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How the Biggest Apps Acquired Their First 50,000 Users
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The Most Complete Guide About Initial Traction of Apps on the Internet
If you want to know how the most popular apps have grown, just look at today's checklist:
How the Most Popular Apps Grow
Many brands started out doing things that couldn't be scaled and then focused on things that could. In addition, online apps' growth has not been the result of large marketing budgets utilizing paid social, search, or display advertising but rather through other channels that were used creatively to a high degree like these:
In this analysis, we'll discuss the most important communication and distribution activities that will reveal how the most popular apps got their first 50,000 users. Although the article does not discuss the product itself (further analysis), the product is the most important aspect of the app's success. Nothing kills a bad product faster than good marketing communication and distribution.
We all like to imagine that the products of the most famous apps were built on a great idea from the beginning, but this is not true. The products changed from time to time during execution - in some cases they completely changed their initial essence.
Most of the time, the successful growth of a brand is not hidden in one magical marketing channel, but rather in many channels in combination with an interesting product.
And spontaneous virality & word-of-mouth is nonsense if the brand does not actively help it with its marketing activities.
Let's see together how the most famous apps gained their initial traction - their first 50,000 users.
The first way to grow a brand is to get influencers - I don't mean only those with a lot of followers, but it can also be a lot of micro-influencers. It is important to remember that most of the time it is not enough to just show the product, but the more creative way you involve the influencers, the better.
Among Us - Influencers Against Influencers
While the game was initially released in 2018 to little mainstream attention, it received a massive influx of popularity in September 2020 due to many Twitch streamers playing it against each other. For the popularity of the game, it was not enough for a few influencers to play the game against unknown players. Only a new creative way of communication (influencers against influencers) achieved massive popularity for Among Us.
Among Us’s Monthly Active Players
Substack - Repeatedly Contributing Influential Journalists
Substack started by targeting influential writers and journalists who had a strong following. Some of the early adopters included Bill Bishop (author of Sinocism, a newsletter about China), Judd Legum (author of the political newsletter Popular Information), and Kelly Dwyer (creator of the basketball newsletter The Second Arrangement). These high-profile creators brought credibility to the platform and attracted more users.
Mint - Guest Posts for Micro Influencers
“When I joined Mint as employee #4,” says Noah Kagan, Director of Marketing, “we had no product and 0 customers. We focused on building email lists:
Monthly newsletter (financial tips with tools like SendFox.com). We immediately added value to people's lives and built our list to over 100 000 fans.
Content marketing - Our target customers read personal finance blogs, so we thought: “Why not start a personal finance blog ourselves?" It was a huge success.
We asked dozens of people to do guest posts for us. Their audience = our audience. We also sponsored tons of people who weren't mainstream yet but had targeted audiences. Work with TikTokers, YouTubers, Instagrammers, Twitterers. Get amazing deals because they're small.
Within 6 months, we had well over 1,000,000 users. Today, Mint is the #1 personal finance app and it sold to Intuit for $170M.”
Source: @noahkagan, Twitter.
Strava - Garmin(s) with Strava Premium for Influencers
Co-founder of Strava, Michael Horvath, learned that Costco wanted to quickly get rid of its 300 inexpensive Garmin cycling trackers sitting in the warehouse. He purchased these Garmin devices and bundled them with a free Strava Premium.
"It was $30,000, so it wasn't cheap for us, but then we gave the devices to people and said please try Strava. It was the fastest way we could think of to build a community on Strava,” Horvath said.
He started by handing out the devices to influencers. This early investment led to a community of 5,000 athletes.
OnlyFans - Teasers Only
OnlyFans was created in 2016, primarily used by personal trainers and cooks. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, OnlyFans real success came when the founder, Tim Stokely, used social media to reach out to porn stars and ask them to join OnlyFans.
They promoted their OnlyFans accounts on their existing social media profiles, such as Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. By sharing teasers and previews of exclusive content only available on their OnlyFans accounts.
Instagram - One Tweet
More than 25,000 users signed up on the day Instagram was launched on App Store, and one of them included the Twitter co-founder, Jack Dorsey. He tweeted about it to his million followers, which helped Instagram get its first 100,000 users in just one week.
