10 Important Things To Consider When Building A Viral-Friendly Web App

Submitted by Kip on Sun, 06/13/2010

A few weeks back, a friend of mine (Chuck Drake) posted a question on LinkedIn that I've heard from a number of my clients: “What have highly popular social sites which generate incredible user growth via viral adoption done that we can learn from and apply to our own development efforts?”

Chuck spent some time taking a look across the web and blogosphere at content concerning viral adoption and web app success stories such as Facebook, Twitter and others to answer this question. He found the main driver behind their explosive growth was the product itself was designed from the get-go to ‘grow virally’. This required little initial marketing investment to fuel massive user appeal and adoption.

Here are 10 important themes / factors Chuck thinks you should be sure to consider when building a viral-friendly web app:

(1) Speed - If your application is slow, most users will get frustrated and move on. Applications must be designed with speed in mind.  Tools like Pingdom can help you keep track of your web app's speed.

(2) Instant Utility - No one is going to want to spend an hour trying to configure a service, enter data, and import contacts. Web applications should be friendly to social media sites like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter for user data import, and they should allow users to import data from their existing data stores and elsewhere (so they don’t have to manually enter it again).

(3) Software is Media - Just like TV, Books, and Movies, Software is a form of media. Your app needs personality because a genuine, original personality can endear users to the app.

(4) Less is More - 'Start simple' is a good mantra for new web apps. Sure, there are popular sites like Facebook that have become a total mess, but back in 2004 Facebook was simple too. It did one thing really really well. As long as your app does that, it can be successful.

(5) Make the App Programmable - Don't launch your app without a read/write API ready. Open Source is an important concept in the world of development. By making your application open to programming modifications, you give others the chance to build on your application and make it richer and more successful.

(6) Make it Personal - "Personal" means you should facilitate the end user's desire to add their own personality into the mix. Let users customize liberally. This gives users the feeling of co-ownership: a belief that they also helped make this application great.

(7) Make it Discoverable - MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, etc. proved that you don't need to a huge marketing budget to inspire viral growth, you just need to understand SEO (Search Engine Optimization) so that Google and the other major search engines can index your application and its content. It must also be discoverable by social media.

(8) Clean Design - An overly complicated or unintuitive page can smother your app in the cradle. The layout needs to be "clean" with plenty of empty space and large fonts.

(9) Be Playful - A web application must be engaging, and nothing is more engaging than good old fashioned fun. Your application should have a "game dynamic" that can turn your app into a pleasant little diversion. The ability to play in an application is becoming really important – even in business. It will keep your users coming back for more.

(10) Be Mobile – Explosive viral growth of web apps is fueled when users can access/receive updates and perform useful functions while mobile. Mobile extends beyond the obvious iPhone application and includes other mobile websites, mobile applications and even SMS. Users contact data already lives on their mobile phone and the utility of the web app is multiplied several fold when users can access it (and invite their contacts into the app) while on-the-go as well.

Thanks for the insights, Chuck!


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