Virality, connectivity, and a charismatic host: HQ Trivia's glitchy secret sauce

The app's glitches and miniscule winnings aren't slowing it down. How the app became the biggest trivia sensation since Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? with minimal marketing.

(Image via HQ's Facebook page).
(Image via HQ's Facebook page).

HQ Trivia’s laughably low cash prizes, distracting glitches, and false starts aren’t harming the live quiz app’s retention rates. In fact, its user base has exploded since it launched last fall, with a record of more than 1.2 million people logging on to play a single game this week.

The app’s swift rise to fame has taken place with little to no promotion. However, one advantage the game does have is that it was created by two kings of virality, Vine cofounders Rus Yusupov and Colin Kroll.

"These guys know how to make things viral," says NRPR group CEO and founder Nicole Rodrigues. "This isn’t their first rodeo, it’s not their first go-around with tapping into a very engaged audience that likes to be entertained in short windows of time."

She adds that the prior experience of Yusupov and Kroll was key to HQ’s overnight success. Although HQ didn’t launch until October, a Twitter page was created for the app last July and used to build anticipation on social media.

"It’s like building a net you’re eventually going to cast and get people in," Rodrigues says.

When HQ finally launched, the company "killed it" with earned media, she notes. The app has been covered by The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, as well as several other noteworthy national and international outlets. However, influential outlet Recode has also covered the app’s "fundraising roadblocks" due to alleged improper or "creepy" behavior by its founders in prior jobs.

"People underestimate the value of very strong PR with great media outlets that are trusted," Rodrigues says. "These outlets are the third-party validation that companies, especially startups, need. You can’t buy a WSJ hit, you have to earn it. When people read that, they get excited, and that exposure goes across the web."

Other experts note HQ quickly caught fire because it has a simple concept with broad appeal. Games are easily consumable, lasting only about 15 minutes, and everyone likes a free way to win money. Its marketing strategy relies on word-of-mouth, with players earning extra lives by getting new users to sign up with their referral codes.

"By blasting out your referral code to friends and families, it lowers your chances of winning a bigger prize, but it’s the only way for you to stay in the game if you get a question wrong," says John Ratcliffe-Lee, VP of digital strategy at Ketchum.

Case and point: Molly Meller, an account coordinator at Relativity Ventures, found out about HQ from a coworker whose roommate told him about the game.

"You immediately think, ‘Wow, I can make money playing this,’" says Meller. "So it’s not just like playing Angry Birds or something. That really resonated with people: the fact you can make money."

Another key to HQ’s success is host Scott Rogowsky. It’s rare for a game of HQ to run from start to finish without several glitches, which leads to long periods of time between questions, causing some users to lose patience. However, Rogowsky’s quirky banter keeps the mood light.

"[Rogowsky] is one of those guys you can’t stop listening to or watching," says Ratcliffe-Lee. "He is good with puns and jokes. When you have 15 minutes to keep 1 million people tuned in, that’s pretty important."

However, Rogowsky isn’t always available. Each month, he takes a few days off, during which time HQ tests other hosts. Communications consultant Stephanie Agresta says other hosts haven’t engaged her as much as Rogowsky—and based on the show’s live chat, other users agree with her. It’s common for users to question, in all caps, "WHERE’S SCOTT? THIS NEW GUY SUCKS" or "#FreeScott."

"I was struck by how important it was that the host be incredibly entertaining," says Agresta. "Otherwise, it is a turn off; you don’t want to continue watching."

Consumers are also drawn to the game because it is a new concept—or rather an old concept made new again, taking the TV-age game show and modernizing it for the on-demand era.

"There are so many things out there, like on Netflix and YouTube, where you can click and watch what you want to watch whenever and wherever," says Jen Zimmerman, account director at LaunchSquad. "But you don’t have the interaction element you do when you’re all watching the Golden Globes and you can tweet about it and see all the reactions on Twitter."

She compares playing HQ to riding a Peloton exercise bike at home during a live class. Just like an instructor can remotely single out users, Rogowsky gives shout-outs to HQ players—or "HQties," to use the parlance of the game.

"I love watching Jeopardy, but Alex Trebek is not saying your name as you’re watching the show," says Zimmerman. "There’s that element of being in the game and having that connection with the host and other folks participating that makes it such a compelling game right now."

She adds that it’s a "powerful" experience for many people to be part of something simultaneously with hundreds of thousands of others. It’s a shareable experience that prompts some to stop what they are doing to play HQ with coworkers during the workday during one of its two daily tune-in times.

"They seem to have captured lightning in a bottle," says Zimmerman. "We saw this with Pokémon Go and a lot of other games where they have their moment in time and folks get bored and are onto the next shiny new object."

Experts note that HQ’s creators clearly have ambitions beyond developing the next flash in the pan. To do that, they’ll have to evolve the game while not turning off its players. That could include partnering with brands to diversify its prizes.

"It will be smart for HQ to start attaching to brands to keep it viral," suggests Rodrigues. "Brands could sponsor the game so players can win [things beyond cash prizes], such as Nike shoes."  

HQ representatives could not be reached for comment.

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