Get Strategic Partnerships with Other Brands
One of the easiest ways to grow is to partner with another brand from a related category, where one brand gains access to another brand's customer base and vice versa. However, at the same time, one of the most complicated ways to implement - personal contacts are needed and it is necessary to provide mutual value from which both parties benefit (product features, profit participation or provision of shares in the company).
Spotify - Bet on Telecommunications Operators
In the early days, Spotify benefited from organic PR (illegal sharing of copyrighted content, including music led to a high-profile lawsuit and criminal convictions for the popular torrent site's founders in 2009).
However, In October 2009, one of the Spotify's first marketing activities was announcement of partnership with the Swedish telecommunications company Telia. This deal allowed Spotify to bundle its service with Telia's mobile and broadband offerings, helping to expand its user base in Sweden. After that, Spotify also partnered with 7digital (a UK-based digital music store), Virgin Media (a British telecommunications company), Orange (a French telecommunications company) and so on…
Source: Telia Company, 2009.
Netflix - Toshiba DVD Players
One of the first most successful partnerships Netflix entered into was with Toshiba and it allowed them to give owners of Toshiba DVD players Netflix DVD rental coupons. After this deal, they also collaborated with Pioneer and Samsung Electronics. In 2002, Netflix partnered with Best Buy to offer free trial subscriptions of Netflix to customers who purchased DVD players at the retailer's stores.
Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings in 2002. Source: Getty Images.
Discord - VIP Communities for Twitch Streamers
The partnership between Discord and Twitch started in 2016.
For Twitch - this partnership allowed Twitch streamers to create subscriber-only Discord servers, sync their subscriber roles with Discord servers and provided a space for their community to chat (with the streamer or other subscribers), share content and interact.
For Discord - by partnering with huge brands like Twitch they were able to gain more visibility and boost their growth even further.
The partnership has continued to strengthen over the years, with both platforms working together to improve the experience for users and content creators alike.
Stripe - Payments for Platforms & Marketplaces
The company grew swiftly, driven largely by word-of-mouth between developers. Stripe’s original product “Stripe Payments” was a better fit for single websites and merchants. So, in late 2011, Stripe built a new product “Stripe Connect” for platforms.
Where Stripe’s Payments APIs are the easiest way for typical merchants to accept payments and move money globally, Stripe Connect is those APIs for platforms and marketplaces specifically - at first, Stripe partnered with Shopify and Lyft.
Source: Internal creation.
After that, Stripe signed deals with Facebook, DoorDash, Deliveroo, Seedrs, Monzo, The Guardian, Boohoo, Salesforce, Indiegogo, Asos, TaskRabbit... The company won’t disclose its payments volume but says it processes billions of dollars a year for millions of companies.
MidJourney - Discord Boost
Midjourney an independent research lab first debuted on March 14, 2022, when the Discord server was launched with a request to post high-quality photographs to Twitter/Reddit for the system’s training. “A lot of people ask us, why don’t you just make an iOS app that makes you a picture?” says Midjourney’s founder, David Holz and adds, “but people want to make things together, and if you do that on iOS, you have to make your own social network. And that’s pretty hard. So if you want your own social experience, Discord is really great.”
Source: MidJourney, Discord.
Zoom - Students of Stanford University
In November 2012, the company signed Stanford University as its first customer with 15 000 students each year. Stanford University's adoption of Zoom for its online classes played a significant role in building credibility for Zoom and attracting more users.
Mailchimp - CRM, CMS, E-com
Early on, the company started building integrations with popular CRM platforms, such as Salesforce and Highrise, making it easier for businesses to manage their email campaigns alongside their customer data.
To make it easy for users to add email sign-up forms to their websites, Mailchimp integrated with popular CMS systems and blogging platforms, such as WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla.
Mailchimp also recognized the potential of e-commerce businesses. While the integration with Shopify and WooCommerce was introduced later, Mailchimp had already started integrating with other e-commerce platforms like Magento.
