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20 Feb 2015

What Makes An App Go Viral?

You know, one would think that due to the amount of times we have seen apps go viral, it would be easy to pinpoint exactly why an app goes viral. Yet, it seems that just when we think that we know what makes an app go viral, an app comes along that breaks all the rules (e.g. Flappy Bird) and becomes viral for seemingly no reason whatsoever. Even so, there are still fundamentals that cause an app to go viral – and we have listed a few of them below. While this list is not exhaustive (far from it), it will give you a basic understanding as to the minimum requirements for ensuring an app goes viral.

If you have any tips to add to this list, please let us know in the comments below. Virality is always evolving, so if you have some of the latest and greatest tips to share with our readers, let us know!

The best type of marketing

We talk about marketing extensively here at Game Academy, and it is true that you need to market your app continuously in order to increase your sales. That advice is nothing new, but the best type of marketing  – the type of marketing that causes apps to go viral – is a variant that you do not have complete control over. Word-of-mouth is the best type of marketing that has ever existed; heck, it is one of the biggest reasons why Flappy Bird became an overnight sensation. People love to share what they are into; case in point, somebody urged me to download and install Flappy Bird the weekend the app went viral. Someone shared the game with them, they became addicted and shared of the game with me, I played it, and when I returned to my home office that Monday morning, the entire world was obsessed with this little game.

That is the power of word-of-mouth: in one weekend, Flappy Bird became a worldwide phenomenon that nobody saw coming. Within a week, clones of the game were littering app stores, I’m pretty sure unofficial Flappy Bird merchandise was selling like hotcakes, and when the game was pulled shortly thereafter from app stores, people were purchasing devices with the game installed for hundreds of dollars!

Word-of-mouth had a huge part in this sensation, so never count it out.

It has value

Flappy Bird did not become a sensation by accident. People downloaded the game and actually found the value in it. The game is oddly addictive yet simplistic in nature. Just when you think you’re about to beat your personal high score, you slip up and fail only to tell yourself that, “I’m going to beat my high score this time then I am going to quit!” 30-minutes later, you have beaten your personal score twice but you still cannot put down your device!

It is a quick way to kill a few minutes and is a perfect game for standing in line or waiting for your next stop on the train; to many people, that’s highly valuable.

Users get ‘lost in the app’

We don’t mean they become confused while using the app; on the contrary, they lose track of time because the app is so entertaining to use. With a combination of an app having value while allowing users to lose track of time within the app, you have a killer combo that…

Gives users a reason to return

The worst thing that can happen to an app is failing to give players a reason to return to the game. We have already mentioned why Flappy Bird gave users a reason to come back; they wanted to beat their current high score. Hearthstone gives players a reason to return by providing daily quests that, if completed, will reward them with gold they can use to purchase new cards and improve their decks. If you want your app to go viral, you need to make sure that your users will never use the app once, stop using it, and never return. A high return rate is vital to the virality of an app.

Social features

An app that goes viral usually gives users a chance to share their activities. One of the reasons Trivia Crack recently went viral is because it integrates social sharing features in such a way that it is difficult to not use the features! For example, every time a person wins a game against their opponent, they are given a chance to share their win on Facebook. Most opponents are actually their Facebook friends anyway, so it is the perfect way to rub the win into their opponent’s faces for their friends and family to see. From there, the virality of the apps spreads; which is why it has become such a sensation.

Use and reward

Viral apps also rewards its users for actually using the app. Going back to Hearthstone for a moment, players are rewarded for finishing quests every single day. Players are not just playing the game is because it’s fun (although they are, and that is a significant part of what makes the game successful), but it is deeper than that. If you want your app to go viral, be sure that it rewards its players for using the app whenever possible.


There should be zero frustration when using the app. That doesn’t mean that if you are developing a game it needs to be easy – far from it. Rather, your app needs to be simple to use. There should never be any mystery associated with using the app: the UI needs to be solid, navigating the menus needs to be a cinch, and everything needs to be responsive. When a user looks at the app, they need to be able to know how to use the app within the first five seconds; otherwise, they may get confused and leave permanently.

Feels ‘fresh’

Unfortunately, an app that meets the requirements mentioned above will not become viral if it feels like the same old thing; in fact, if the app does not feel fresh, do not expect it to go viral due to word-of-mouth. At app that goes viral needs to feel like its own beast – it needs to feel fresh. Even if you are developing an endless runner – a genre that has been done hundreds of times on every app store out there – you need to put your own spin on it to make it feel new.

As stated earlier, the way an app goes viral is always changing; but then again, some things never change. This is the case with the prerequisites mentioned above. If you want your app to go viral, be sure it meets all of the mentioned above. With a little luck, you may be developing the world’s next viral app!

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