Here's What All The Most Viral Social Apps Have In Common

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Photo: Dan Frommer, Business Insider

Lately, I’ve been putting together a list of things that make social apps viral, mainly looking at the startups that inspire me most in that area (social) at the moment.So this is loosely gathered from looking at Hashable, PlanCast, Quora, Foursquare, and the likes. It’s just a candid look at those – and others in the same space – startups to extract what has been part of the essence of their viral growth.

In other words : they all include some or all of the following points. What this list is : my thoughts on the (killer) ingredients that will make your go startup viral if you have the first mandatory ingredient: an interesting concept.

In search of the perfect social app

There’s no such thing as a magic wand you wave over your ruby and heroku to make your app take off. But, by using the following techniques or approaches, it will help. Again, your product should be around a key, simple and interesting concept to start with : broadcast your location to your friends, keep track of your interactions with your social graph, ask questions to a panel of experts, … But once you’ve got that down, here’s how it will take off.

Some features are critical: your product has to have them. Some are important: it might help to include them. And the last ones are nice-to-have: if you still have time to code, well think about those. Nothing breathtaking here, just some observation, listing and common sense.


* You have a unique & key feature that creates value for users

Your users use your product for one very clear reason. They come to your app to do specifically this. There might be other features on your app, but there’s a main one clearly defined. And by using this feature, they get value. It is simple, it is straightforward. What does value mean? Value can be content (Quora answers). Value can be an action or reaction (check-in, “count me in” on a Plancast). Value can mean earning or saving dollars.

* Your key feature is repeatable

You don’t just check-in once. You check-in multiple times, each time creating value for you and others, because you share it.

* The key feature or action is sharable

Your application has integrated virality. It tweets your check-in. It shares your plans on Facebook. It alerts your network with a new answer on Quora. It tweets a new connection on Hashable. Your users actions have 600M+ ears (FB + Twitter) – speak to them.

* Your product uses the existing social graph of your users

By using your application, your users discover, inform, keep in touch, classify, meet, … people they know (n), or people they might know (n+1). Give them the opportunity to discover friends already there, invite friends that haven’t joined the party yet, and inform others by making their actions public (i.e. Hashable #intros on Twitter).

* It has instant utility and is different at each visit

The first time your users connect, they get value: they find interesting content on Quora, they see what they friends have planned on PlanCast. If they come back tomorrow, they’ll find something new has happened: your app is real-time, or keeps track of my social graph actions on it.

* It’s based on 1 of the 7 deadly sins

This one is an addon on Dave McClure’s Startup Viagra presentation (slide #8). Your key feature should be adapted to 1+ of the 7 deadly sins: it should get your users fame (pride), sex (lust), money (greed), help them save time (sloth), give them info about people they know (curiosity). If you corner one of those, you’re off to a good start.


* Users can follow or friend things

Follow a subject, follow a user, friend a member, … Make it easy to do so. Each time such an action is taken, you get 1) a way to recontact the member and 2) an excuse to contact another member or potential member. Deeply linked to …

* Your app sends notifications

Each time your users have a new friend request (Foursquare), a new follower (aaaarg Quora), a new comment (Facebook), they are invited to a plan (Plancast), they get intro’ed by someone (Hashable), they get a notification. Whether it’s by email (best), on Twitter (good) or Facebook (ugly), they get it. If they don’t visit, at least they are reminded you exist.

* You application is a platform based on platforms

Because it’s deeply linked to/on other platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, Plancast, …), there is instant content once your users get on. Moreover, users don’t even have to use your app or the platforms to benefit of you key feature: you post Hashable connections on twitter ; you twit your location from Foursquare. Also, thanks to your API, your very unique feature is usable anywhere else.

* You application is playful

It has game mechanics incorporated. By using your app, your users get made. They get points, badges, hashcred, connections, whatever make them feel better – and especially better in the eyes of their social graph since whatever you use to reward them is shared on twitter and Facebook.

Nice to have

* Charge from day 1

Whether it’s a premium, or a specific addon product from your app, integrating PayPal is easy so do it early. Clearly separate what is free and what could be paid for, and set a price to it. I reckon this is not critical, but you could make some small revenue. And generating revenues, even small, is good. Really.

* Your app has links, other links and more links

People love to click. Never ever let them in front of a wall or dead-end street. Take a look at any Quora page vs any Facebook page: you’ll find way more <a> tags on the Quora source code than on the Facebook one (around 30%+ on average). Links are important : people click on them.

* Your app powers its users, and flatters their pride

I answered x questions on Quora, I shared y plans on Plancast, I made z introductions on Hashable. I’m a heavy user. People see me being a heavy user. Deep inside, I’m proud of being that early adopter. If you make it easy for your users to feel this, they’ll be happy to do it again.

So, what did I miss?

Do this, and your service will have all it needs to take off. Building a viral social apps means building a social magnet: a magnet attracts and retains.

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