Creating a Viral Loop: 5 Tactics you can Implement Today

viral loop

According to a survey, 77% of mobile users said they downloaded an app that they heard about through word of mouth while 38% said they downloaded apps they found in the top charts. Less than 20% of users said they downloaded an app because they saw it advertised or they read about it in the media.

For mobile apps, nothing works better than organic word-of-mouth experience and this experience makes it a viral loop.

It is very important then for every mobile app to keep this organic traction alive by creating a viral loop.

So, what is a ‘Viral Loop?’

Let’s take a look at what viral loop marketing is all about through this example:

  • Please come to my party. (Not viral)
  • Wow! This is the best party ever. Let’s invite all our friends to this party. (Viral, but not a loop)
  • Whoa! This party is getting more awesome with all my friends here. Let’s keep inviting more and more people. (Now, that’s a viral loop)

According to @andrewchen, a viral loop is:

“The steps a user goes through between entering the site (in our case, app) to inviting the next set of new users.”

We know convincing a potential user to simply download your app is hard, very hard.

However, a recommendation for an app coming from a trustworthy person, such as a friend, is very likely to convert into a download.

But how does viral loop works for an app?

Here’s an image that explains viral loop better:

Viral loop summary

There is nothing better than getting organic traffic for your app and that’s really what viral loops are all about.

In fact, viral loops become more important with the rising cost of user acquisition.

According to a report from BI Intelligence, the cost-per-install on iOS soared 59% year over year in October, while the cost to retain a loyal user – defined as a user who opens the app at least three times in a two-week period – is even higher than acquiring a new one, and was up 33% year over year.

It’s now established that viral loops can drive down the cost of user acquisition by a considerable amount.

So, let’s look at some of the most successful viral loop marketing tactics adopted by different product brands.

#1 Go on with an aggressive technique

When Hotmail launched its Webmail service, this is what they had put at the footer of every email:

Viral loop design

The text ‘P.S. – I Love You. Get Your Free Email at Hotmail’ was a clickable URL which directs the potential users to signup for a new Hotmail account.

Instead of taking the traditional route of expensive advertising, they chose a simple outbound message that served as a promotional pitch for the company and every customer became a salesperson. A simple message became a viral loop.

They started averaging 3,000 users a day, compounded daily. Within 6 months, they signed up a million users and five weeks after that, they were up to 2 million.

#2 Launch as an invite-only product

Last year Google launched an app called Inbox, a new email app separate from Gmail’s existing mobile app.

‘Inbox’ was launched as an invite-only app. The purpose was creating a sense of exclusivity around Google’s new product.

Google gave an option to Gmail users to invite their 3 friends to try the new Inbox app.

How to design for viral growth

Secondly, it created ‘Happy Hours’ to get free Inbox app invites.

What is a viral loop?

Within no time, there was a product everyone was talking about. Thus, a viral loop was created.

However in May this year, the app removed the invitation and was opened for everyone.

#3 Incentivised viral loop

SaneBox, an email management service incentivise its existing users if their friends join the service.

This ‘give and get more’ strategy for a viral product means that when a customer shares the product with a new user, they get some kind of upgrade or benefit to their own use of the service.

SaneBox gives a free trial for first 30 days. To continue the services the user has to subscribe to a paid plan.

Now this is where SaneBox introduces a viral loop.

The existing users can get a free yearly subscription if they convince their friends to signup.

Sanebox asks you to invite a friend to sign up and if they do, both the existing user and the new user get a $5 credit each towards the SaneBox subscription.

To keep the virality going, they suggest you to sign up 11 friends in a year and get the subscription free for the whole year. If you keep on doing this every year you never have to pay a cent and the viral loop is created.

A guide to designing viral loops for apps

#4 When inviting friends is a reward

For some of the apps (especially social apps), the functionality revolves around communities. This means the app can’t be optimized fully if you don’t have your friends using it.

That’s enough to make it a viral loop.

For example, Snapchat. The app has no purpose if you don’t have your contacts using this app.

Your friends using Snapchat is a reward in itself because then it will be more fun and engaging to use this app.

But the way Snapchat has placed this viral loop makes it more effective. It gives you an option to invite people underneath your list of contacts of people who aren’t on Snapchat yet. This simple ‘invite contacts’ is a great viral loop.

A guide to designing viral loops for apps    Snapchat viral loop

#5 Let them show off and throw a challenge

People love to show off their achievements, otherwise, no one would be posting their graduation or trip pictures on social media. Leverage this opportunity by giving your users what they want.

So far, the gaming apps have outdone these kinds of viral loops. Most of the gaming apps provide you an option to share your high scores or an achievement unlocked through social media.

But simply posting a high score on social media doesn’t make it tempting enough for other people to try that app.

Until you try something like this:

Great Viral Loops


Yes, the viral element here is showing off your achievements and throwing a challenge to beat that achievement. It is a great push for your friend to download that app and beat your score.


One size doesn’t fit all. Simply plugging these strategies won’t help in getting better conversions. There’s actually a formula to figure out if your viral loop is successful.

Image credits: Tapdaq, Apptamin, Imagekb.

Nidhi Shah

Nidhi is the head of content marketing at Arkenea, a mobile app consultancy building experience rich apps for startups and businesses.