Recently, I started looking into the explosively popular new game Kim Kardashian: Hollywood. The game has ranked at or near the top of Apple’s U.S. App Store charts for the most downloaded free game. Industry watchers say the app could gross $200 million annually and net Kardashian a sizable chunk of the game’s profits.
My line of work is researching what makes some products so compelling and in the case of the Kim Kardashian game, I wanted to know what was behind the app’s phenomenal growth.
I soon discovered that one potential driver of all of its installs is a rather sneaky tactic that exploits user error and can unwittingly post messages to players’ Twitter accounts.
It’s called the “viral oops.”
Unlike viral loops, which are actions users take in the normal course of using a product to invite new members, viral oops rely on the user ‘effing-up.
A classic example of a viral loop can be found in a product like Paypal. If one user wants to send cash to another, the receiver generally opens a Paypal account to redeem the funds. Conceivably, when the new user wants to send money themselves, they’ll usher-in more new members and the loop continues.
However, in the case of a viral oops, the user doesn’t realize what they’ve just done. A viral oops isn’t necessarily a deception by the company -- in the way sending messages without the user’s permission might be -- rather, it is more of a digital sleight of hand. Like a magic trick, when retracing the steps to figure out what just happened, it’s obvious how the viral oops occurred and the user most often blames themselves rather than the company for allowing the misstep.
In the case of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, the game begins innocently enough. The Kim Kardashian game is a classic role-playing game where players take the part of an up and coming Hollywood celebrity determined to climb the ranks up to “A-List” status. To get there, players must pass through lower levels of stardom on the E, D, C, and B-Lists. Moving through these levels requires completing tasks like posing for magazines, going on dates, and as best as I can tell, shoplifting for Kim Kardashian.
Finishing a task requires repetitive thumb tapping that uses-up energy points. Energy is replenished by waiting for a period of time or by paying real dollars to get back into the game. This is how the millions are made, but that’s not the sneaky part.
Here’s how the viral oops works: The Kim Kardashian game features a “feed update,” which pops-up occasionally to provide news and gossip like a Twitter account. Fictitious characters in the game like Paris Hilton lookalike @WillowPape update their feeds with hashtag-filled 140-character bursts -- just like on Twitter. A constant count of “fans” hovers on screen, further giving the impression that the game has it’s own version of Twitter.
When the game asked me to follow a news reporter named Ray Powers by his handle @StarNews_Ray, doing so felt like part of game play. Naturally, I assumed that the Twitter in the game isn’t the real-world Twitter. How could it be?
In the screen shot below my avatar reads tweets between @WillowPape and @StarNews_Ray, both fictitious characters in the game, right? Not exactly.
Unbeknownst to me, when I followed @StarNews_Ray in the game, my real world Twitter account also began following @StarNews_Ray and apparently I’m not the only one. The real-world Twitter account of fake @StarNews_Ray has racked-up over 400,000 followers.
Now the trap was set for the viral oops. During my first session of play, the app offered points for sharing news on (what I assumed was) in-game Twitter. However, what I thought was fake Twitter turned out to be real Twitter and the tweet was sent to thousands of my followers’ streams.
The game automatically posted, “I'm now an E-list celebrity in Kim Kardashian: Hollywood. Come join me and become famous too by playing on iPhone!” and included a link to download the app.
A search on Twitter revealed multiple similar tweets posted every minute. It is unclear how many of these tweets were sent by people unaware of what was happening but in the month of July over 396,000 similar auto-populated tweets were sent. One of those tweets which was certainly not intentional was from the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Water, which quickly deleting the post after realizing the error.
It appears all these mistakes were no accident. However, according to Glu Mobile’s CEO, Niccolo de Masi, cases of people mistakenly tweeting from the game are rare. “There is always .0001% of people who get confused,” de Masi told me. “When you have this many people installing the game,” de Masi said during our call, “you’re going to have a lot of people playing that haven’t played games before. It’s a symptom of tremendous success and popular appeal.”
