Make Your App Go Viral Proven Ways

Driving millions of downloads and becoming viral is the dream of every app startup founder, but not every app has what it takes.

If you’re relying on traditional marketing and advertising to drive downloads and awareness, achieving virality is almost impossible.

So how do you go viral? Build in growth.

Virality doesn’t come from implementing a social media sharing feature to your app. You need to build your entire app for growth.

“Building in growth,” is all about getting your existing users to a point where they share or invite friends to use your app. You can accomplish this by moving users through the cycle pictured above.

How Does the Cycle Work?

Once someone becomes aware of your app and is intrigued by the concept, they’ll download it. The user will then move to activation (tactics 3 and 4). This stage is where people engage with your app.

To move people from the activation point to sharing, you’ll need to provide a massive amount of value, entice your users to keep using your app (tactics 6, 7, and 8) and then motivate them to share the app (tactics 1, 2, and 5).

Once the user shares the app, the viral loop successfully closes and repeats.

When you build in growth, your users will be handling your app’s promotion for you. Also known as network effects 一 the more people share, the faster it will grow.

This is the secret to viral growth.

1. Social Media Sharing / Social Capabilities

One of the most seamless and non-intrusive ways to build in growth is by including social sharing capabilities into your app. Regardless of what category your app falls under, it’s always smart to enable in-app social sharing. What we mean by this is, integrating social feeds directly into your app. Or more simply putーsocial media buttons or CTAs.

Take the gaming app, Two Dots, for example.

Once a level is complete, a pop-up will appear and give the user one of two options: continue to the next level or ask your Facebook friends to play with you and in additionーearn valuable power-ups.

Free powerups and the chance to beat out your friends in another gaming app? Who would say no?

Once the user connects to Facebook, Two Dots also gives their users a chance to share how many medals they have and where they stand in the leaderboard.

This is a very subtle and enticing way to get users to post about the app. The average Facebook user has 338 friends, which means a lot of organic exposure for Two Dots if the user does choose to share.

2. Ask For Reviews

Asking for reviews may seem like common knowledge, but a lot of marketers and developers pass up valuable opportunities every day.

Your goal should be to receive as many positive reviews as you possibly canーwithout being pushy. Positive reviews will boost your search ranking (more impressions) and will give other potential users a great first look of your app.

Best Practices

  • Ensure that your app provides enough value to justify asking for a review
  • Don’t overwhelm users with requests or interrupt experiences
  • Personalize your message
  • Consider asking a question such as, “Enjoying [app name]?”, instead of asking for five stars. A recent Appboy study found this leads to more and higher ratings.
  • Only ask for reviews from the segment of users that is most likely to give a positive review.

3. Contextual Deep Linking

“‘Contextual Deep Linking’ is a term coined by the company Branch. The idea is that if you click on a link from your phone, it will capture information when you click the link (like who you are, what page you were looking at, etc.) Then, assuming you didn’t already have the app installed, it would let you install the app.

Then finally once the app is installed, all the information it captured (who you are, what page, etc.) would get passed to the mobile app so it could show you the right content to continue what you were doing before you installed the app.

It’s called ‘contextual’ because it captures the ‘context’ of what you were doing before you clicked the link.” ー Adam Geitgey, Software Developer & Director of Engineering at Groupon


Contextual deep links store information about where a user wants to go, where the link was clicked, who originally shared the link, and other custom data. This allows app developers to build powerful features like personalized welcomes and referral programs, far beyond just simple content linking. App users benefit because apps can provide better experiences and more relevant information.

4. Great Onboarding (NUX)

Did you know that user onboarding is the most important part of the customer journey by 2.6x? Perfecting your onboarding experience will captivate your user’s attention and increase your retention rate.

Source: Kahuna

The example above is an excellent example of a visually pleasing, informative onboarding experience.

