The Mobile App Format that Wins Big

The consumer mobile app space is getting mature enough to start recognizing some patterns in the world’s most successful (non-game) consumer social apps.

The Format:

Unique Content + Complementary Network

I’d argue that all super successful social apps follow a strict, 2-part format: a unique unit of content and a complementary social network.


Twitter: tweet // follow model

Tinder: swipeable card // double opt in

Snapchat: snap that deletes // bcc messaging

Instagram: filtered photo // follow model

Vine: looping quick cut video // follow model

Whisper: text over photos // anonymous posting

There are lots of new apps that create either new types of content or new social mechanics, but the marriage of both is truly where the magic (and growth) happens.

Why it wins

The format makes a lot of sense when you consider the key drivers of any ultra successful app: word of mouth growth and user engagement.

Unique Content = Word of Mouth

Word of mouth growth is taken care of by the unique type of content. When someone asks you about a new service (take the 5 examples above), how do you describe them?

Send a photo and it deletes after the person sees it.

You use the unique attributes of the content to convey the value of the app. It’s salient. It’s novel. It’s easy to communicate. People get it. Without a unique type of content, you’re just another app that does something with photos or videos or text. Blah.

When people talk about products at parties it’s the content-type they’re describing and discussing.

Wait —the photos delete? What do you mean they delete?

Unique content fuels word of mouth offline. And online, a unique type of content is a company’s biggest brand asset and marketing tool. Embedded tweets, vines, instagrams, frontbacks, etc all drive awareness of the app — no logo required.

Appropriate Network = Engagement

Without a doubt, engagement is largely impacted by the content itself being entertaining. However, engagement is buoyed by the type of network that distributes the content. Both time in-app and the depth of the experience result from an appropriately built network.

If the app is about creation of beautiful public content, perhaps the follow-follower model of Twitter, Vine, and Instagram makes most sense. If the app is based on finding mutual interest between users and forcing decisions, Tinder’s never-ending, no-going-back card stack is as addictive as it gets. Of course, Snapchat’s bcc messaging model is the perfect for scandalous or funny content — it reinforces no-guilt sharing.

Defining how users interact with content can be as important as the content itself. The social model must reinforce both the creation of content and the social etiquette that is expected within the app’s network.

Finally, good networks have core elements of user-to-user interaction as well. Not only does the social validation (eg “likes) create an emotional connection to the app, it drives people to come back to interact with their digital relationships.

You Need Both

Apps like Frontback, Mindie, Rando, Context, and Seene all seem to know the format. They look to have some part of the content + complementary network figured out. Time will tell if they in-fact have both.

It’s hard to create a novel type of content or a novel network. If you do create an app that has just one of the two, you’ll likely break through some of the clutter.

However, if you’re able to create a new type of content and couple it with an appropriate and reinforcing network, that’s where things blow up.

Is the unit of content so unique as to be recognizable and complemented by an appropriate and reinforcing network?

If the answer is yes to both, then there’s a opportunity not only to break into the top of the App Store, but into mainstream culture as well.

We’re currently building Hollerback. If you’d like to see our take on a winning mobile format, sign up for the beta here:

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