Today we release a notice to the industry on the use and misuse of types of Growth Hacking, which I think is timely, although this story has been a long time coming. I first heard the term Growth Hacking a few weeks ago, in relation to innovative ways for technology start-ups to grow themselves, its really just the buzz term for innovative/disruptive marketing. I was mildly interested until I came across this good article describing Growth hacking in sms, and the annoyance it has. I realised then that this has another term within AdaptiveMobile, we call these messages ‘app-spam’

App-spam is when on the installation or usage of a mobile app, the app informs or requests you whether you would like to ‘communicate/share/play/something’ with some or all of your contacts in the phone book on your mobile phone. If you select yes, then sms text messages are sent to your contacts telling them that you have joined and whether they would like to join you in your new app bliss.

This sound familiar? It should, our research analysis over the last 2 weeks shows that between 5.37 ->6.8 million of these are sent and received everyday in the US alone. Not that this is a US phenomenon only, it’s being seen across the world in every country. It seems that App Growth Hacking is here in force.

However, as you can imagine, there is a dark side to this form of Growth hacking, namely depending on how the app author decide to ‘hack’. If they do it aggressively, you as the mobile phone user are in danger of being labelled a spammer, or in one extreme case we have been monitoring for the last few weeks, if they do it very badly you are in danger of participating in an accidental DDoS attack on a wireless carrier.

First of all, while the better behaved apps simply ask you who would you like to invite, the more aggressive app developer really wants you to send that invite to your friends. This means that it in their interest that you are encouraged to do this, and so they design their app to direct you to do that. If you don’t believe me, try installing one of these currently popular and trending Apps: Secrets or Glide (the Android versions), and try to not invite all your friends!. Its possible – but believe me you’re going to seriously struggle to figure it out! But if you give up and decide to go ahead, all your contacts, including business associates or those you’d rather not know you have this app are going to get the pleasure of a bulk invite from your phone or with your name. Good for the app, bad for you if you didnt want all you contacts to know you installed that app.

Second, depending on your luck in app choices, those invites might be coming from your phone or not. This really varies by the app and the geography. App-spam invites being sent from your phone means that the person who receives them can put a name to them, and the app marketing bet is that people would be more likely to recognise and open them. However its more problematic as it can lead to phone charges for the sender, and messages being sent from your phone can be an issue if they’re perceived as unwanted- which happens every day. That means your contacts, especially the ones you are not communicating regularly with, might consider you a spammer, as the Invite message came from your phone. This method of enabling the growth hack is generally the more common. A different method is for your invites to be sent via a dedicated SMS sending account. This tends to be more secure and traceable, however its more expensive for the app developer to maintain and so is not as common for apps at the start of their life cycle.

Third, the content of the App invite message sent can be so vague and in fact misleading that it can lead to further annoyance and perception that the message is spammy.  Due to the reduction in spam levels achieved in the United States and other geographies, the prominence of these has become even higher.


Finally, and most seriously, in some cases we have come across Apps whose implementation of Growth Hacking is so poor, that they have negatively impacted the subscriber who installed the app and the mobile network itself. In one case 2 weeks ago we had to investigate a popular social communications app that is currently ‘going viral’ in certain parts of the world. Alerted by strange behaviour we found that some devices were sending up to tens of thousands of invites to the same numbers over and over. These numbers tended to be strange numbers like ‘111’ or ‘123456789’. After investigation, we established that these users had installed an App that was very difficult to not Invite all contacts. The problem which they did not consider is that a certain percentage of people have ‘Invalid’ contacts in their phone - short numbers, names with no phone number, disconnected phones - this is common behaviour (and is used to stop ‘butt-dialing’ amongst other things). However as this App simply ‘scooped’ all the contacts it got these accounts as well. From that point things got worse as it:

  • Did not check the numbers were valid
  • Was configured to sent invites to all contacts repeatedly, until the App received a response saying the message was successfully sent to that contact.

As these numbers didn’t exist or were not reachable, the App simply went into a loop – resending invites over and over while the phone was switched on. All told we registered this one App installed on barely two thousand devices sent close to half a million messages (440k) over the weekend of the 25th/26th of January!. As well as causing disruption to any subscriber that installed this app – one subscriber with several invalid contacts was recorded sending 30k+ invites during the two day period – they were also putting the unknowing subscriber in danger of disconnection for looking like spammers attempting to perform a mobile DDoS-like attack on the network via SMS. In addition our concern was as this app was still growing in popularity, the effect would rise enormously and affect the mobile operator’s service.

Thankfully, we identified and dealt with the problem in conjunction with our customers, and informed the App developer (who never responded but updated the app a few days later – I assume they got the message), but the effect would not have been as bad if this app hadn’t also directed its users to invite all contacts – we also informed them on this but they did not change that part.

Growth hacking using SMS invites has been brought up before but never with a recommendation on what to do. Several months ago, AdaptiveMobile was one of the first companies to bring this to industry attention, and we are working with various mobile industry bodies to more clearly generate recommendations on how to deal with this. In the interim, mobile operators are certainly within their rights to block these types of messages and can do so. This is because they clearly fulfil the classification of spam messages: being both bulk and unsolicited (in the minds of many of the recipients), and generate dozens of complaints every day.

I hope it does not come down to that, but application developers have the responsibility to build applications which do not engage in spamming or spam-like behaviour. That means:

  • Making it very clear what is being sent
  • Allow the user the option to easily define who receives the invite
  • Not giving the option to bulk-blasting to all contacts
  • Correct implementation of message sending

The vast majority of apps are well behaved and do not generate a greater proportion of problems than ordinary communications. What we need now is an idea of Ethical Growth Hacking, to ensure that the experience of those who install the invite & those who receive it, is as equally valued as the App developer’s desire to grow their user base.