20 lessons about making viral apps I learned the hard way

I have a lot of people to thank for this post - too many to mention that have shared their knowledge with me. But above all, this post would not have been possible without the team we have at Instabridge.

So, 20 lessons about making viral apps I learned the hard way:

1) Buying downloads is cheap. Facebook is cheapest, AdMob is second cheapest. It should not cost more than $1 to buy a download. If you spend more than $1000 to get your first 1,000 users you are doing something wrong. There is no shame in buying downloads.

2) Having an app that requires a user’s friends to use the app is a problem to be solved, not a viral hook.

3) Users uninstall apps aggressively. Expect users to churn. Mobilewalla claims a typical users uninstalls 90% of the apps they download.

3) Retention is your most important measure. Acquiring users is one thing, keeping them hooked is another. Separate the two. Doing well on one front doesn’t translate into doing well on the other.

4) The younger users are, the more they hate having to login with Facebook. Never force a user to use Facebook login to use your app.

5) Learn App store SEO (AEO). Users routinely search for apps in Google Play and the iOS App Store. This is so important it should affect all details of your app including the name you choose and the icon. Experiment.

6) In Western Europe and the US, Android fragmentation is a negligible problem when you start out. Require Android >4.0. Test with the Samsung Galaxy S2, S3, S4, HTC One, Nexus 4 and Nexus 5. Once you are on your way to become the next WhatsApp test with more phones.

7) You need to have a QA process from the start. There’s a reason Jan Koum, the CEO and founder of WhatsApp, has the title “Head of QA testing” on LinkedIn. Phones “in the wild” have all kinds of weird configurations that will kill your app (out of memory, out of storage space, running an old version of the OS). You can buy QA testing cheap on Elance. This applies to both iOS and Android. 

8) Mixpanel is the gold standard for measurements in mobile apps. Live by Mixpanel, die by Mixpanel. 

9) One hour of user testing will tell you more about user behaviours than reading articles like this. Grab someone that has no idea of what your app does, ask them to install it and watch what they do. Give out free movie tickets or whatever it takes to get new test users. 

10) Repeat after me: Notifications are not for retention. Annoying notifications is the top reason why users uninstall apps. Use notifications only when they add value for end users.

11) Users have no idea what they want in apps. Expect them to be wrong if you ask them what they want. 

12) The average user only uses 15 apps per week. Become one of them or become forgotten.

13) The app market is local. Focus on markets where you want to grow. Translate into native languages if necessary. Sites like Onehourtranslation.com are cheap and good. 

14) Articles in mainstream media like newspapers, and tech blogs don’t convert into downloads. Become featured on sites users browse looking for apps to download like TouchArcade.com (iOS) or Androidpolice.com (Android) to get downloads. But see point 15 first.

15) The downloads your app get from being mentioned in blogs will be  negligible in both the short run and the long run if you are successful. 

16) All the user needs to make a decision on whether to download your app or not should be available on your app page in the App Store or Google Play. Users should not have to visit a web site to get the information they need.

17) The single most important metric for your website is how many milliseconds it takes for the user to leave it and get to the App Store.

18) The conversion rate for Facebook invites is 0.4%. The conversion rate for SMS invites is < 0.6%. For your app to spread via Facebook invites or SMS invites a user needs to send on average ~250 invites during their lifetime. Also see 19.

19) The stats in point 18 are for “blind” invites - i.e. the user sends the invite without doing any other action to get their friend to install the app. If they verbally tell their friends to install the app the conversion is obviously higher. But if your users are already telling their friends to install the app, what was the point of sending an invite in the first place?

20) When in doubt on an UI or UX decision do what successful mobile first startups do: WhatsApp, Viber, Waze or Instagram. Ignore what Facebook or Twitter does.

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