Engage Millions of Users With Mobile Community-Building Lessons From Untappd

Begun as a side project by its co-founders, Untappd has become a vibrant community

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Around 2009, check-in apps became all the rage. Foursquare took off at SXSW and shortly after the festival, the act of checking in became ubiquitous. People were habitually opening their phones to check in to a location and let the world know where they were.

Fast forward seven years and the check-in app is still around. While some of the original companies are facing challenging times, one app (in a surprising niche), has continued to thrive since it launched in 2010.

Untappd, the self-described “Foursquare of beer,” allows users to check in when they’re drinking a beer. Users check in to the specific beer they’re drinking—checking in to the bar or place they’re drinking it is an optional step—and the app lets the user’s social networks know what beer they’re drinking.

As users build a taste profile from their history of check-ins and beers they’ve rated, Untappd will recommend new beers for the user to try in their current location.

Untappd is the passion project of two entrepreneurs, Greg Avola, and Tim Mather. Despite living across the country from each other, working full-time jobs, and having only met each other in person a handful of times, the two have managed to build an app that has nearly three million registered users. Avola and Mather have been able to build an impressive user base in their spare time due to their focus on the beer drinking community and through features that not only delight the user, but encourage continued use of the app.
Untappd app check-in

Origin story

Back in 2008 Greg Avola was building his own Twitter clone and needed some design help. He turned to Twitter (of all places) to ask for help. Shortly after he sent the tweet, Tim Mather responded. The two hit it off and worked on a few freelance projects before teaming up to build Untappd.

In the summer of 2010, around the time Foursquare was becoming really popular, the two were kicking around ideas to expand Foursquare’s check-in system. Avola and Mather are both craft beer enthusiasts. They appreciate the finer points of beer, much like a sommelier with wine. They felt that despite beer-drinking being inherently social, there wasn’t anything in the digital space that took advantage of beer’s social qualities.

That’s when they decided to combine check-ins, their love of beer, and their tech expertise to build Untappd. Forty-eight hours later they had a working prototype.

Product marketing budget

Finding success with a mobile app is quite difficult. There are thousands upon thousands of mobile apps all jockeying to carve out some type of success or blow up and become the next WhatsApp.

You can read countless articles about early mobile growth strategies, but the one common trait among successful apps is the “stickiness” factor. Great product trumps large marketing budgets during the early stages of a mobile app.

Apps that do well solve a specific problem and are so enjoyable for the user that they can’t help but talk about it. Untappd focused on creating a highly valuable app for a specific niche: beer drinkers.

Translating beer enthusiasts’ behavior to app success

To the average beer drinker, a can of Coors Light is acceptable and a bottle of Blue Moon is treating yourself. But to a true beer enthusiast, those two beers just aren’t options. Beer enthusiasts are on a mission to find their next favorite beer. It’s this neverending search that is the backbone for Untappd’s marketing success.

By framing Untappd as the “Foursquare of beer” in the early years, the team piggy-backed off the increasingly ubiquitous behavior of checking in that Foursquare made popular. They didn’t have to educate the market and change anyone’s behavior. Uptappd let beer drinkers combine their existing behaviors of checking in and searching for the next great beer.

As users began to check in to new beers, they compiled a list of vetted beers for themselves and their friends. If they found a hidden gem, they didn’t have to commit the beer to memory or make a note to remember the beer later. They simply had to open Untappd and check in to the beer.

As food blogger Peter Rappaport put it, “I love Untappd for two reasons: remembering new beers that I’ve tried so I can purchase them later and the recommended beers they give me that they think I’ll enjoy.”

How Untappd hit the tipping point

Similar to other insanely successful startups like Slack, the Untappd team didn’t invest in marketing. For the entirety of the company’s history, it’s just been Avola, the backend developer, and Mather, the front-end designer. No VP of Marketing or Director of Communications to help them get the word out. No venture capitalist calling in favors. Just the two of them, their love of beer, and their connection to the beer-drinking community.

Avola cites a Mashable article as the tipping point that brought Untappd’s initial flood of traffic. The article wasn’t the result of a concerted PR effort. Rather, it was sparked merely by one journalist’s love for the app.

When I asked Avola about the article, he said, “It was completely unexpected, and the post went up around 2am EST—so we were scrambling to make sure we could handle the traffic.”

From there, the Untappd team was hit with crushing traffic. As the app grew, every Thursday to Saturday was a technical battle. The team was constantly fighting app crashes and worked vigorously to keep their infrastructure in step with their traffic. But when they finally resolved these technical issues, what they had was an app with market fit.

Growth through community

Untappd app community featuresEventually the bump from the article wore off and it was up to the Untappd team to find ways to drive growth. Since Avola and Mather still had full-time day jobs, they had to be smart about where they allocated time. They relied on solid community building to continue Untappd’s growth.

What started as a simple check-in app had grown into a hops-powered recommendation engine. Avola and Mather built community-focused features to help promote beer discovery, social sharing, and more word of mouth.

The team added new features like:

  • Nearby Beers
  • Trending Beers
  • Nearby Bars
  • Nearby Breweries
  • Top Rated Beers

These new features gave users more reasons to open the app on a regular basis and continuously engage with the community: they stayed true to beer enthusiasts’ behavior of searching for new beers. Now users could rely on the community’s collective taste to see what beers were trending to discover new beer.

Untappd then gave breweries the ability to “claim” their brewery, similar to Yelp. This move helped foster an on- and offline community. Breweries began placing signs at their bars encouraging patrons to check in on Untappd and rate them. With breweries able to directly communicate with beer fans, the community grew, adding more value and interest for beer drinkers. This claim-a-brewery feature was great for user acquisition and for retention.

The community of one

Perhaps the single greatest feature that enabled Untappd to retain new users was its three-pronged social feed within the app. While most social apps rely on your own personal social network for an app to be valuable, Untappd bypassed this need by adding a Global and Nearby feed.

Untappd app social feeds

Therefore, if a new user didn’t have any friends on the app, they were still able to be part of an active beer drinking community. They could browse strangers’ beer check-ins and get the same value on Day 1 as someone who had been using the app for months and had 100 friends in their feed.

This sense of community, whether you had friends using the app or not, is really what propelled Untappd to millions of users.

Continuing engagement

Avola and Mather are well aware that all app downloads aren’t equal. Most apps only retain half of their users a week after download. To combat churn, they implemented community measures that keep users engaged after download.

The first is the badge-earning feature, which the Untappd community loves to participate in. Every two months Untappd lets its community vote on the next wave of badges. Not only does this involve the community in the decision process, but to earn these badges, users check in multiple times, boosting use of the app. For example, to earn the “Radler” badge, users must check in to five beers that are considered Radlers.

Additionally, Untappd’s recommendation feature was cited by several users I interviewed as a reason why they love the app. As the recommendation algorithm has become more refined, users have discovered more beers that are relevant to their tastes. These recommendations not only add value in themselves, they encourage users to keep checking in to provide the app with better data for the algorithm.

As Untapped approaches its six-year anniversary, the app is continuing to enjoy considerable success. The app has more than 2.8 million registered users who have combined for more than 250 million beer check-ins. What do those numbers look like in practice? Avola shared that at 8pm EST this past New Year’s Eve, the app reported 1,100 check-ins per minute. By leveraging existing behaviors, understanding an audience’s needs, and delivering value that encourages engagement, Untappd has built a dedicated community of millions of users.

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