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How to Make a Habit Forming App

Do you know that feeling when something seems to keep popping up everywhere? You have one conversation about a product and then you start noticing it everywhere. Then the more times you start noticing it, the product becomes more engrained in your mind to the point you may think of that brand subconsciously. Yes, this can be done with retargeting ads which "follow" you around the internet, but it also happens naturally to us all. This may be called the frequency illusion, which occurs when something you've recently discovered or brought to focus suddenly seems to keep popping up everywhere. Now you don't want to be forcing your app down people's throats, but if you happen to be in a lot of different places your customer is looking, eventually you may get them to subconsciously remember your app and use it.

A big part of ensuring your app or product continuously pops up is having an app that goes viral. But before we get into how to make a viral and habit forming app, let's explore why vitality has changed the game for app developers.

Limitless connections and global networks

It’s easy to forget that before the Internet, word-of-mouth was limited to the people you encountered either face-to-face or over the phone. If you loved a new movie, you might tell your friends, your co-workers, and even your dentist. Ideas could go viral, but it usually took a while. Thanks to platforms like Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn, we’ve all dramatically expanded our social reach. We have both direct and indirect access to hundreds and even thousands of people – depending how much you nurture those networks. If you rave about a new restaurant or vent about bad airline service, for example, people know in an instant. Technology has multiplied the network effect, both in sheer numbers and global influence, which accelerates virality.

Creating two-way virality

Obviously, a product or service that people really want is far more likely to go viral. The odds get even better if your customers are ready to advocate for you – and the most effective way to create brand advocates is by giving them an easy button. Simplify a complex task or streamline something that has multiple steps and complications. Apple created customer advocates with the very first iPhone (among other pioneering products). Here was a phone, daytimer, camera and music player all in one, and it came in an industrial strength package. You could use it constantly, drop it and stress test it, and the device generally kept on going.

Here’s another example. I’m a total Amazon junkie, so I admire how Jeff Bezos and his team have made long-term bets that are just beginning to pay off. As we all know, Amazon started by selling books online. They made people feel comfortable shopping on the Internet – which was pretty much unheard of in 1994 – and created serious fulfillment and distribution channels. As they introduced more products, customers already trusted the Amazon name and began adding toothpaste and sweaters to their digital carts.

When the company rolled out Amazon Prime in 2005, it started as a free service. People told their friends and families how two-day delivery on an unlimited number of items had simplified their lives (remember that easy button). Now, not only were customers naturally spreading the word, the brand was gaining more traction in each customer’s life. To use an inelegant metaphor, the Amazon virus was spreading within individual people, as well as the global market. This internal virality continues to shift extra dollars in Amazon’s direction.

More day-to-day reliance = more revenue

A service like Amazon Prime can open new revenue channels for a brand. It also creates repeat behaviour, or habitual dependence, which can be defined as giving customers a reason to return to your product or service, again and again. Customers who are accustomed to same-day delivery on kitty litter and dish soap soon become loathe to line up in the supermarket. Amazon Prime customers are habitually dependent on the service – and I should know, because I’m one of them. Hello, my name is Robert, and I’m an Amazon-aholic.

Marketers often talk about virality and habitual dependence as separate phenomena, but they go hand in hand. It’s tough to have one without the other. For example, the search function used to require a product category. Now, you don’t have to indicate what type of item you want to find. You just enter a search term. This small change created a big behavioral shift, because whether I’m planning a trip or buying school supplies for my kids, I usually begin my search on Amazon, not Google.

It seems I’m not alone in that change. A 2016 survey showed that 55% of U.S. shoppers start their online searches at Amazon, and I’m sure that number has grown over the past year.

Many of my friends are equally hooked on all things Amazonian. I’ve watched them check out Launch Pad products, for example, and pay big sums of money to get a first crack at these new items. Talk about habitual dependence and virality.

How do I create virality and habitual dependence?

“Well, I’m glad this is working for Bezos and his empire,” you might be thinking. I hear you. If you’re a founder who wants to build a loyal following for your startup, there’s an art and science to creating virality and habitual dependence. It’s a topic that could fill an entire book, but here are a couple principles to get you started.

Choose the right partner

Whether you need enterprise support or you’re a solo entrepreneur, the game is getting increasingly competitive. Bottom line: you need a professional, full-service partner who can help you grow, scale and satisfy savvy users.

Measure and refine your Product Market Fit (PMF)

We hear so many splashy business success stories that it’s easy to forget that even multi-million-dollar companies and products started small. Release a lean, tightly-positioned app and set your measurement parameters. What does success look like? Is it based on how many new users you attract each week or a geographical expansion?

Uber, for example, started with just one type of car. It was lean and simple, and it quickly validated the founders’ bet on ride-sharing networks. They didn’t add the extras until people were fully on board (pun intended) with the concept. Now, you can choose different vehicles, add a business profile, and join a carpool, because the core product has already taken off.

Control your financial destiny

We know that validating your early-stage product and responding to user feedback is smart. What’s less-commonly discussed is how validation can enhance your investor relationships. When you understand exactly how and why your app delivers value, you can often negotiate a far better deal with funders and backers.

Imagine going to an investor and saying “Here’s my business plan – and here’s how I’ve validated the plan, and how this product will deliver results.” Funders now hear hundreds of thousands of pitches. They want great ideas, but most importantly, they’re listening for concepts that can succeed financially. It doesn’t mean you have to be profitable overnight, but you need to lay the tracks for growth, value and long-term viability.

Stack the odds in your favour

According to a 2016 study, nearly one in four mobile users interact with an app just ONCE. Customers are quick to download, but they’re also incredibly quick to delete products that don’t add value to their lives. This is why virality and habitual dependence matter so much in your business.

Final thoughts on creating sticky, viral products

Creating an app that people share, recommend, and use consistently comes down to improving their day-to-day experience. Instead of being gimmicky, it’s truly about building a product that makes a difference. Consider this your personal checklist:

– Streamline, simplify and improve people’s lives – Give them an easy button – Work to attract new users, but don’t forget about giving current users new ways to buy, engage and depend on your app – Find a partner with proven skills that run from planning to final-stage execution – Prove why your product delivers value – and then keep improving


If you enjoyed this article, read our one on Inside Knowledge from Developers on Mobile App Engagement.


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