Perhaps as de Masi argues, the people making this mistake are tech novices. However, even Sarah Buhr, a reporter for TechCrunch and conceivably one of the most tech-literate people around made the very same error, admitting, “What the game neglected to tell me is that it would tweet out to all my followers in real life that I, a grown woman, was playing Kim Kardashian Hollywood.”
De Masi was quick to point out that, “this is the best reviewed game in the app store” and that the company has not heard significant complaints from players. He credited Kardashian’s celebrity and massive social media following for the game’s popularity.
Glu Mobile insists there is no intent to deceive but De Masi would not comment on what percentage of installs came from Twitter. De Masi believes the game is growing through word of mouth -- people just want to tell others about it.
Regardless of whether the tactic is something the company is doing consciously or not, it appears to be benefiting from all the tweeting. De Masi said, “Glu as a company doesn’t spend as much money as competitors [on user acquisition] … We spend 15% whereas our competitors spend 40%.” As is often the case with the viral oops, I wasn't sure if even the game maker wasn't fooled into thinking all that tweeting was authentic.
When I asked De Masi whether the company had any plans to change the game, his response was that the problem was “not an issue” and “not on our radar as far something that has been a concern to millions of fans.”
Clearly, the 2.8 billion minutes players have spent in the Kim Kardashian game is a testament to its appeal. However, how much of the game’s growth is a result of real player endorsements versus a technological sleight of hand called the viral oops, is still an open question.
Top Consumer Psychology Articles
- The One Fitness App That Hooked Me For Good
- Here's How Fortnite 'Hooked' Millions
- How Apps Can Shape Your Future Self
- How Netflix's Customer Obsession Created a Customer Obsession
- Want to Design User Behavior? Pass the 'Regret Test' First
- How to Trigger Product Usage that Sticks
- How to Get People to Help Each Other, Online and Off
- Here's How Amazon's Alexa Hooks You
- How to Use Psychology to Make Persuasive Video
- How to Use Personality Science to Drive Online Conversions
- The Unbelievable Future of Habit-Forming Technology
- The Secret Marketing Power of Evolutionary Psychology
- Don’t Ask People What They Want, Watch What They Do
- How Cognitive Biases Can Help (and Hurt) Your Business
- What Most People Don't Know About Behavioral Design
- How to Start a Career in Behavioral Design
- Your World is Full of Placebo Buttons (and That's a Good Thing)
- How to Build Technology that Feels Like a Friend
- 3 Pillars of the Most Successful Tech Products
- Here's How to Ethically Manipulate Other People
- How Two Companies Hooked Customers On Products They Rarely Use
- How to Hook Users in 3 Steps: An Intro to Habit Testing
- Die Dashboards, Die! Why Conversations Will Reinvent Software
- The Secret to Sending Emails and Notifications That Work
- How to Win Your Competition’s Customers
- Hooked for Good: How Habit-Forming Products Improve Lives
- Good Products Start With Good Questions
- Human + A.I. = Your Digital Future
- Why 'Assistant-As-App' Might Be the Next Big Tech Trend
- People Don’t Want Something Truly New, They Want the Familiar Done Differently.
- 4 Ways to Win Your Competitor's Customer Habits (Slides)
- Here’s Why You'll Hate the Apple Watch (and the Important Business Lesson You Need to Know)
- The Secret Psychology of Snapchat
- The Psychology of Notifications: How to Send Triggers that Work
- How Technology Tricks You Into Tipping More
- The Limits of Loyalty: When Habits Change, You're Toast
- 4 Ways to Use Psychology to Win Your Competition's Customers
- The Real Reason “Stupid” Startups Raise So Much Money
- The Psychology Behind Why We Can't Stop Messaging
- The Psychology of a Billion-Dollar Enterprise App: Why is Slack so Habit-Forming?
