Lessons in Systems: Anatomy of a Viral App

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This past week, I started using a new app called Lift thanks to the recommendation of a friend. On the surface, the concept of Lift is simple.

Lift allows users to set daily goals, then track and monitor their progress. I started using it because it ties in perfectly with my recent attempt to track my habits more consistently and monitor the tasks that yield the biggest impact on my business.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.


In the few days since I’ve started using it, I’ve already realized there are a few well-executed systems running behind the scenes that will help transform Lift into a major success – in my opinion.

This is Not a Post About Apps

As always, the goal of this post isn’t (necessarily) to inspire you to launch your own iPhone app. Instead, I hope to expose the hidden systems so that you can use some of the concepts in your own business – whether it operates primarily online, offline, or a combination of both. Let’s get started…

Anatomy of a Viral App

Lift App

Step 1: Tap into Existing Audiences

Upon creating a new account, Lift asks if you would like to link your Twitter or Facebook accounts to the app. Step 1: Connect to Twitter

The average Twitter user has 208 followers. The average Facebook user has 234 “friends.” By tapping into these existing platforms, it not only creates a sense of social validation that others are using the service, it also creates an emotional connect (“I want to see what my friends are up to” AND “My friends are going to see what I do/don’t accomplish on here…”).

It also primes the pump for social activity within the app (more on this later).

2.) Step 2: Increase Exposure via New Audiences

Step 2: Invite Your Friends

Lift makes it extremely easy to invite new users to the platform through two different methods: text message and email. Both are native to the device the user is on (a cell phone), which makes the process easy and seamless.

LEARNING POINT: How could you ask customers for referrals, or how can you use word-of-mouth to spread the word about your business?

Step 3: Avoid the Echo Chamber

I couldn’t find any specifics on how many active users Lift has. They could have 500 users or 5,000,000 at this point, but in a way it doesn’t matter.

They have overcome one of the biggest hurdles that social platforms and apps face: building a critical mass of users to make the community feel active. We’ll explore some offline examples of avoiding the echo chamber in future posts. (If you run a brick-and-mortar business, let me know in the comments section.)

Step 4: Provide a Starting Point, Then Walk Them Through the Process

Instead of starting with a blank slate, users select pre-existing Habits from within the app.

Habits are grouped into a few major buckets, and the interface is designed in a way that allows users to see how many other people are tracking each Habit (83,420 who have committed to Exercise each day, for example). This also provides new users with more social proof that others are using the app and have similar goals. Pre-Existing Habits

By showcasing pre-existing Habits, it allows the platform to group people who have accomplished the same Habit recently. This cluster of similar activity shows up beneath each completed Habit in the form of an activity stream.

Habit tracking within the Lift app

Step 5: Make It “Sticky,” Keep Them Coming Back for More

Users also have the ability to add a comment to each achievement. Comment adds context to the activity stream, which usually leads to an increased likelihood of Props.

Props are Lift’s equivalent to “Likes” on Facebook. They provide users with social validation that their achievements are important. When I see a someone accomplish a Habit with an inspiring comment, I am more like to give them props – which leads to… Props lead to Push notifications

Push notifications drive users back into the app, increasing its stickiness and the chances that he/she will return again and again.

Opportunities for Future Growth

Lift is doing a lot of things right. Strong user acquisition systems, flawless user experience, vibrant ecosystem, mechanisms to draw users into the app consistently. My guess is that Lift will eventually allow users to publish Habits and milestones to external platforms, the same way Instagram and the Nike+ Running app can push updates to Facebook and Twitter. Doing so would expand their reach, and expose an entirely new audience to the app. Do you use Lift? (If so, give me a follow – I’m Matthew Russo.)

What other apps utilize systems like this to make every step of their product a no-brainer? What can you do to talk your customers through the buying process as easily as possible?

This blog is created and maintained by:

Matthew Russo

Learn more about Matt here, or click on his face to connect elsewhere.

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