Uber - Local Businesses
Uber partnered with local businesses, such as restaurants, bars, clubs, tech conferences, music festivals and hotels, to offer exclusive deals or discounts on rides to and from these establishments. This not only incentivized customers to use Uber but also promoted the partnered businesses, creating a mutually beneficial relationship.
Use Discussion Forums
Discussion forums can be a great channel for initial growth of brands or, in connection with influencers, they can really kick-start their growth.
Twitch - 30 Days of New Mario 64 Speed Run
The biggest factor in getting visitors that stuck was around of end of July when Reddit's/r/gaming forum (SubReddit) began upvoting new Mario 64 speed run world records - particularly influencer Siglemic. From then ten of thousands of viewers would watch him attempt to break the record. Siglemic dedicated the whole month of August to break the record, which led to consistent coverage across the web.
Discord - Final Fantasy Posts
"We got to a point where Discord had maybe 10 or 20 daily active users - basically nobody,” says Jason Citron, founder of Discord. “What eventually happened is that we figured out a distribution strategy.”
“We knew someone in a Reddit thread that focused on Final Fantasy. He posted something like, ‘Has anyone ever heard of this new voiceover IP app called Discord?’ We posted a link to a Discord server, where Stan and I were hanging out. People on Reddit saw the post, joined Discord, talked to us, and tried the app. They went back to the Reddit post and commented, ‘I just talked to the devs, they’re in there. It’s really cool. Check it out,’” Citron said.
“It got a bunch of up votes, and that’s the day we say we launched. That day we got a couple hundred registrations. That kind of kicked the snowball off the top of the mountain,” Citron added.
Take Advantage of the Changing Market (Timing)
Even if it doesn't sound appealing, one of the biggest factors in a brand's success is timing - mostly associated with major changes in the market, such as the introduction of smartphones, easy-to-use cameras in mobile phones, online stores (App Store, Google Play), the change in receiving information - for example, the introduction of push notifications in mobile phones, major state regulations, a pandemic (SARS-CoV-2) or parents moving to Facebook... Here's a sample of how few of the biggest brands have responded to these huge changes in the world.
Instagram - Boom of Smartphones & Front Cameras
Instagram was launched at a time when mobile devices and their cameras were becoming increasingly sophisticated, and social media was experiencing explosive growth. This timing allowed Instagram to capitalize on the growing interest in sharing photos and experiences with friends and family through social media.
Uber - Strict Regulations & Limitations
Uber entered the market at a time when the strict regulations and limitations that surrounded traditional taxi services. There was a clear need for a more reliable, convenient, and technology-driven transportation service. In many cities around the world, taxi services were highly regulated, with limited numbers of medallions/licenses available and strict requirements for drivers.
WhatsApp - Introduction of Push Notifications
In early days of 2009 WhatsApp would firstly allow users to update statuses on their contact list - where they were, or what they were up to at the moment. But then, Apple launched push notifications, and that changed everything.
They allowed automated messages to be received without the app needing to be open. Founders immediately redesigned the app, and released WhatsApp 2.0 focusing on the instant messages — which quickly became the app’s core feature. The newly redesigned app immediately got attention, and the number of active users grew to 250 000.
Zoom - SARS-CoV-2
During the first days of the Covid-19 pandemic, companies transitioned people to working from home and schools moved their students to online classes. Almost immediately, Zoom became the number one application for companies, schools, families and friends. Over a short period beginning in 2020, the company saw massive growth.
In the first fiscal quarter affected by the pandemic, Zoom's revenue increased by 169 % on an annualized basis; the next quarter, that figure was 355 %. And 4/5 of that revenue came from new customer subscriptions (and low customer churn).
Evernote - Early Days of App Store
Evernote was one of the few mobile apps released on the early days of Apple App Store. With the promise of new era of apps and limited choice, it made sense for users to flock and try out Evernote - the most, 57 % on iPhone. Evernote Web service launched into open beta on June 24, 2008, the Apple App Store was launched on July 10, 2008.
