Why you can’t engineer ‘going viral’

Why you can’t engineer ‘going viral’_5ee33cf2382f1.jpeg

Virality is something that every app creator wishes to achieve. After all what better way to boost your app downloads and retention than through the world being infatuated with your app as the next big thing.

However, it’s important to remember that a lot of the time ‘going viral’ isn’t something that anyone can plan or trigger. It’s something which happens organically and is ultimately an action undertaken by the user, the public or the customer – not the company.


Waze has gathered 110 million monthly active users, across 185 countries around the world. This, in part, is due to the necessity of the app and the barriers users faced when using Google Maps compared to Waze. The app anonymously collects real-time user and location data to determine routes that will remove queuing due to construction, traffic jams and any other obstructions causing traffic to slow down. The aim is to remove any obstacles that may impede drivers’ progress when getting from A to B.

In comparison to Google Maps, the app did not initially aim to build maps but instead find the best routes for getting from one point to another. The gamification element inspired people to take routes that hadn’t been covered before, helping out other users in the process.

How did it ‘go viral’?

Waze owes a considerable amount of its success to Apple. Back in 2012, shortly after Apple launched its own version of Google Maps, which was riddled with errors, Tim Cook issued an apology to customers. The CEO was sorry for the frustration that it was causing to users and was quoted as to recommend that users “…try alternatives by downloading map apps from the App Store like Bing, MapQuest, and Waze.” This mention was a further catalyst for the viral success of Waze.

Waze then struck gold to the tune of over $3million of free advertising when they were asked by a local television station to help advise their viewers on how to get around after a section of the notorious Interstate 405 in California was to be shut down. This was a case of being in the right place at the right time for the Waze team and was not something they had planned or anticipated.

Since it’s initial propelling into viral status, Waze further bolsters its presence with relevant and current content, which relies on pop-culture and nostalgia. This most recently includes launching directions to fictitious Sesame Street to celebrate the tv shows 50 year anniversary, for those using the app in New York City.

Don’t be fooled by it’s booming success, Waze has also come under fire a handful of times during its short lifespan for allowing users to pinpoint the location of nearby police cars or temporary speed cameras, it was also criticised for potentially putting the lives of police officers in danger by divulging their location to the masses alongside enabling dangerous drivers.


File hosting service, Dropbox, saw significant success shortly after launching in 2008. In September 2008 the userbase was sitting at 100k registered users which rapidly grew to 4million registered users, by December 2009.

Between mid-September and the beginning of 2010, the company managed to double its user base every three months. This resulted in users dispersing 2.8million invites by April 2010. This all amounts to a 3900% growth in just 15 months.

How did it ‘go viral’?

Ultimately, Dropbox success was primarily down to their referral programme but equally, they spent time constantly evolving and improving their product in line with feedback from their growing customer base.

The referral programme, like any other, was nothing exceptional. The product consisted of offering storage space in the cloud and the company decided to reward those who both referred and accepted an invite, to use the platform. The two-sided referral saw users involved rewarded with extra storage space.

This launched at a time where storage was at a premium, phone storage was much less than what is readily available now. In fact, Google Drive, which offered its users 5GB of free storage for free, wasn’t launched until 2012. The lack of phone memory, teamed with improving technology and social media meant that people needed storage more than ever, meaning Dropbox flourished as a product which was in high demand by people of a huge range of demographics.

Not to mention that Dropbox didn’t frame the referral programme like that, they attracted users with the ability to ‘get more space’ by sharing a referral link via messenger apps, SMS, post or email. Users could even import their contacts from Gmail, AOL, Yahoo and the rest, to make the process even more streamlined.

Finally, Dropbox made the whole thing visible to users. With every referral, they gained around 500mb of storage, with the capability to work up to 16GB free storage just by inviting friends. The desire to attain more storage teamed with a progress panel allowed users to view how their invites were performing and also who to nag at work the next day to set up their account.

Again, Dropbox success is largely attributed to a hugely effective referral programme where users obtained storage space, something which was expensive and highly sought after at the time. It’s important to remember that this would likely not work as effectively in 2019 due to the fact that cloud storage is no longer at a premium.


Harrys, known for their New York-based grooming and shaving equipment, also utilised the power of referral to boost the credibility of their grooming brand at astonishing speed.

During their campaign, they gathered 100,000 emails in the space of a single week. The pre-launch campaign aptly known as ‘refer a pal’, helped the fledgeling company obtain $100million+ in funding and eventually purchase an old razor blade factory.

How did it ‘go viral’?

As a brand new company, Harrys needed to spread the word quickly and gather user information. They did this by gating the harrys.com website, with users having to surrender their email address in order to take part in the campaign.

The imagery made it clear what the brand was all about and that it was about to disrupt the industry with their tagline of; respecting the face and wallet since like… right now. The approach aimed to introduce people to the brand whilst maintaining an air of mystery.

From here, people could invite their friends in order to obtain prizes, which could be tracked on their own unique URL which also demonstrated how many friends they had referred and what their next prize was, which ranged from free shaving cream to free shaving for a year.

77% of email addresses collected were done so via referral, which means that 20,000 people referred around 65,000 friends. Prepopulated tweets made it easy for users to share to their social channels with links back to the site and relevant hashtags already in place.

With the core focus on email address acquisition, the founders targetted people that they already knew and sent personalised emails which included a friendly tone of voice and the announcement of the brand launch. They also targetted a batch of people who oversee teams or companies, such as CEO’s and business owners, with carefully crafted emails encouraging them to share with their wider team.

in May 2019, Harry’s was bought by the owner of Wilkinson Sword for a cool $1.4billion, after just six years. Which just goes to show the overarching power of a good referral scheme.

How to maximise effectiveness

As we’ve discussed, it’s near impossible to engineer virality. It ultimately comes down to the right product, at the right place at the right time. There is, however, a number of activities that a brand can undertake to increase its likelihood of getting noticed.

Word of mouth

One of the key influencers for inspiring a consumer decision is the opinions of friends, family and peers on social media. Word of mouth is a highly successful method of marketing and can be an influenced by populating your app with curate content, ensuring your social media channels are packed with useful content and giving the users the tools to create their own content based on their app usage.  

Great content

People love stuff that’s useful, entertaining and educational. They also love to share the stuff they think is valuable on social media, meaning that if you create content which is quality and based on an understanding of your target audience, then it can bolster your brand awareness rapidly. One of the key components of successful content marketing, which can result in a plethora of shares, is to engage with the user emotionally – with the most successful content focussing on; inspirational, humour or surprising.


One of the best ways to encourage people to adopt and maintain the use of an app is rewarding loyalty. This is a tangible incentive which can vary from in-app currency which can be used in exchange for real-world items or digital rewards which only hold value within the app. App creators could also consider implementing goals and a competitive element where possible which can also feed into the social proof element. Referral-based rewards should also be integrated with social media channels to increase the breadth of reach and also make content more easily sharable.

Social proof

To effectively encourage a social movement, or in this case ‘going viral’, there needs to be an idea which generates some form of enthusiasm within a particular group of people. Social proof can help to disperse uncertainty and helps to increase your brand trust. Whether all of your contacts on social media are posting about it, an influencer mentions it or your customers are noticing it crop up in well-known publications, social proof is ultimately supported by great content and the right people using this to enhance awareness.


One of the core ways to encourage app usage and encourage an increase in word of mouth recommendation is through building trust in your brand. Shout about how you protect your user data, ensure that you use push notifications and emails in line with each users behaviours and interests and inform your customers at every touch point. If they’re giving you their personal data, they expect you to be transparent about where it’s going and what you’re doing with it.

Also published on Medium.

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