SOLVING THE SUPPLY
How did TikTok, Quora, Medium, Reddit and the other largest UGC apps get initial users to contribute?
Marketplaces by their very nature tend to grow faster than most other companies. Hence, everybody wants to build one.
Truth is, marketplaces are rewarding, but hard.
Here’s why —
In any marketplace, you inherently have two sides to solve. Two-sided businesses typically have a producer side and a consumer side. For this to work, both producers and consumers need to be on the platform.
Platforms are initially ghost towns. Users (demand-side) see no value unless they see content from the producers (supply-side). Producers don’t contribute unless they see users consuming their content. Because of this, a ghost town continues to remain a ghost town.
Since consumers are a carrot for the producers and vice versa, this problem is typically solved by providing an alternate bait to one of the sides.
Once one side is seeded, it acts as a bait for the other side to come on board.
Having faced this challenge while building my own startup, I did some digging on how to solve the content creation problem in the initial days, from apps that all of us admire (and secretly envy 😉).
Don’t give up because the beginnings are always the hardest.
Here are some successful growth hacks of 17 of the world’s largest consumer apps (specifically content marketplaces) —
- The Founders, initial employees and their friends answered the first set of Q&A. It also helped that most of them had common interests to begin with — programming, startups, silicon valley.
- The Founders — Adam D’Angelo (Former CTO of Facebook) and Charlie Cheever were some of the smartest people in the valley. Their ‘personal’ brand definitely helped in getting influencers to write on the platform.
- Option to link other social networking accounts due to which the activity of these users started getting circulated to their followers on Facebook and Twitter.
- A lot of Quora answers were published in reputed magazines like Forbes, Huffington post, etc. That fueled more traction and built trust.
- It remained “invite-only” and its first users were field experts and specific Silicon Valley people. This caused a chain reaction where a newcomer who finds good answers will feel compelled to either write good, crisp, clear answers and ask logically proper or factual questions or not use the site at all. Proper choice of initial users caused spammers to keep out. It was a virtuous circle.
- Reddit co-founder Steve Huffman admitted that the link-sharing site was initially seeded with fake profiles posting links to simulate activity.
- All the content was submitted by Steve and Alexis at first, then they got a couple of friends to start submitting.
- To make submitting for themselves easier, Steve made a special submit page that would also create an account at the same time, and then make the submission from that account.
- Reddit founders started a subreddit NSFW realizing the importance of porn websites. It contributed and still contributes ~10% of the traffic.
- Paul Graham (Cofounder, Y combinator) also helped them a lot. He mentioned them in an essay which gave Reddit a consistent 3k-4k visitors/day.
- There were no subreddits and no commenting. But they did have Karma points (Reddit’s gamification mechanism where users get points for submitting content to the site) from the very beginning.
Interesting Fact — Reddit was officially started when Paul Graham rejected Alexis and Steve’s idea for investment as part of Y Combinator’s first batch. Instead, Paul showed them Slashdot (a social news website then) and asked them to build something similar and he would give them $10k for the summer to work on it.
- Embed-able Flash Player — User gets to show off their videos on other websites, forums and MySpace profile without the need to know much coding or paying for hosting. At the time most video hosting websites required you to use windows media player or real-time player which took forever to load. They used flash, most users already had it (no installation needed) and loads much faster.
- Simple monthly video contests with decent prizes.
- The company copied and experimented with the interfaces of its rivals to establish a baseline.
- They applied liberal amounts of Venture Capital to organize a star development team that would iterate product faster than it’s rivals.
- They adhered very loosely to the DMCA laws leveraging primarily copyrighted content to build viewership.
- Twitter’s initial traction famously took off at the 2007 South-by-Southwest (SXSW) festival. They placed two 60-inch plasma screens in the conference hallways, exclusively streaming Twitter messages. Hundreds of attendees kept tabs on each other via constant twitters. Speakers, panellists and bloggers mentioned the service. Soon everyone was buzzing with this new thing called microblogging. Usage went from 20,000 tweets/day to 60,000/day.
- At Harvard, the founders invited their friends and sent emails to some mailing lists. At some other early schools, they relied on their friends at those schools to spread it socially or by sending emails to mailing lists.
- Cross-school friend connections, which was a feature that wasn’t added until there were already a few schools (initially the schools were completely isolated instances of the application). After that point, users at the existing schools could search for and connect with or invite friends to the newly-launched schools.
- There was also an email signup form where people at schools that hadn’t been launched yet could enter their email address, and when the school was launched, everyone would be emailed immediately.
- They tried to get an article published in the school newspaper whenever they launched in a new school.
- Founders organized meetups at local boutiques, handing out Pinterest invites and turning participants into the forerunners of their word-of-mouth efforts. They focussed on a very non-tech savvy community, unlike Facebook or Twitter at that time.