- Framing Reward is as Important as Reward Itself
- A Free Course on User Behavior
- It’s Not All Fun And Games: The Pros and Cons of Gamification at Work
- Getting Traction: How to Hook New Users
- Designing for Behavior Change Book Review
- The Sneaky Trick Behind the Explosive Growth of the Kardashian Game
- How Successful Companies Design for Users' Multi-Device Lives
- The Link Between Habits and User Satisfaction
- What Triggers The Best Word of Mouth Marketing?
- What Tech Companies Can Learn from Rehab
- The Secrets of Addictive Online Auctions
- Teach or Hook? What's the Real Goal of Online Education?
- Using Mind Control to Raise Startup Cash
- How To Build Habits In A Multi-Device World
- How To Cope with Your Insane Jealousy Of The WhatsApp Deal
- Why Do Fads Fade? The Inevitable Death Of Flappy Bird
- You'd Be Surprised By What Really Motivates Users
- Nostalgia: A Product Designer's Secret Weapon
- How You Can Help Users Change Habits
- Is “Lean Startup” Right for Your Idea?
- Hunting for Habits: Keying in on smart design to make a product irresistible
- Are Companies Too Obsessed With Growth? How to Measure Habits
- Refresh: The App a Secret Agent Would Love
- Angel or Devil: Who’s Really Investing In Your Start-Up?
- In 10 Years, We Won't Use Personal Technology
- 4 Simple Things I Did to Control My Bad Tech Habits
- "Yes, And": The Two Words that Created a #1 App
- From Laid to Paid: How Tinder Set Fire to Online Dating
- What if In-App Purchases Came to Real Life?
- Hooking Users One Snapchat at a Time
- How To Save Your Startup From The “Spotlight Effect”
- Bible App: Getting 100 Million Downloads is More Psychology Than Miracles
- How to Boost Desire Using the Psychology of Scarcity
- Marketplaces & The Curse of the Network Effect
- Today's Behaviors, Tomorrow's Startups
- Venture Capital and The Superstitious Investor
- The Future is Driven by Interface Changes
- Why Business is Addicted to Habits
- Viral Loops Or Viral 'Oops'?
- Making a Marketplace
- What Killed Turntable.fm?
- What You Don't Know About Human Intuition Can Hurt You
- Designing to Reward our Tribal Sides
- New Video - "Hooked: Building Habit-Forming Products"
- How Technology is Like Bug Sex
- Ways To Get People To Do Things They Don’t Want To Do
- The Network Effect Isn’t Good Enough
- Mass Persuasion, One User At A Time
- How Investment Drives Engagement (Slides)
- Getting Your Product Into the Habit Zone
- Where Have The Users Gone?
- Infinite Scroll: The Web’s Slot Machine
- Designing User Habits Video
- Psychology of Sports: How Sports Infect Your Brain
- This is Your Brain On Boarding: How to Turn Visitors Into Users
- User Investment: Make Your Users Do the Work
- Behavior by Design Video
- When Designing for Good Is Bad
- Stop Building Apps, Start Building User Behaviors
- The Morality of Manipulation
- The Next Secrets of the Internet
- User Growth and Engagement: A Hacker Metric
- Spotting the Next Facebook: Why Emotions are Big Business
- The Billion Dollar Mind Trick: An Intro to Triggers
- Why Everyone Hates I.T. People
- Hooking Users In 3 Steps: An Intro to Habit Testing
- Abolish The Reference Check
- Variable Rewards: Want To Hook Users? Drive Them Crazy
- How to Design Behavior (The Behavior Change Matrix)
- How To Design For “Normals”
- Hooks: An Intro on How to Manufacture Desire
- User Habits: Why Startups Must Be Behavior Experts
- What Is, and Is Not, Your Product's Job
- Pinterest’s Obvious Secret
- Personalized eCommerce Is Already Here, You Just Don’t Recognize It
- Where is the Web Going?
- The Developer Divide: When Great Companies Can't Hire
- Being a Quitter Makes You a Good Entrepreneur
- Behavior by Design
- Why You Should Run Your Business Barefoot
- Are you a Startup Star, Wacko, or Wannabe?