Evernote statistics as of 11/18/2008
Snapchat - Parents Joining Facebook
Parents began joining Facebook in large numbers, causing teenagers to search for alternatives and new platforms to explore. The disappearing photos feature on Snapchat was akin to a "do not disturb" sign on a door, but much more efficient.
These factors contributed to Snapchat's rapid and sudden expansion in its user base. As a result, Snapchat quickly spread through high schools across Southern California like wildfire. Within a matter of weeks, it organically expanded to other high schools in different regions and even reached college campuses.
Create 2-Side Referral Program
If the product is wanted and both parties gain value, a referral program is one of the best choices.
Dropbox - 35 % of Registrations from the Referral Program
Dropbox’s referral program is possibly one of the most famous cases of referral marketing. As the product provided cloud storage capacity, they chose to incentivize individuals with additional free space, not just for referring friends, but also for accepting an invitation. The referral program granted rewards to both parties upon accomplishing the desired objective - registering for Dropbox. The referral program accounted for 35 % of daily sign-ups.
Uber - Uber Credit
When Uber first started, it used a $ 10 dual-sided referral incentive - paid in Uber credits. For instance, the referrer would receive a certain amount of Uber credit, while the new user would get a discount on their first ride. This dual incentive structure encouraged existing users to share their referral codes and motivated new users to sign up and try the service. Later, they offered $ 20 and $ 30 dual-sided credit rewards.
Create Affiliate Program
A less frequently used way of growth by brands, but also an affiliate program in which people earn by recommending a product, can help you get your first 50,000 users.
OnlyFans - 5 % cut up to $ 1M
OnlyFans successfully attracted numerous creators by introducing a lucrative affiliate program that encouraged content creators to bring in others from their social and professional networks. This program ensured a 5 % share up to $ 1M of the earnings generated by the referred creator for anyone who referred others to the platform.
There were no restrictions on the number of creators one could refer or the overall referred income. The affiliate program proved to be a massive success. It's important to note that while income generation on Uber and Airbnb is linear, on OnlyFans, it's exponential.
Netflix - Web-Based Banners
In early days, Netflix also established partnerships with various online affiliates and marketing partners. These partners would advertise Netflix on their websites, often offering exclusive promotions or discounts to their visitors.
“We have an affiliate program whereby we make available Web−based banner ads and other advertisements that third parties may retrieve on a self−assisted basis from our Web site and place on their Web sites. Third parties that place our advertisements and generate online subscriber referrals are generally paid a cash bounty for each subscriber referred to us, with no minimum or maximum amounts for which we are liable,” is written in the Netlfix’s 2002 Annual report.
Create Product-Led Growth System
Prioritize the product as the main driver of your growth and user acquisition which generates organic growth.
Dropbox - Shared Folders
Dropbox created a system where if a user sent a link to his shared files to a friend, family member or colleague, they had to register on Dropbox.com before they could open them. 20 % of daily registrations were obtained from folders that people shared with friends and colleagues.
Slack - Inviting Colleagues via Email
After huge amount of PR in media, Slack's users became its strong advocates, recommending it to their friends, colleagues and whole teams. A common user journey started with two workers in a company using Slack to communicate, discovering many interesting features of Slack and making their work with each other more efficient. Subsequently, they invited other team members at work to Slack in a simple way - by entering their email addresses.
Slack officially launched publicly in February 2014. A few months later in August, Slack had more than 60,000 daily active users and 15,000 paid users just 10 weeks after existing its closed beta, all of which was entirely organic growth.
Linkedin - Outlook Contact Uploader
“LinkedIn deployed an Outlook contact uploader to allow viral spread among professionals,” said Keith Rabois, Vice President, Business & Corporate Development in Linkedin. By simplifying the process Linkedin allowed users to import their email contacts, making it easier to find and invite people they knew to join LinkedIn.
“Even today, nobody else has invested energy in this direction despite the 5-10x distribution per inviter you get from Outlook v. Webmail. Invitation reminders that expired after two weeks were another key feature,” added Rabois.
Notion - Shared Files & Templates
At Notion, community and social are the largest acquisition channels. Because of the basically infinite number of use cases Notion has, it’s no surprise that Notion users have built an impressive gallery of templates. As more templates are shared in Reddit circles, Slack channels, Facebook groups, etc., more potential users are being introduced to Notion.
