakes (almost) all of them continue to make for the reasons I touch on here. I also made some tweaks to my reply, but nothing major.

Tl;Dr Despite the fact that 3 out of 4 startups fail, the tech world continues to be fixated with Ivy League douchebags, growth hacks, MBAs, and engineers who are all obsessed with doing things that they can measure so they can feel better about their small dicks and fragile egos. Going into 2017 and beyond, if these companies (and others who like to copy the tech world) want to succeed, they’re going to need to make some serious changes.

Their Letter

Hi BJ,

My name is ________ and I’m the director of strategy at _______________ , a VC-funded startup

We’re about to launch our product (… Use your imagination here.)

I’m reaching out because I’d love to hire you to try out the app and post a tweet about us during launch week, including a link to our app store pages.

If you’re interested, I would be thrilled to get on the phone this week and nail down the details.

We’re only about a week from launch so would love to connect as soon as you’re available. Please let me know if/when you have the time to talk.

All the best,

My Response

Hey ___________

This is a longer response than necessary, but I appreciate the offer and that you took the time to reach out. So, this is entirely unsolicited advice on my part. Do with it what you will, but I hope you find some of it useful …

I’m happy to take your money. $1,500 is nothing to sneeze at. I have to admit, though, I’m burnt out on dealing with tech people. I’m tired of interacting with Ivy League douchebags and individuals who think that marketing and advertising are something they don’t need to bother with. (Or don’t want to bother with because they’re not able to measure it in a way that appeases their fragile little egos.)

I don’t fault them for this belief. It comes, to a great extent, because they’ve been lied to by an assorted group of schmucks who have decided to retell the stories of how a lot of the Unicorns (past and present) got to where they are by conveniently leaving out the actual reasons they succeeded.

Spoiler alert: With a few exceptions, the rest of them got to where they are through marketing, networking, and PR. You know, things that don’t scale and therefore no one puts any effort into? Yeah. That’s how tech companies fucking win, but nobody sees that because they’re too busy letting pricks with MBAs and engineers fill their minds with concerns about scale and social media numbers instead of actual metrics that matter like, you know, customers and revenue.
If I were you? I wouldn’t do a big fuck all launch. I’d start small in a test market, see what people think, and if they like it, figure out a way to empower those people to do the marketing for you. And then launch in another market, and then another, and another, repeating the process. A big splash might get you some notice in TechCrunch, and I totally get that, but the coverage and subsequent bump aren’t going to matter much regarding getting your investors their money back.

If you’re a week away from launch and you’re just now doing Influencer outreach, you’re going to be in for a bumpy ride. Sure, you might score a quick win here or there to impress your investors and other assholes who think an MBA is all they need to make decisions for the rest of us, but this sort of outreach should be done way sooner. You want to build a relationship with people, not do this spray and pray thing. People buy you, they don’t buy the product. It’s hard to buy into you or anyone new to them with an ask in such a short amount of time, you know?

Sure my Tweet might send a signal to Google to index your site, and then it may also trigger Apple’s algorithm within iTunes if people download the thing, but your bigger concern should be getting rave reviews and a lot of sustained downloads and traffic from larger sources (see: the media) over a sustained period of time.

And then there’s this:  Internet-based Influencers don’t often have the ability to drive traffic and conversions the way a lot of people think they do. I’ve worked with a ton of ad agencies that will all tell you this same thing. My click-through ratio on Twitter is NOT great, but I get better results than other alleged Internet-based influencers for a simple reason: I boost my post as an advertisement whenever I do one of these things.

I’ll let you in on another secret. I wouldn’t lead with being a San Francisco-based startup that’s VC funded. That time is over. Now San Francisco tech companies are seen as greedy assholes who are making their city unaffordable and talking about saving the world in the same tone and sincerity that Trump uses when he says he wants to make America great again.

That might be totally unfair, but that’s the perception, and companies like Uber are not doing you any favors right now to change that.

These days people know that getting funded doesn’t mean shit since 9 out of 10 startups fail. You want to lead with the product and why it’s awesome, and _________ sounds awesome.

(Although you should know there was a (company with a similar name) that got big, briefly, by abusing/spamming Facebook’s algorithm and later got crushed when Facebook put a stop to that loophole they were exploiting. So … That’s awkward.)

The product should be so awesome; others WANT to share it with their friends and family. Lead with that. Lead with something that makes a deep emotional connection with someone. Silicon Valley does that, but not in a positive way outside of the valley.

This email sounds douchey, and it’s not meant to. I want you to succeed, I do. So if you’re a week away and looking to make this huge splash, I want to do my part as a complete and total stranger to encourage you to take a step back. Evaluate what you’re doing (and why), and then ask yourself if there’s a better path toward a bigger, more successful (and far more sustainable) future.