Best Practices

  • Emphasize the app’s value
  • Display key features and be concise
  • Explain functionality by a step-by-step tutorial (4–7 screens)
  • Don’t bombard users with information
  • Add a visual indicator of progress | This can increase conversions up to 40%
  • Keep testing

4b. Show the Wow Moment Quickly

Have you ever used an app and had an extraordinary experience? We’re talking about the feeling that overwhelms you when you realize that an app can improve some aspect of your life.

Maybe you experienced this feeling when you ordered an Uber for the first time, and the black car showed up two minutes later right in front of you. If you’re a Facebook user, you might have felt amazed when you saw the friend request notification from your long lost cousin on Facebook.

The wow moment or wow factor of your app, should be powerful and provide enough value to make your users say, “Wow. This app is awesome.”

Your goal should be to get users to experience your app’s wow moment asap.

5. Referrals

92% of people say they trust recommendations from friends and family, above all other forms of advertising. And word of mouth influences up to 50% of all purchasing decisions. Referrals are the most powerful form of app marketing, and it’s in your best interest to take advantage of it!

An app that flawlessly executes this strategy is Uber.

If you’ve never taken an Uber before, the company offers you a free ride valued at $15!

By giving you a free ride to test their services, they eliminate risk from the equation of acquiring you as a user. If a product/service is free, people usually have the mindset of “Why not?”, instead of contemplating the pros and cons of paying for it.

Free trials allow users to be sold on the value your app provides before they commit.

Once you become an Uber rider, you can invite your friends to use the app with a referral link. You can send it through Facebook Messenger, email, an Instagram post, or any channel that’s most convenient for you.

If your friend downloads the app and takes a ride 一 you both get $20 in credit.

There’s no downside and all parties involved benefit from this referral system一 free rides for you and your friends and more positive word of mouth and users for Uber.


If you do implement a referral system, leverage your biggest strength.

You should also consider making your referrals double-sided. The more value you can provide upfront, the better chance you have of winning over both users.

6. Gamification

Regardless of what category your app falls under, including some form of gamification is one of the best ways to build in growth. Why? Because who doesn’t want to have fun?

It’s proven that gamification can naturally increase your dopamine levels. When you finally beat that frustrating level or hit the jackpot for more powerups, your brain becomes overwhelmed with excitement, and you feel like you’re on cloud nine.

Gamification makes “generic” actions and tasks a lot more enjoyable, and in turn, enhances the overall user experience.

How Gamification Works

Source: The Psychology of Games

The graphic above is the Fogg model, which shows the three elements that must converge at the same time for a behavior to happenーin this case, engaging with gamification.

  1. Motivation
  2. Ability
  3. Trigger

BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model is defined as B (Behavior) = MAT

The first element is motivation ー what the user wants to do. If the user wants to accomplish something, they’ll become more motivated, and become more likely to complete that task.

Ability is the level of difficulty of what is simple/difficult for you to do. The easier it is, the more likely you’re going to do it and vice versa.

The last element is a trigger. A trigger is something that persuades the user at a particular moment to engage in the activity. The more you are in the upper right domain of the graph (where ability and motivation are high), the more likely the trigger will work.

Once these three elements converge, the user will engage with the gamification you designed to take place.

How to Implement Gamification

  1. Get Specific: What behavior do you want to happen? You need to translate target outcomes and goals into behaviors.
  2. Make it easy: How can you make the behavior easy to do?
  3. Trigger the behavior: What will prompt the behavior? Some triggers are natural ーothers you must design. No behavior happens without a trigger. (ex. Push notification vs. Emotions)

“Gamification is not a panacea and is not meant for every app. However, depending on the context of an app, applying gamification techniques to an app’s design, can drive not only engagement and retention but also acquisition.

Techniques like revealing scarcity effects, accomplishment moments, allowing users to be social and creative or embedding elements like progress bars, leaderboards, badges, can create addiction and obsession for an app, bringing this way users back on a daily basis.” ー Andreas Vourkos, Co-Founder, Pollfish

7. Hooked Model — Nir Eyal

Behavioral designer, Nir Eyal, devised the “Hooked Model”ーa four step process embedded into the products of successful companies to subtly encourage customer behavior and “hook” them on the product.

