Questions to Ask When Creating Your Viral Loop

Feb 5

Questions to Ask When Creating Your Viral Loop

Part four of our blog series about how to “Grow a viral loop and reduce churn” will focus on what you really need to know before you start building virality into your app. We’ll also talk about how to to optimize and maximize reach, optimize response rates, combine retention with virality, and explain how to use double viral loops.

In particular when we talk about the loops generated from inside the App, each user will make a decision about how to reach other users:

  • via email
  • via SMS/Text
  • via social networks like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest etc

One thing to be aware of is that it is commonly believed that Facebook’s algorithm for sharing content now regulates how much a “viral” post might be showing up in other people’s feeds. For example, if I post something from my App to my timeline that may be linked back to an App, it’s quite possible that only a subset of my friends will see that post. Not to sound like a conspiracy theorist – this is a possibility that is often discussed at meetups between App developers. It’s also been mentioned that if your App is an active advertiser on Facebook, your users’ posts might as a result be more visible.But take these comments with a grain of salt and look into the research for yourself.

Another point to be conscious of is expressed in this quote from Kissmetrics:

Virality is not a single feature. It’s a design principle.

It’s not a result of good luck. It’s engineered.”

The tips we outline here will try to capture the spirit of this simple statement. In other words, we might use the word “share” or talk about a “share button,” but it won’t click itself!

Optimizing and Maximizing Reach

If your goal is to build a viral loop around the core of your product, then the first step is to think about how you can make it easy for users to find, onboard, activate themselves with your App, and then share it with their friends. Some steps and considerations to keep in mind:

  • Timing of sharing
    • Keep out of the user’s way until they’ve had a happy experience
      • Your UI should hide the share until it’s relevant.
      • Example: Spotify makes it super-easy to share your current song,  because songs make us happy (evokes a positive response).
      • Spotify also passively shares your playlist to your FB timeline. This doesn’t make me happy as a user, but it’s free advertisement for them!
    • Make it a simple one-click action to share while the user is experiencing that endorphin rush or “activated” experience.
      • Experiment with highlighting the share button or do some push campaigns to incentivize sharing.
      • Use your analytics to understand where best to test how and when to share. Check our PDF for leveraging existing analytics like Flurry (we also support others like Mixpanel and Segment).
  • Make it really easy to share widely
    • Is your App running on a phone or on a tablet? Is the user “on-the-go” or is it a “lean-back” experience? Minimize the steps to get to sharing for each situation.
    • Does each use of your app build upon the previous experience?
    • Pre-tick the share list with all contacts or relevant/recommended contacts.
    • Enable search on the contacts list so the user can easily share to specific people.
    • Provide the option to manually enter additional email addresses.
    • Make it possible to share on multiple networks at once.
  • Consider the fundamental value proposition you are presenting to your users
    • Are you enabling them to more easily connect with their friends and social networks? Are you saving them time or money? Are you making their day/lives more efficient somehow?
    • Is your value prop unique enough to cut through all the other competing noise?
    • Reward often and variably – this keeps the urge to share going and encourages daily connections since inviting friends becomes a core process in your app. Check out why variable rewards matter from here or just get Nir Eyal’s book – it’s good 🙂
    • Clearly define and promote your value proposition early on in your marketing messaging, and connect these back to the core idea of what your product delivers
  • Consider where new users can discover your viral loop and set the process off
    • Do it for free – App Store Optimization, online marketing, website integration, newsfeeds, your website homepage, and blogs are all great “on-ramps”
    • Spend a little – paid advertising, traditional marketing campaigns, SEO
    • Try incentive campaigns to encourage existing users to invite friends. Use push notifications or in-App feeds to get the message out. See our whitepaper on referral programs


Optimizing Response Rate

This is where the magic of creating a viral loop actually happens. Not only does sharing have to provide some benefit to the sharer, but it must also entice new audiences to click on it. This is sometimes known as the viral hook.

  • What is the viral hook?
    • Savings driven. We’ve all seen marketing promotions that shout “For a limited time only!” or “One time sign-up discount!” There is a sense of urgency built in that requires the user to claim the offer through the share, usually within a quick turnaround time. A good example is giving both sides a coupon – usually some percentage off or credit toward use. The sharer is rewarded through bringing in new customers, and the receiver has a great incentive to sign up and use the discount.
    • Value driven. The share highlights the benefits of the App and the values of the company. It may offer an exclusive initial experience that is superior to users who sign up independently. Using Dropbox as an example, users who sign up from a referral receive more storage than those that sign up directly. Users are not only sharing the news about how much they enjoy using a product, they are also offering something of value to new users.
    • Interest driven. The share highlights a unique or interesting aspect of the App or the sharer’s experience that intrigues the viewer enough to click through.
    • Rewards driven. I mentioned Nir Eyal’s book above. One suggestion it gives: Sneak in secret rewards as a fun and effective way to keep people guessing and help your app go viral. The Mac to-do app Clear hides new themes that are unlocked as users complete specific tasks, and there is a feeling of a treasure hunt to find these. Users share the secrets on Twitter, which generally creates a free publicity blast.
    • Social causes. Many businesses like to include the option of giving back or contributing via charitable donations, which certainly serve as motivators for like minded users. User incentivization comes from knowing that a portion of the money they’re spending on the app is going to a cause or organization they believe in. This can be more motivating than a coupon!