- Pin-It-Forward was a campaign that utilized bloggers to publicize Pinterest. Bloggers each assembled boards based on a theme (e.g “What home means to us”) accompanied by a blog post. These blog posts were linked to posts from other bloggers, therefore “pinning-it-forward”. These bloggers also released invites to Pinterest (the site was invite-only at that point in time). Readers were encouraged to make use of their Pinterest invites and remix the bloggers’ boards into boards of their own.
In short — They used community leaders to spread the word of Pinterest to their fans, followers and contemporaries.
- The founders first spread the word about Snapchat to college friends at Stanford University, Evan’s sisters and cousins, all bloggers Evan could email to — basically, everyone in their network who they felt was relevant.
- The app started catching on with high schoolers in LA as they could send digital notes back and forth during classes.
- It also helped that the app left the media baffled. NYT called it a sexting app. Every kid going through puberty went out and downloaded it.
- The app was extremely simple to use. App opened directly to a selfie camera. This little friction which was unlike Instagram (which opened a feed first for consumption) actually pointed users to post more snaps.
- Snap replicated the real world in the sense that when we talk, the moments disappear. This disappearance made any content that a user shared in the app light-weight to consume and thus making the user post more. In one word — Ephemerality.
- Apparently, they also tried handing out stickers at malls, etc. But in the end, nothing worked as much as word of mouth.
- Founders started talking about Discord in gaming subreddits and eventually some users also posting about Discord on those subreddits. This provided the first wave of growth for them.
- Integrated Discord with Twitch (live streaming platform for gamers) allowing Twitch streamers to voice chat with their followers.
- But just building an integration doesn’t do the job. They had to solve a specific problem for game streamers. It turned out that security was a big problem since millions of people would watch a streamer and anyone could turn them offline by DDoS attack as existing solutions like Skype/Teamspeak did not provide that protection.
- Seeded with publicly available free content. They took all the classics books from “Project Gutenberg”. Initially, they focused on giving the best mobile reading experience for books.
- Blackberry was one of the popular app stores back then. And in those days, Blackberry app store listed apps in alphabetical order. Wattpad named their app “100,000 Free Books” in order to get to the top of that list. This got them to no. 1 app in the “Books” category within 2 days.
- Stack Overflow’s popularity can be partially attributed to the large number of people who followed the blogs of both the original founder’s (Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood).
- It did not happen over-night. The first year, it was not very good at generating useful Q+A. Lots of water-cooler chat, career-advice and jokes, lots of it has been deleted. Then eventually lots of subject experts became active, liking the focus and format and the site got Google love and took off.
- They did gamification right. Provided incentives to answer questions — the more you answered, and the more your answers were upvoted, you gained reputation and consequently, certain moderation privileges.
- They initially grew because their users were using it as a utility for sharing memes or funny content and posting it on Facebook and Twitter.
- Back in 2007 when they launched there was a community of people that hacked Wordpress templates to strip out all the metadata (like comments, posting dates, author, etc). This community self-identified as Tumbleloggers. Tumblr was created originally as an easier way to satisfy the desires of this community. There were about 30,000 people interested in Tumblelogging back in 2007 and the founders launched Tumblr into that community. So they had a head start from the beginning with an audience of people they knew would want their software.
- After around a month of their launch, they were featured on Lifehacker and the Lifehacker article was posted on Digg. (Digg was huge back then). This got them visibility, which further triggered people to create content.
- Built one of the first plug-ins on the Firefox browser. Firefox initially ranked plug-ins by downloads and being one of the first add-ons on Firefox, it gave StumbleUpon an unfair advantage. SU essentially rode on Firefox’s growth.
Another example of how to ride the growth of another platform — When Paypal figured that eBay was their key distribution platform, they came up with an ingenious plan to stimulate demand. They created a bot that bought goods on eBay and then, insisted on paying for it using PayPal. Brilliant, right?
- A hack with the app name. Instead of naming it Musical.ly the founders gave a really long name like ‘An app for creating short-form videos for Instagram, messenger and more’. Since the app store gave more weight to the title of the app than the description, this hack got them to rank at the top on the app store and their first set of downloads. (This hack doesn’t work anymore, but back then there was a loophole)
- In the short-term, the app was positioned as a tool or utility for video creation and did not focus on community building from day1.
- Founders repositioned the logo and put a person’s username into the videos. Thus, when someone shared it on Instagram or other social platforms, their viewers did not want to miss out on this new platform for creating lip-sync videos.
- They shipped a leader-board, and community challenges.
This is absolute gold from Alex Zhu, Founder of Musical.ly on how to build a community —
Building a community, especially from scratch, is like setting up a country.
