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Summary:

Are you receiving a barrage of text message “invitations” to try an app? Blame desperate messaging apps that are trying to “growth hack” their way to survival.

When Facebook acquired popular messaging service WhatsApp for an eye-popping $19 billion, other app makers took notice. And, fearful of missing out on a maturing market for “social” apps, some of those companies are trying their hand at what Silicon Valley types call “growth hacking” — or what the average person would call text message spam.

Those are the observations of Cathal McDaid of AdaptiveMobile, a network security firm that has produced a report naming some of the worst offenders for growth-hacking. Common tactics include getting users to blast everyone on their phone contact list with an invitation to try the app, or “alerting” a user’s friends whenever they do something ordinary like post a photo.

“It a two-part problem. There’s a tolerance for it, and a desperation to catch WhatsApp…It’s a very aggressive way of spamming,” McDaid told me, adding that some app makers can’t restrain themselves when they see their competitors resorting to such tricks.

While some social gaming apps like “Dice With Buddies” are guilty of spammy tactics, it is messaging apps like Tango, Glide, Kik and Secrets that are named as the biggest culprits. Here’s a graph from the report that I’ll explain below:

Screen Shot 2014-04-17 at 10.05.16 AM

The size of the bubbles reflect the number of spammy texts sent by the service, while their position to the right reflects how many complaints they have triggered. Finally, a bubble’s place on the vertical axis reflects how many more messages it’s sent compared to WhatsApp, which the report says abides by best practices (other “good” apps include Viber, Line and WeChat).

The good news in all is that some of the offenders are starting to shape up. According to McDaid, growth hacking has started to decline in recent weeks in part because Google has introduced new rules for its app store that go into effect this month and that limit how apps can exploit users’ contact lists. He added that iOS app makers “seem more restrained.”

AdaptiveMobile’s findings appear to be unbiased since it produced the report on behalf its phone carrier clients, which are anxious to crack down on the amount of spam text messages on their networks.

This article has been updated to correct an earlier misspelling of Cathal McDaid

  1. So glad to see this data published. It’s consistent with the data we’ve seen in our network. We call these spammers Text Pests. Our 8 million Zipwhip subscribers have been flagging these type of messages as spam over the last year and we’ve built in a feature to block such messages to keep the texting medium clean and healthy.

    Great article, great data.

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  2. Nichole Elizabeth Monday, April 21, 2014

    Growth hacking is not spam.
    Marketing is not spam.
    Spam is spam.

    Growth hackers’ long-term objectives are in line with increasing retention and decreasing churn. That is the opposite of a spammer’s objectives.

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