How Viral Apps Spread

Written by Reinder de Vries on December 7 2017 in App Marketing

How Viral Apps Spread

Hotmail is often seen as the first virally marketed product on the web.

The web-based email provider launched in 1996 and was acquired by Microsoft 1.5 years later. By then, the service had amassed more than 8.5 million users. At that time around 70 million people used the internet. How did Hotmail spread among 12% of internet users in such a short time period?


An idea that spreads like a virus is important for creating a successful app. Some say it’s crucial, even. An app can’t succeed if it’s not viral.

How? Let’s dive in.

  1. Build Virality Into Your Apps
  2. Make An App That’s Worth Spreading
  3. Find Your 1000 True Fans
  4. Further Reading

Build Virality Into Your Apps

The best app ideas have virality built into them.

When you sent email with Hotmail, the email client would include a single line at the bottom of the email: “Get your free email with Hotmail”. The word Hotmail linked to the service’s home page, which explained how it worked.

Imagine that you send emails to 10 of your friends. Thanks to that single line at the bottom of your email those 10 friends now have the opportunity to become Hotmail users. This is how viral ideas spread.

That’s not all… At the time, the concept of web-based email was very novel. Everyone had one paid email address provided by their ISP. You could typically use those only from your home PC.

Hotmail was free, you could access it from anywhere in the world, and you could get an extra email address at no cost.

The service gets better when your friends use it, because you can communicate more reliably with each other. When I recommend Hotmail to you, and you start to use it and like it, I grow in status. Friends recommend friends good stuff.

In 1996 the internet counted only ~ 250.000 websites. Make that 1.1 million in 1997. These days, there are more than 4 million apps. Does that change how we think about virality?

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Make An App That’s Worth Spreading

The basic principle of viral marketing is still the same. What is it about your idea that makes people tell other people about it?

With 4+ million apps, the App Store is very crowded right now. It’s almost impossible to stand out naturally. You can’t just build an app, publish it, and get noticed by a lot of people.

Before you start thinking about viral marketing, you have to ask yourself:

  • Who is my app for and what problem does it solve for them?
  • How can I understand my potential customers well enough to be able to build a product for them?
  • How can I attract a small following of true fans who can support my efforts, spread the word and provide feedback?

There’s no point in creating yet another social media app in the hopes of it spreading virally. Unique ideas are equally bad too.

You don’t want your viral marketing to be superficial either. Over 50 million people reportedly downloaded Flappy Bird. How many of them still play it – and spread the word – today?

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Find Your 1000 True Fans

Let’s look at a current day example: Bear. It’s a note-taking app for Mac and iOS. You can use it to journal, collect notes, write prose and even for coding. The app is beautifully designed. Apple named it App of the Year 2016 and it recently got the 2017 Apple Design Award.

Bear is an app worth spreading. Here’s what they did different:

  • Before the app was published in the App Store, it was “in beta” for a long time. Shiny Frog, the app’s creators, listened to feedback from their bearapp subreddit and implemented it ruthlessly. During their beta period they slowly grew a following of loyal fans. The fans were enrolled in the process – which is crucial. Can you imagine what those true fans did when their beloved app finally got released publicly?
  • When I recommend Bear app to a friend, I’m doing them a favor. Writers value a hassle-free writing environment. When we’re “crafting prose” we also enjoy a beautifully designed app that only runs on Apple products. People who use Bear app are insiders. We elevate our status when we tell others about Bear. To an outsider, that may seem elitist. That’s why you’re an outsider! (You now see why no. 1 is so crucial.)
  • Just like Hotmail, Bear app crossed the chasm between the traditional world and the new one. Before Bear, Evernote was the de-facto note taking app. Apps like Ulysses were the de-facto writing apps. Bear merged those categories, creating an app that’s much leaner than Evernote and easier to use than Ulysses. As a result, this moved the bar higher for apps like Evernote. (Gmail later upped the ante for Hotmail, with unlimited storage.)

See how those things come together? You create an app worth spreading. You enrol people in the process and grow your fanbase. You create an environment in which we all benefit when we spread the word about your app.

Further Reading

It’s almost impossible to create a viral app intentionally. What you can do, is nudge your idea in the right direction.

What steps can you take today? A few suggestions:

  • Ask yourself: Do I want my idea to spread virally or do my users benefit when the idea virally spreads? (There’s a nuance in this question.)
  • Find a medium you can use to enrol people in the process of creating your app. How can you best listen to them and report back?
  • When you’re well on your way – what is it about your app that makes people tell other people about it?
  • Check out this post by MailMunch for a few insider secrets about viral marketing

Read more about Bear, viral marketing and apps:

Reinder de Vries

Reinder de Vries

Reinder de Vries is a professional iOS developer. He teaches app developers how to build their own apps at Since 2009 he has developed a few dozen apps for iOS, worked for global brands and lead development at several startups. When he’s not coding, he enjoys strong espresso and traveling.