We love developing apps of all kinds, and social apps are no exception. Our most recent foray into social app development started with a visit from two entrepreneurs looking to build an app to create conversations through music. The result, Chime It lets users communicate with friends through music by snipping parts of songs from their music library to send to friends. About the same time, we partnered with another start-up to build an app called Empath. This social app allows users to share feelings anonymously but also build deeper relationships with people they care about.
We learned a lot and reinforced some previous lessons in the course of developing these two social apps. While the basic principles for mobile app development remain the same, there are some unique development considerations when building a social app. In our experience, the most successful social apps share some common features.
Essentials for Developing a Great Social App
Simple Onboarding: It’s critical for a user to enter a social app quickly and smoothly. One way to achieve this is by allowing users to sign in with another social login (like Facebook) to accelerate the sign-up process and leverage existing social connections. Another option, and the one we employed for both Chime It and Empath, is to send an authentication code to a mobile number via text or SMS message. While this second option does not offer the benefit of gathering user details and a friend network, it quickly gets a user engaged in the app.
Both Twitter and Facebook offer a mobile phone number authentication process that can be built into new social apps, and provide the social network benefits. In that process, they match your mobile number and those of your friends to establish connections or recreate those that already exist on their platforms.
Space for Self Expression: Users are unique and desire to express who they are, as they would in any other social setting. Allowing for individual identity through profile pictures, short bios, preferences, and the like increases credibility with others on the platform and lets user individuality and creativity shine through.
Personal Network: Two models exist to establish connections in successful social apps: friends and following. Friendships make more sense when a relationship is bidirectional. Following may be one-way, often building up “celebrities” in a community. Whichever mechanic is employed, doing so must be very easy for users since growing a community quickly is a primary goal. In Chime It, users start with their address book contacts and can add as many as they want at once, or add a new contact using a mobile number or Chime It user name. With Empath, users make connections with address book contacts all at once, with just one tap.
Tailored Feeds: Successful social networks employ news or status update feeds to create connection. Users generate copious amounts of content through their own check-ins, status updates, and video/audio/photo uploads and they also share others’ content. It’s important to determine what your particular users will want to know and share, and then arrange the news feed in a way that fits the needs of the user profile.
Sharing with Other Social Sites: One way to quickly build your user base is through sharing with existing social sites. Such sharing is valuable because it exposes what the user is doing in your app to friends on other social networks, helping to drive awareness and hopefully adoption. Depending on the content and purpose of your app, integrating with Facebook, LinkedIn, or Instagram could help broaden community. Alternately, if video or photography will play a big role, platforms like Instagram, YouTube, and Pinterest might be useful. And don’t forget discussion forums like Quora or Reddit for apps focused on sharing knowledge.
Private Communication: Many social apps contain built-in services to also enable secure private communication. Doing so not only helps to build deeper relationships among people in your community, but also means that users won’t need to leave your app to write a direct message to another person. Greater time in-app generally means greater retention.
Location Info: The benefits of location sharing include “near me” and geographically aggregated functionality, allowing users to answer questions like, “Which favorably-reviewed restaurants are near me?” or “Where are people enjoying the best hikes in Boulder?” These things are possible only if users choose to share their location with your app. While leveraging location can really enhance a social app, not all users will be willing to share their location. Take the time to ensure the user experience remains great regardless.
Reliable Security: Your users trust you with personal information, whether it’s photos of loved ones or personal reflections. They expect that the information will not be publicly distributed or attributed to them without their permission. You need to treat the data with care, encrypting it, transferring it securely, etc. If a user loses trust with your service, you will lose them as a customer.
Thoughts on Growing the Community
While these features create a strong backbone, success with social apps also requires growing your user base quickly. For an app to indeed be social, there must be a community with whom to interact. If your app does not have rapid adoption, it faces the “empty room problem,” where first users of your app struggle to find value before a robust community exists.
Empath addressed this challenge and provided value to new users by allowing them to track their own emotions and observe trends over time, without requiring interaction with others. Even if no one is yet reacting to a post, users can find value in looking inwardly. Then, as the number of individuals tracking their emotional state increases, there are more opportunities for the real magical moment, which happens when a friend opens up to you after initially posting anonymously on the platform.
Chime It first intended to support only direct communication between two people, similar to email. But to counteract the empty room, they added a public feed called the “Chimeline” that enables users to share audio clips with the community, in addition to directly with their friends. The Chimeline guarantees that even new users without a friend network on the platform will have some content to interact with when they launch the app for the first time.
There are many other ways to offer initial value and gain momentum. Norman Wiese does an excellent job overviewing the empty room and offering some solutions on the Tapglue blog.
Want to learn more or have an idea for a social app? Contact us. Or, if you need a broader overview of the general business and technical concerns when building an app, we encourage you to download a free copy of our book on app development.