And a similar system to Dropbox - shared documents requiring email before opening that people shared with friends and colleagues.
SurveyMonkey - Call to Action in the Bottom of Surveys
The “Powered by SurveyMonkey” footer appears by default at the bottom of millions of surveys, email invitations, and embedded surveys. Consequently, millions of individuals daily encounter this subtle call to action. Thousands of them click on it, contributing to a significant portion of SurveyMonkey's overall referral traffic.
Canva - Goal-Related Long-Tail Keywords
Goal-related (long-tail) keywords played a substantial role in Canva's marketing strategy. This approach was ideal for Canva, as it positioned their products and services as a means for users to accomplish goals or find solutions. Each design type or template has a dedicated landing page. This serves as a robust and positive indicator for Google, helping Canva rank well for all these search terms.
Create Internal/External Integrations
Integrations are an interesting part of growth. While the internal ones are more focused
to keep users inside the application
and making the product more competitive,
so the external ones serve for
easier sharing of content to other channels
or integration into other services via API.
Slack - Internal Integrations Without the Need Leaving the App
Slack focused on integrating with popular and widely-used tools in the tech industry. Slack made its platform more appealing to a broad range of teams without having to leave the Slack interface:
GitHub: It allowed developers to receive notifications about code commits, pull requests…
Google Drive: It enabled users to share Google Drive files within Slack. Users could also receive updates about shared files, like comments and edits, directly in their Slack channels.
Trello: It allowed users to receive notifications about activities on Trello boards, create cards from Slack messages…
Twitter: It allowed teams to monitor their brand on social media by receiving notifications.
Strava - Internal Wearables integrations
”We were very focused on ensuring that if there was a device out there that an athlete was using to track their performance, we wanted to make sure we could work with it. That was a major part of our strategy as we saw the importance of Garmin's relationship with other wearable providers. Whenever there was a device that someone was using — we never wanted to say no when a user asked to integrate a certain wearable,” said Mark Gainey, co-founder of Strava.
Mailchimp - External APIs & Social Media
In 2007, Mailchimp launched its first API, which enabled developers to integrate Mailchimp with their applications and platforms.
Integrations with Twitter and Facebook enabled users to share their email campaigns on social media and encourage their followers to sign up for their mailing lists.
Spotify - External Integration to Facebook
When Spotify was launched, it integrated with popular social media platforms like Facebook, allowing users to connect their accounts and share their listening activity, playlists, and favorite songs with their friends.
As people saw their friends using and enjoying the Spotify, they were more likely to give it a try themselves. Spotify benefited from a natural form of word-of-mouth marketing.
Instagram - External Integrations to Facebook & Twitter
Even Instagram allowed users to share via popular social media platforms. Facebook or Twitter had photo uploading capabilities, but they lacked the editing functionalities that have made Instagram famous. With Instagram's integration with these popular social media platforms, users could upload their beautifully-edited photos on their favorite social platforms with a single press.
Venture capitalist Todd Warren explained: “The social nature of the activity was a natural generator for new people to enter the network and download the application. The attachment to existing social networks provided a very cost-effective channel strategy. Their sales strategy was about seeding the social network effectively to get additional adoption.”
PR is a great tool for short-term acquisition of users, but only if the product is revolutionary or the brand (or its users) create a creative activity worthy of publicity.
MidJourney - AI-Generated Painting Winning Art Award
“I won, and I didn’t break any rules,” says Jason Allen who entered a fine art competition with an AI-generated artwork and won the first prize in the digital art category without using a digital brush. Some artists vent their anger and surprise on Twitter. And so the media. That was the first time that information about the amazing MidJourney spread around the world in mass form.
Source: Jason Allen.
Attend Offline Events
Strava - Targeting Cyclists Events
“We picked a very niche and specific target audience - initially it was cyclists. We picked this group as we knew a lot about who they were, where to find them, and how to talk to them. We knew that cyclists by definition are in love with their data. We showed up at a lot of events, and even the small cycling events and running events. Afterward, we would help cyclists upload to Strava and just introduce them to us,” said Mark Gainey, co-founder of Strava.
