Phase Zero: Intro
We’re pretty good at building viral apps. In the last 9 months, we’ve launched 11 apps and have 4 million users. We haven’t mastered the art of the app by any means, but we’ve learned a lot and decided to put it all to the test.
We wanted to end 2016 with a bang. The goal was to build the ultimate viral app, spend less than $2,000 on marketing, and see what happened…
Phase One: The Demographic
In a world where everyone is a self-titled growth hacker, the word ‘viral’ has become a cliché and lost all meaning. But we wanted to build something that was actually viral.
The key to crafting any viral campaign is reverse engineering. Look at the channel you’ll be igniting the flame through, whether it be a news outlet, social media influencer, or another alternative. Taking into account the demographic of this source and the channel through which people will most likely share this content (i.e. word of mouth, facebook post, tagging a friend), hypothesize how this demographic will expand (or blur) as sharing explodes exponentially. This end demographic, or least granular demographic as I call it, is your audience at scale after viral sharing occurs. This is who you’re crafting your idea for.
I’m also the founder of Coast9, an influencer marketing platform that uniquely offers scalable media buying solutions to brands. We knew that this was where we were going to spend our $2,000 marketing budget. The audiences of all Coast9 influencers in aggregate paint a fairly accurate picture of our least granular demographic — Gen Z:
Phase Two: The Idea
The number one factor of app virality on social media is social proof, so that’s where the brainstorm began. Flipping through my notebook, I found a social trend I had noted this time last year:
2015 Best Nine by Yusuke Matsumura had seen an amazing viral reach with posts from celebrities like Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez, Cristiano Ronaldo, and countless others. All of these posts were essentially free native ads from influencers who would usually charge hundreds of thousands of dollars for a sponsored post.
Searching the app store proved competition for this niche to be easily surpassable and my research showed that 2015bestnine.com had pulled over one million views a day at the end of 2015. And it was a concept that made more sense packaged in an app than in a website anyway. We had found our winning idea.
We had set out to build the ultimate viral app for Gen Z and what better way to do so than play off an existing social media trend that thrives on cyclically volatile social proof inspired by influencers?
Phase Three: The App
We originally wanted to call the app Nine. It was a simple, sleek and brandable name. That was, until we found that Yusuke Matsumura had also built a product called Nine, a Tinder-inspired matching app for Instagrammers. So we settled on the name Top Nine instead.
I spent two hours putting together some UI concepts and landed on a design that flowed well. Then we developed the app in Swift, and a few days later, we were live in the App Store! And
- Originally, we required users to authenticate their Instagram account in the app to generate their Top Nine (see mockups above). We removed this to alleviate any security concerns. In hindsight, if we hadn’t changed this, we may not have been successful. By requiring authentication, we would’ve specifically lost the power users who organically participated.
- We added a video collage feature as a bonus, but looking back, it was a waste of time. It’s an unpopular feature and it heavily taxes our servers.
App Store Optimization (ASO)
I’m not an ASO expert, but understanding the basics is crucial. There are two main controllable factors to ASO; your keywords and title.
Keywords: Make sure to do keyword research before adding your keyword tags. There are countless paid tools out there to help with this, but I generally just use the App Store itself.
- Go to the App Store and search for keywords relating to your niche. Use the auto population feature of the App Store to determine search volume and pick relevant keywords. If I search ‘Best Nine’ in the App Store, I can extract top, best, nine, instagram, photos, 2016 as important keywords.
Title: Always make sure your top keywords are in your title. Add a hyphen or em dash after your app name to fit in any additional keywords. Make sure the language still flows naturally or your app will likely be rejected.
- Our original title was ‘Top Nine for Instagram — Pic Collage & Video Maker.’ We naively thought that we could rank for ‘Pic Collage’ and ‘Video Maker,’ both extremely saturated niches. We’ve since changed our name to ‘Top Nine for Instagram — Best Of 2016’ to hopefully rank #1 for “Best Nine” (currently #2), and pick up some keywords including 2016.
Phase Three: The Push
Our main financial constraint on this project was a $2000 max marketing budget. We only spent $1693.66 through Coast9. We ran a few different campaign variations with some Twitter influencers for testing purposes, but the main push on Instagram was straight forward.
We paid influencers to post their own Top Nine to their Instagram feed and story. We asked that they mention ‘Top Nine app’ somewhere in the caption:
This was the result from the Coast9 ad spend:
Interesting signal. While ad spend went from nearly $1700 to $0 the next day, number of new users stayed steady around the 6k mark:
And then things got exciting…
Then it boomed…
Phase Four: The Wave
The morning of NYE, we hit trending search and #150 in free apps:
In the afternoon, ‘best nine’ and ‘best nine for instagram’ also hit trending search. We just kept moving up in the rankings until we took our final position at #9 in the US charts shortly after midnight. We even reached #1 in Sweden, Finland, and Latvia.
What happened? Top Nine had exploded.
Our initial 6,400 users turned into 356,000 over the span of 5 days 📈
Why did we go viral?
With the combined power of social media and our viral hooks, we had launched ourselves into an exponential curve.
Going viral is like playing Mario Kart. Remember the speed boosters? If you didn’t drive over enough of them, you wouldn’t get enough momentum needed to win. Virality has speed boosters too, and if you don’t hit enough of them, you won’t have the momentum needed to launch into exponential growth.
I call these speed boosters viral hooks. Viral hooks pull people into the viral loop, which creates more hooks and pulls even more people into the loop, continuing in an exponential fashion.
What were our viral hooks?
- Top Nine posts shared by Instagram users — initially by users acquired through our Coast9 campaign.
- Hitting trending search with three keywords.
- Ranking in the App Store charts.
- Organic shares from power users or celebrities.
The reason our first hook is actually a hook is because we stamped posts with Made With Top Nine App. Without this, posts wouldn’t have pulled users into the loop because there would’ve been no correlation between the trend and our app specifically.
We also decided to show the total number of likes the user got in 2016 across all of their photos, while competitors only show the total number of likes that the user got on their top nine photos. By showing the user the total number across all photos, we are able to boost their ego, increasing the likelihood that they will share their Top Nine.
We wanted to end 2016 with a bang. The goal was to build the ultimate viral app, spend less than $2,000 on marketing…and we did!
I can’t think of a better way to end 2016 and hit the ground running into the new year.