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Why building a viral kids app is so hard

This past Friday entrepreneurs building products for kids and families gathered in Mountain View at the Mamabear Conference to do what people do at conferences. Stemming from that gathering was an article: "Three reasons why building a viral app for kids is harder than it looks." This topic is vitally important for the growing number of companies seeking to tap into this market, especially when products live or die based largely on the efficacy of their own growth engine.

The fact that apps aimed at kids face challenges above and beyond what most app developers must deal with is lost on most people, including the author of the article who cites three reasons why building a viral kids app is so hard:

  • Complying with privacy guidelines
  • App-testing with more distracted users
  • Figuring out the content that works

The process by which one collects feedback from kids, and how one comes up with a sound content strategy optimized for children are important factors to consider when building an app for kids, but they have absolutely nothing to do with virality.

Virality has to do with how these products reach new customers by allowing it's users to bring new people into the fold. And how is that largely done today? Two ways: word of mouth and/or through an asynchronous electronic invite process.

Collectively, the technology industry has built and re-built the proverbial wheel of the social graph so many times, that we take it for granted. We have even reduced the discipline of building viral growth engines and invitation frameworks down to a rigorous and monotonous series of A/B tests that create meaningful returns by eeking out marginal improvements in percentage points here and there throughout the growth funnel. These systems however have all been built on assumptions that fall apart when your users are less than twelve years old:

  • Your users have an online identity.
  • Your users have reliable access to a mobile device.
  • Your ability to collect information from your users is not regulated in any way.

The need for an addressable online identity

Online invitation flows have, since the day they were invented, relied exclusively on one simple fact: that the sender and recipient both have an addressable online identity. It works like this: sender looks up a person in their address book, or on a social network, then sends them an invitation to join, and then at some point in the future the recipient opens and optionally responds to the invite.

Young children however rarely have an email address, and without it this flow breaks down before it has even started because the only other way for two children to connect is via their parents. Now the flow looks like this:

  1. Harper wants to play Words with Friends with Toby.
  2. Harper tells his mom.
  3. Harper's mom sends email/invite to Toby's mom.
  4. Toby's mom tells Toby, and Toby expresses interest.
  5. Toby and Toby's mom sit down when it is mutually convenient to look at the invite and sign up.
  6. Invite is accepted.
  7. Harper's mom is notified.
  8. Harper's mom tells Harper.
  9. Harper and Toby can finally play Words with Friends together.

The challenge of course in this process is the number of stars that have to align in order for it work, the least of which being that Harper has to retain his interest in the invitation and game long enough for it to run it's course.

Reliable access to a mobile device

The era of a fixed computing device in the home is coming to an end, whether that fixed device is a shared desktop PC tucked away on a desk somewhere, or even the gaming console attached to a TV in the den. What is increasingly capturing the attention of kids are mobile games - games that they have access to not only when they are at home, but also at a restaurant when their parents want to eat in peace, or in a grocery store when a parent just needs to get through the store without their children grabbing at everything they see asking, "can I have this?"

But even though a mobile gaming device is almost always within 10-20 feet of a young child at all hours of the day no matter where they happen to be, access to the device is still mediated by the parent. Further still, children are not conditioned to check email or even look for notification badges on their apps once a parent gives their consent to use the device. Children seek out the immediate gratification of throwing a pig, or jumping on one cloud after another, before they consider reading and responding to messages of any kind.

In other words, an app's ability to reach a child is stymied by the knowledge children have that their access to the device is an extremely limited and precious resource. Consider for a moment how your behavior would change if you could only use your mobile device for 30 minutes a day, and all in one sitting. In that world, every second counts and distractions are a huge liability to your getting what you want from the limited time you have.


Finally, even in a world where all children have an email address and all children are carrying around their own tablet or smartphone, app developers still have to worry about adhering to government regulations regarding the privacy of children... or risk hefty fines. The FTC says that companies cannot collect a child's first and last name, not to mention their email address without parental consent. And how does one obtain parental consent according to the new COPPA regulations that go into affect this summer (2013)? The parent must either:

  • Sign and send via snail mail a parental waiver to the developer.
  • Field a phone call conducted by trained personel employed by the developer.
  • Enter their credit card information at the developer's web site.

All of this so that an app can even collect the personal information necessary from or about a child so that an invitation process can take place to begin with. And to top it all off, consent has to be given by every parent in the invitation funnel. Simply put, this is asking more from parents than they are ever accustomed to give, all so that their kid can play a game they probably have never heard of before.


Any one of these hurdles is significant in and of itself, but put them all together and the very notion of a functioning and sustainable viral loop that connects young children to their peers seems a downright fantasy.

For a small percentage of entrepreneurs however, this challenge will be seen as an opportunity, and the company that cracks the code on viral growth among children will no doubt be very successful regardless of the merits of the game or app they are trying to propagate.

In the meantime, companies might fare better if they focused on more traditional word of mouth marketing campaigns, building a brand synonymous with trust and quality, and an experience parents value.

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