Combining Retention with Virality

Naturally an app developer’s end goal is to create a product that is so addictive that people use it regularly, find it indispensable, and keep coming back even after drop-offs in initial usage activity. This is the type of app that becomes integrated into a person’s daily routine – like using Instagram, Dropbox, or Spotify.

So how do you create that desirable retention curve? Users can be retained by building in self-reinforcing behaviors:

  • The more data a user invests in a product, the harder it can be to leave it. Who wants to import 100s of documents over from Evernote to a competitor, for example? Users want to feel happy that they made the right decision from the jump.
  • The more time that’s invested in using a product, the more reflexive the daily habit to use it becomes
  • The two things above create an emotional connection between the user and the product. You’ll see this when users start posting and blogging on social media about how they can’t live without the app – this is how you get free brand ambassadors!

A typical retention curve looks like this, where there is a big spike in acquired users when the app first launches, and then a steady drop-off until it reaches more of a flatline as weeks go by:

So you might retain 80% of new users after the first week (we are being super-optimistic for you!!!), then drop down to 65% after the first month. In the long-term, it might remain at around 40% with a gradual monthly decline. This is not such a bad number – according to Anindya Datta of Mobilewalla, “An app that’s retained by 30% of downloaders is considered ‘sticky.’” The user behaviour correlation here might look like this:

  1. User invites friends to join, but only in the first month.
  2. Marketing techniques drop off after the initial launch excitement, and so fewer users are being recruited.
  3. Without a strong product foundation, users won’t keep downloading the app. You’ll quickly know if you designed the product well, and in a way that encourages virality.
  4. Most apps lose their entire userbase within a few months. Whether or not it rallies and succeeds depends on the above criteria. Also, even if you succeed your competition might be outstripping you on the referral/viral elements.

What are the off-ramps?

If you are one of the unfortunates who is bleeding users left and right, it is probably due to one of the following factors:

  • Your app doesn’t excel at any one task
  • Even if your App is double-viral (like “Draw With Friends”) your App’s “one task” utility is not interesting beyond the first 10 uses. How can you re-interest them?

The core problem here is your app is trying to do too many things at once, and none of them really well. Successful apps do ONE thing really well – e.g., Yelp finds great restaurants in your area, Lyft gets you from point A to point B, PayPal sends and receives money instantly.

  • Your app has too many features.

You don’t want to confuse users with too many choices – make the design simple, uncomplicated, and user-friendly. This especially applies to the sign-up process.

  • Your app doesn’t provide relevant content

Personalize, personalize, personalize. People want suggestions and discoveries that are relevant to their interests, not random ones.

  • Your app lets users meet in-App payment requirements too soon. Convince users first, then entice them to pay for more.


Creating Double Viral Loops

Double viral loops are networks built on top of other networks that are linked together in a way that when one grows, so does the other. Consider this as another possible strategy for your viral loops.

One example of a double viral loop between two platforms is eBay and PayPal. As each attracted more people, one funnelled users into the other and drove further success in both networks. LinkedIn in its early incarnation also did a great job of this. When you first signed up, it would show you a list of “people you might know” based on predictors like what companies you’d worked at and where you went to school. You’d be invited to connect with the people you knew, and these people in turn would receive a message saying they’d been tagged by you as having worked together at “XYZ” company on LinkedIn. Your friend could them confirm the invitation to connect and then in turn, find a list of people s/he might know. The growing network of each user primes other networks for further growth. Double viral loop in action!

The key learning from the LinkedIn experience is how these actions are “built-in” to the entire experience of using the product. So as a bonus, consider how you can start building double viral loops or piggyback on a growing network for mutual benefit. Follow these steps to do it correctly:


  • Choose the simplest way to connect people
  • Enable new users to nudge existing users
  • Push to existing users segments to invite and share upon returning (make sure they are the right “engaged” segments and trigger based on timing).


To sum it all up: to find the greatest success with viral loops, app design for virality, and techniques like building in double viral loops, consider how to achieve a deep integration before you even set about designing your app. Viral loops can’t just be tacked on as an afterthought.

StreetHawk can help you by delivering flexible ways to trigger and track implementing certain portions of the viral loop – contact us to schedule a demo!

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