For a while, Yik Yak was considered to be the go-to app for college gossip.
Its popularity ballooned and people latched onto the anonymous network. Its founders, Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington, made the typical appearances at SXSW, raised a ton of money, and even had the typical ex-founder lawsuit.
By all accounts Yik Yak was a rocket-ship of a startup — but then it started to peter out.
At its peak in September 2014, the app was number four in overall rankings for the Apple App Store, according to App Annie. Today it’s not even on the list, although it’s stayed in the top 200 social media lists.
Buffington and Droll don’t seem deterred when it’s pointed out that their app is no longer on top. Instead, they think they have found what’s going to make Yik Yak truly valuable in the long-term, and that’s local.
“We’re super happy where we are right now,” Droll told Business Insider. “No one else really has this.”
Don’t call it a pivot
It’s safe to be sceptical that an app that once touted its anonymous background has switched to championing connecting locals. Both are areas where startups have tried and failed and failed again.
Buffington and Droll say the anonymity thing worked in the beginning because the sign-up was easy. You didn’t have to build an audience, unlike Twitter, nor did you have to put your real name to it, like Facebook. Instead, people could sign up and say whatever they wanted (although that does come with some downsides).
However, as the company has grown and other purely anonymous apps died, the pair realised that it was the local part that kept people, especially college students, coming back to the app. They didn’t want to just talk about their classes to the world, but talk about it with the people around them who are taking the same class.
“We’ve seen military bases pick it up, we’ve seen corporate campuses adopt it and use it,” Droll said. “But the current model, we are still focused on the college market.”
Going narrow on a market, at least for now, is where Yik Yak founders see an opportunity to restart growth. There isn’t a great social network just for people around you, unless you count NextDoor’s neighbourhood-watch-in-an-app.
On Tuesday, the company is rolling out updates that will move its users further away from anonymous comments and closer to a local social network.
Yakkers, as they’re called, will be required to have a handle and can fill out profile information, complete with a photo. It’s a change that puts it closer in line with how Twitter handles profiles: You can still sign up and post anonymously, but you have to have a user name. However, if you do want people to follow you and know it’s you, you can add your photo and a bio.
Then there’s the new “Now” updates so people can post what they’re doing in that moment, like whether you’re at the football tailgate or studying on the fifth floor of the library. Yakkers can look at the explore tab to see who else is around them and what they’re doing — and chat with them if they want to meet up.
While Yik Yak used to be big about keeping people tied to a place, the update means it’s also dropping features like “My Herd,” so you can’t follow your college campus unless you’re physically there. Instead, it’s about being in the location where you are and discovering people and places around you.
Neither Buffington or Droll would go as far as to call the changes a pivot, but describe it as more of a slow evolution from the app’s original and core ideas. It’s always been about local networks on college campuses, and the emphasis is now more than ever about putting people in the same place in touch with each other. When Pokémon Go exploded, Buffington says people used the app to find the best Pokémon on campus or meet up as teams to take over gyms.
“Since day one, we were very focused on hyperlocal, and anonymity was just a mechanism we used to make the onboard easy,” Droll said. “Right now we are focused on college campuses and really nailing what are these local interactions so we can power the best user experience.”