In the beginning, you have to allocate all your resources to a very limited number of users. For example, now that you have discovered a new continent, I hope that people in Europe can move to the New World and build a country on your continent. What do you do? When there are few people on this island and there is little GDP, if you distribute them evenly, everyone will actually live a miserable way, so no one wants to move from Europe. So, at the beginning you need to let this group have a very high Gini (co-efficient), which allocates all GDP to a small number of people. The GDP here is actually the flow, which is distributed to a small number of users, so that these users can get rich first.
Musical.ly was acquired by Bytedance which was building a rival app Douyin and they were together merged into a single app — TikTok.
Bonus tip — Musical.ly had and still has massive chat groups where they test new features, take feedback daily from a few select users. This is called participatory design. And it worked wonders for them.
- Medium was founded by Ev Williams, who had previously started Blogger and Twitter. He has had a huge influence on the overall blogging industry and his reputation definitely helped to kick-start the platform.
- Solid integration with Twitter helped writers auto-publish on twitter which helped them leverage Twitter’s traffic.
- It also helped that most of the initial authors were influencers in their fields and had a huge following on twitter.
- At first, Medium was a community that anybody could view, but only those who had been invited could contribute. This created a sense of FOMO and worked well especially because thought leaders were doing it.
- Their focus on writing thought-provoking and high-quality content helped them in ranking higher on Google.
- They reduced the friction in setting up a blog unlike other CMS platforms and help the writer focus on the main goal — writing.
Surprised to see Wikipedia here? I think it is one of the most under-rated platforms when it comes to studying its growth. (Maybe because it’s not social, so it’s not cool?)
- Founders (Wales and Sangers) post-launch made an appeal for volunteers to the Nupedia (the predecessor of Wikipedia) mailing list on 17 January 2001, to engage in content creation.
- Got mentions in Slashdot, Kuro5hin and a few other blogs.
- Got a steady stream of visitors right from the initial days from Google.
- Using the simple technology of the wiki allowed them to focus on the content — on getting article contributions rather than building technology. Instead of acting as technologists, the founders could instead act as evangelists.
- Editing Wikipedia is easy, and instant, and virtually commitment-free. You can come along and do a drive-by edit and never make a contribution again. And the fact that it’s difficult to tell who wrote an article, or who edited it — rather than discouraging contribution, as you might assume — actually encouraged contributions.
- Even though all platforms today advice for using gamification to enhance behaviour, Wikipedia did the opposite. Without having any single author responsible for an article, it becomes the collective responsibility of all editors and thus a shared mission. Gamification, on the other hand, enhances individualistic goals and not directly of the community as a whole.
For Wikipedia — Low textual ownership resulted in more collaboration.
- Reid intentionally seeded the product with successful friends and connections recognizing that cultivating an aspirational brand was crucial to driving mainstream adoption. (The entire company would have been doomed if there had been a massive adoption of have-nots, instead of people who were hiring, recruiting etc.)
- The growth hack of growing connections helped LinkedIn to reach 12k users in just one week.
- Invitation reminders that expired after two weeks was another key feature.
- LinkedIn also deployed an Outlook contact uploader (very painful to build/support) to allow viral spread among professionals.
- Localized targeting of a specific community and place. Hoffman decided to focus first on the Silicon Valley tech scene by having the founders invite only the professional IT-connections they had amassed in and around Silicon Valley.
- Public profiles SEO (Search Engine Optimization). It might sound weird now, but before LinkedIn made user profiles public, it was exceedingly unlikely for real people to show up in organic search results.
- The double viral loop. Officially, that hack existed as two new features: “Recommendations” and “People You May Know.” Once new users signed up, they received a list of people at their current (and ex) company already on LinkedIn and the question, “Who do you know?”. As more people joined and sent invitations to connect, users were brought back to the site, at which point they too were prompted to invite and connect with others. The process above was dubbed the “double viral loop” growth hack since.
This is how some of the world’s largest UGC apps kickstarted contributions on their platform.
Despite issues like spam, duplicate and obscene content, UGC apps when successful, are extremely difficult to disrupt.
And this is true not just for UGC apps, any marketplace.
Stalwart marketplaces such as Craigslist and eBay continue to thrive despite their user interfaces being firmly rooted in the 90s. Sites like Etsy and Ruby Lane have established hard-to-disrupt giants in their respective verticals.
The most important point to remember while starting a UGC app is to focus on solving a unique problem for a niche audience.
Instagram — Made blurry iPhone Photos better.
Facebook — Finding who else is in the same class as you and what classes they are taking.
Snapchat — Gave students a chat app where the chat was untraceable and hence the school never found out.
Discord — Talking to your teammates while playing a game.
And so on.
Growth hacks listed here are specifically for catalyzing the rate of contributions in the early days. The strategy for scaling from 1 to 100 is different from that of 0 to 1.
Notice how the founders of these platforms defied conventional wisdom and trusted their own intuition to launch and blitz scale their products.
A simple formula —
Experiment. Launch. Analyze. Repeat.
But then again, nothing is written in stone 😉.