He added “One thing that I’ll throw out there, which may seem counterintuitive, is that one of the things we learned early on at Strava is to focus less on growth and more on engagement. We went back to that first principle — engagement, engagement, engagement. Strava is more fun when your friends are on it, so if people are engaged — they’re going to tell their friends.”
Tinder - Creating College Parties
In the past, dating services had tried promote ad messages like “See who has a crush on you!” Tinder did the opposite. Tinder was telling you that your crush was using Tinder. They visited college campuses and threw parties, inviting all the most popular and good-looking students while requiring them to download the Tinder app to get into the party.
“Every time we would go to sororities and fraternities and talk about Tinder, we would that night see 100 sign-ups. Every single sign-up in the beginning mattered. We were stopping people on the street, and we'd go into coffee shops and talk to each other like, ‘Oh, have you heard of that app Tinder? It's such a cool app!’ Anything we could do to get the word out we were doing. So in the beginning of January, we had about 20,000 users, and at the end of January, we had 500,000 users — all organic. The growth curve was unimaginable. It was pretty amazing" said CEO of Tinder, Sean Rad.
Use Multi-Platform Availability
One of the most key growth factors is the availability of the app on various platforms (web, desktop, tablet, mobile [iOS, Android], TV, cars, smart-watches, voice assistants, speakers…). Examples of few successful brands that recognized importance of making their service available across multiple devices and platforms:
Spotify - Mobile Devices
During the initial period, the service was available on desktop computers, and soon after, it was expanded to mobile devices. The company released its app for the Symbian, iOS and Android devices in 2009, a little over a year after its initial launch, which was essential for initial growth.
Source: Spotify announcements.
Instagram - Android
Despite the fact that Instagram was already big, it had no users among Android users. When Instagram was made available on Android almost two years later of its official launch, it resulted in one million downloads on the very first day.
WhatsApp - All Mobile OS
WhatsApp was first launched on the App Store in November 2009 and shortly became multi-platform supporting all Android, BlackBerry OS (Blackberry, Blackberry 10), iOS (iPhone), Symbian OS (Nokia S40, Nokia S60) and Windows phones. Even Jan Koum, co-founder of WhatsApp said: “WhatsApp is a modern-day communications tool, which is made more effective given its cross-platform capabilities.”
Use Freemium Model
Spotify - Ad-Based Freemium
Spotify adopted a freemium business model, which allowed users to access a limited version of the service for free, while offering a premium, ad-free experience for a monthly fee. By offering a free version of its service, Spotify reduced the barrier to entry for potential users, who might have been hesitant to commit to a paid subscription without first trying the service. In addition to that, the advertising revenue generated from the free tier provided an additional income stream for Spotify.
Tinder - Limited Number of Swipes
Tinder never made users pay for core features. To this day, none of Tinder’s original core features cost money. Users can sign up today, and spend the rest of their Tinder-life swiping for free.
Mailchimp - Rapid Growth
In the early years (2001-2009), Mailchimp experienced slow, organic growth, as it was still a side project for the founders that had amassed a user base of 85,000 people. In 2009, when Mailchimp introduced its freemium pricing model, the company began to grow more rapidly. By the end of 2010, they had around 450,000 users.
The Evolution of Freddie
Utilize Free Trial Model
Netflix - No Initial Commitment
Netflix offered a free trial period to new customers, giving them an opportunity to experience the service without any financial commitment. This tactic attracted potential users and converted them into paying subscribers.
Spotify - Invitations from Friends
When Spotify was first launched, it was an invitation-only service in U.K., France, Scandinavia and Spain. This exclusivity generated curiosity and hype, leading people to actively seek out invitations from friends or online communities. The scarcity of invitations created a sense of urgency, which helped drive early adoption.
Clubhouse - Fear of Missing Out
Clubhouse was launched as an invite-only app, which meant that a person needed to receive an invitation from an existing user to join the platform. This exclusivity generated a sense of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) among people to get access to the app.