A hook has four parts:

1. Trigger

Triggers come in either one or two ways 一 external and internal.

The information for what to do next is within the external trigger. Think of emails, billboards, push notifications, CTA’s or tweets.

The information for what to do next is informed through an association in the user’s memory is within internal triggers. Internal triggers could come from the people you talk to, your daily routine, emotions, or different situations you find yourself in. These types of triggers happen naturally.

2. Action

Actions take place in anticipation of a reward. For example, simple activities such as scrolling, searching, and playing videos fall under actions.

3. Variable Reward

Variable rewards are rewards that users receive based on a variable ratio schedule.

When you open Instagram and see three new likes on your newest picture, you’re receiving a social reward. You didn’t know you were going to receive those likes, but it feels great. In fact, 62% of adults feel better about themselves after receiving positive reactions to what they shared on social media.

Variability causes us to focus, and engagement increases behavior. Your goal should be to create variable rewards that “scratch an itch,” but still leaves the user wanting more.

4. Investment

Investment happens when the user does something in the app. Here are a few examples:

  • Filling out their profile
  • Inviting friends
  • Storing personal data (photos, videos)
  • Buying add-ons

If you can figure out how to manufacture desire by using this model, opening your app will become a habit for your users. When users invest in your app, their likelihood of returning increases.

For example, every time you add a new friend or post a status update on Facebook you’re making an investment. Small investments add up over time, so the more you can entice your users to take action, the more your retention rate will increase.

Hooked Model Practice: Think of an app you open frequently. What caused you to open it? What are you getting out of that specific interaction? How can you practically create a hook for your app?

8. Push Notifications

Have you ever been in the middle of a critical task and got distracted by a push notification? It’s more than likely that you have, but why?

Going hand in hand with the Hooked Model, push notifications are powerful, engaging external psychological cues (triggers) that people feel the “need” to engage with. Consider them a link between an emotional itch and the salve the service provides.

It’s been proven that those little red badges and messages can boost app engagement by 88% and increase retention rates by 3–10x.

Elements of an Effective Push Notification

1. Great Timing: The timing of your notifications is crucial because it needs to align with the user’s behavior. Sending notifications at random times just for the sake of it will yield little to no returns.

For example, if someone was using your eCommerce app to purchase new sneakers and was distracted/left them in the shopping cart, you might consider sending a notification to let them know about their abandoned cart.

2. Actionable: Notifications only drive engagement if they have an end goal. Bland, irrelevant messages that serve no purpose will eventually turn users away from using the app. Make sure each notification persuades your users to take an action.

3. Engaging: Create messaging that people will want to engage with. Conventional messages are becoming outdated. Align messages with your app’s brand image and get creative!

Tip: Use Emojis to increase your open rates by 85%

Types of Push Notifications

Welcome: A branded, inviting message sent within 24-hours after the initial install.

Behavioral: Messages sent in response after a user takes a specific action | Reminders, Achievements, etc.

“Zombie”: Targeted messages to elicit a response from users who haven’t engaged with your app after a certain period of time

Time Sensitive: Messages that revolve around an event | Sales, Events, etc.


“Virality is something that has to be engineered from the beginning… and it’s harder to create virality than it is to create a good product. The reason that over $150 billion is spent on US advertising each year is because virality is so hard. If virality was easy, there would be no advertising industry.” 一Josh Kopelman, Venture Capitalist, Founder of

Implementing these eight strategies to build in growth, doesn’t necessarily mean your app will go viral, however, it will increase your chances.

Have a great app idea you want to go viral? Bring your app idea to life today!

Special Thanks to Andreas Vourkos, Ambroise Debret, Adam Geitgey, and the team at for their expert insight.