Everyone has heard of something--an app, a YouTube video, or a gif of a sleepy meerkat--“going viral.” But what does that actually mean, and how does the concept factor into one of the fastest-growing sectors of Internet business: app development? Virality is more than popularity--it is the speed by which something comes to popularity and just how widespread it eventually becomes. The term “viral coefficient” describes how many people each new user will organically share a given bit of data with. If on average every person who downloads an app shares it with one other person, the viral coefficient of that app is 1. If on average there are two shares for every new user, the viral coefficient is 2, and so on. Seems like a tiny difference--one and two--but behind it lies the power of exponential growth, and it's hard to underestimate. Over a series of twelve cycles of sharing (each cycle a "passing on" of the data) a viral coefficient of 1 leads to an eventual user base of 12 whereas a viral coefficient of 2 results in a user base of 4,096. Add just one to get viral coefficient of 3? 265,720 users after just twelve rounds. You get the picture.
Now here's where it gets interesting. With the smart phone market sharply divided in two--between the iOS and Android--the ability of a user to share an app successfully is also cut in half. This means that even if an app has a viral coefficient of 1.5 (over the threshold for viral growth), it's functional viral coefficient is .75 and it misses out big time on potential growth. So instead of spending time "perfecting" an app for one system before rolling out to the other, the developer who wants to see his product take off is better off getting some version of it on both iOS and Android as soon as possible and, if the design is good, hoping math will do its magic. This way, an app's true potential for growth can be realized faster and each successive update will have more impact.
--Tony Peccatiello is an entrepreneur living in Brooklyn, New York. His new app Pyne is available for iPhone at http://getpyne.com
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