The answer is yes.

But hey, I’m also not going to say no to $1,500 either. Have you seen the size of the rats in Chicago? Trying to fight them off of the garbage can you’ve been eyeing to eat out of is a challenging task.

Solving An Actual Problem: Startup Founders and Depression

Solving An Actual Problem: Startup Founders and Depression

I’ve been in a funk recently. I made the classic mistake of getting excited about a couple of things on a personal level, both of which didn’t work out, and I’ve been bummed about it. I should know better by now than to be bothered when this happens. But it still does, and then I go into a spiral where I don’t talk to anyone for weeks / months and just pull back on everything. Like wanting to have children. I’m excited about having children soon-ish, but if that came up when I was struggling with something? You’d hear me swearing that idea off even though that’s not the case at all.

Professionally, though, everything is great. Exciting things are happening, and that’s why I’m writing this. I have a unique problem that I want to solve, and statistically, when it comes to startup founders and people in tech, I’m not alone in having this problem.

That’s where the headline for this post comes from. When you encounter a startup, almost all of them will explain to you that their company solves X problem, regardless of whether or not that problem is really a problem. It’s an annoying habit like bragging about how much money you’ve raised as if that answers the question someone just asked you about whether or not your service is any good. It doesn’t. Stop talking about how much you raised! Nobody cares!

Er. Sorry … Let’s get back on track.

It’s also a cliche for startup founders, in particular, to talk about depression. And I understand how, when you hear it from a startup founder, it’s difficult to sympathize with them. “Oh, you only raised $3 million instead of $4 million last month?” “You live in a $4,000 apartment and are making it unaffordable for other people to live in that same city? Poor you.” Trust me. I know all those arguments. As I write this, I’m looking at the rent for studio apartments in Manhattan for my move there, and I’m sharing the same thought. “This is not OK.”

(I wonder if the WeWork people will let me sleep in my new one-person office?)

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t an issue to be addressed. In a lot of cases where startups and tech companies are concerned, you’re talking about a lot of young people thrust into this world that often has a “cheat to win” mentality with millions, sometimes billions, of dollars at stake. It’s a pressure cooker. Suicide is a serious problem. So is depression. So is drug use. The fact that a lot of those people may or may not be likable is sort of beyond the point.

We owe it to each other to not be shitty people and dismiss other people’s problems, because sooner or later, those problems become our own.

That’s where I come in. My startup does a dumb, very silly thing. We produce funny business book summaries. That’s all it does. I’d love to do a summary for every business and marketing book that comes out, and all the important ones you may have missed, but it’s a self-contained (and self-funded) project. So I’ll take it as far as I can, and we’ll see how it goes. You’ll see some test products here on this website soon. But I don’t want to talk to you about that. Because it’s self-contained, there isn’t much to talk about. I either do a crap ton of reviews, and the thing scales up, or it doesn’t and I do the funny reviews for my purposes here on this website.

What I want to talk to you about instead is that I’ve suffered from depression my entire life. Outside of a business setting, I also have a complete and (sometimes hilarious) inability to interact with people in a social setting. If you want to talk about work? I’m your guy! I can sell anyone anything given enough time and research. If you want to talk about anything else? Forget it; I immediately throw up this wall, and it’s incredibly difficult to get me to talk about anything. Or I’ll mumble or speak fast because that’s what happens when I’m in a personal setting and people start poking around.

You know the problem with blogging is that there’s often no point behind it. So people get all excited and produce a ton of content, but then it tapers off, and then they abandon it. Which causes dumb marketing people to go, “Blogging is dead! Nobody does that!” And then people who don’t know any better across every industry goes, “Why does my company have a blog? Why am I paying these people? This is stupid.” Here, in the best way I can describe it, I’m going to work through my shit using products and tools like Headspace, Talkspace, Joyable, WeWork and the gym. I also may or may not incorporate something like Blue Apron, because I don’t know how to cook anything and what you put into your body plays a significant role in determining your mood. The point is, if there’s a platform or service that exists out there to help people with depression, I’m going to use it and write about that, and other things on the subject here.

Maybe there’s a book in here about resilience. Maybe one about dealing with depression. I don’t know. I just got done ghostwriting a book for someone, so I’m not exactly looking to do another one at the moment. Although as far as anyone knows I’ve only done the one book back in 2012 because you can’t say much about the ghostwriting thing, so that kind of blows.

Anyway, my hope in doing this is to get people talking about depression, particularly within the tech and startup community, support great causes like iFred, and who knows, maybe it’ll put me on the path of being a functional adult.

Guess you’ll have to stick around and find out. At the very least, there will be a bunch of cheap laughs to have at my expense.

(Photo Credit: B.J. Mendelson. All Rights Reserved.)