Meerkat and the Lessons of Imploding Apps

For a couple days in March, the video-streaming app Meerkat seemed poised to take the tech world by storm. First it earned significant buzz at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas, which helped it rocket up the iOS charts; then its creators announced nearly $14 million in venture capital.

And then the bubble popped.

The pin that deflated Meerkat’s hopes and dreams was Periscope, Twitter’s own video-streaming app, which made its debut a few weeks after Meerkat hit the market. Periscope had several things going for it: Seamless integration with Twitter (which made a point of cutting off Meerkat’s access to its social graph), a slick interface, and a lot of aggressive promotion. As Periscope rose in the rankings, it seemed to cannibalize the audience for Meerkat, which plunged to 826 in the U.S. iOS app rankings by April 1, according to App Annie. (By comparison, Periscope stands at 46 on the same chart.)

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Meerkat isn’t the only app to endure an aggressively hyped rise, or an equally quick deflation. From Secret and Ello to Chatroulette, many an app has seemed like the Next Big Thing, only to have users abandon it in droves within a week or two. Fortunately, app developers can take some lessons from these collapses:

Watch the Competition: When you consider the optimum time to launch your app, make sure a major corporation (or even a well-funded startup) isn’t planning on launching a similar product in the same time frame. This is easier said than done; while some companies are courteous enough to broadcast their release time frame well in advance, others take pride in dumping software onto the marketplace with little or no warning. Meerkat would have been in better shape if Periscope hadn’t slammed down on it almost immediately.

Make Sure Your App Is Polished: Some developers feel they can release an app without all the necessary functionality in place, iterate later, and still have a hit. While this strategy has succeeded for some apps in the past, it doesn’t always translate into success, particularly in a crowded marketplace where developers quickly release clones of rival products. And if your half-baked app frustrates a user, it’s unlikely they’ll stick around long enough for you to make it perfect. If you have the time and money, make the app as complete as possible.

Anticipate Your Vulnerabilities: Meerkat evidently hoped that Twitter wouldn’t shut off access to the latter’s social graph. Other apps have proven similarly dependent on third-party services to spur adoption, with good reason: Piggybacking on a major property is an excellent way to grow quickly. (Just ask anyone who’s ever built a game for Facebook.) But dependency breeds vulnerabilities; as you work out your release strategy, plan for what you’ll need to do if a partner withdraws support.

Hype Is Good… to a Point: Hype has transformed many a product into a blockbuster. But hype sometimes leads to backlash, which can prove destructive, especially if the app’s fundamentals—number of downloads, revenue, etc.—don’t live up to the buzz. While an app’s creators have precious little control over the hype machine, they should anticipate that buzz could do just as much harm as good, potentially.

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Image: Meerkat

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