What Happens When App Growth Hacking Backfires

February 6, 2017 - 2 minutes read

If, like the vast majority of Americans, you have a phone and a few friends, you probably heard of “ChitChat” last week when a “friend” invited you via SMS.

You might be thinking the mobile app developers behind the app are celebrating a growth hacking victory. On the contrary, they’re probably in the process of doing a post-mortem on their launch. They’ve branded themselves as the “add you to my LinkedIn network” of mobile apps, with a firestorm of angry tweets lighting up Twitter almost immediately. Soon they were the subject of a TechCrunch article, the holy grail for newly-launched startups. But the title, “ChitChat is Silicon Valley’s spammiest new app,” kind of wrecks the prestige.

What happened here is what happens when startups put growth in front of user happiness. (And when venture capitalist Chris Sacca calls your app “the herpes of contact lists,” you know you’ve lost sight of user happiness.)

This is actually a common tactic for poorly-designed app launches, and one many San Diego app developers have been guilty of: ask for access to a user’s contact list, then automatically send a spam SMS to everyone in it. They don’t realize what’s happened until they get confused texts back from friends and colleagues asking “what on earth is ChitChat?” Are they going to become a loyal user of your app after that kind of abuse of trust? Unlikely, no matter how high-tier the features.

Swipe Labs, the group behind the app, has taken a lot of chances with their products, and built-in invite systems have often been a part of it. Did they set out to spam users? Not likely. The line between prompting users to invite friends and doing so behind their backs can be surprisingly fuzzy. When you’re not in the position to offer a reward or monetize one-to-one sharing, SMS prompts can be a dangerously effective tool to stimulate growth.

Mobile app growth, like most things, is most effective as a slow burn.

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