BeReal has become one of the biggest social apps of the last few years. From the outside, it doesn’t seem particularly different from Snapchat or Instagram, you take photos and share them with your friends, yet it has topped the app store charts for much of 2022 and has grown to 10 million daily active users (up from 710,000 a year ago).
It didn’t grow like other massive apps by giving out free money, attracting celebrities, or creating viral content. It had bottom-up growth from people wanting to use and recommend it. To answer how BeReal succeeded, we can look at the special actions the company took at each step of the user journey from first hearing about BeReal to becoming a daily active user.
Real World Word of Mouth
You likely heard about BeReal through word of mouth because BeReal does an excellent job at breaking into the real world. BeReal sends a notification that prompts users to stop what they are doing and post a photo. There is a sense of urgency that makes others curious. This urgency requires BeReal users to explain what they are doing, and it becomes a recommendation for others to join.
When I get a BeReal notification, I shift to thinking about what I’m going to post. If you’re with other BeReal users, you often get told when there is a notification and are suddenly coordinating a variety of photos.
I can imagine high schools and universities across North America shutting down for two minutes by a BeReal notification, and people who weren’t involved getting major FOMO. It makes people curious and drives them to download the app too. As proof of the purposefulness of this, college ambassador programs are one of the only things listed on their site.
This real-world interaction provides real-world social benefits. It gives people something to talk about and break up their day. Taking a BeReal with friends today could lead to conversations about what you took photos of or what you saw recently.
It reminds me of other apps that became habits for many people such as HQTrivia and Wordle. There is a magic to having a daily social habit with others. It is something to talk about and to break up monotonous days. They do not ask you to spend hours each day browsing, developing an ability to post well or creating a growth strategy. These daily games give you something to do and rewards from others for doing it.
The daily usage of these apps creates many opportunities for word of mouth, and that leads to the next piece of BeReal’s success: its simplicity. The limited scope of BeReal makes it easy for existing users to recommend it and help onboard new users.
Limited Core Interaction Loop
Once someone has heard of BeReal, it is time for them to try it. Luckily, it is simple. Get one notification per day (at a random time), take a double-sided photo, and see everyone you follow who did the same. Finally, you can send or receive reactions and comments on photos. This is its core interaction loop: an action (sharing a photo) and a reward (your friends’ photos, reactions, and comments).
BeReal limits this core interaction loop. Too many apps try to do everything for everyone all at once, rather than focusing on figuring out a core interaction loop. Trying to shift someone’s behaviour to fit your app can require significant change and investment from users. It can be overwhelming if that investment is too large. Also, if users don’t receive enough rewards for doing it, they simply stop and leave. Those users can always go back to the big social media sites they know work.
BeReal’s core interaction loop works and doesn’t require a massive time investment from users. Unlike many other popular apps, they aren’t dedicated to taking up as much of your time as possible. It feels impossible to open TikTok, Twitter, Instagram, or YouTube without spending hours browsing them. BeReal doesn’t have an algorithmically-optimized, attention-devouring feed. The content you see wasn’t worked on for days or weeks, it is what is happening now. BeReal is not trying to optimize the amount shared, ads clicked on, or time spent on the app (yet).
The endless attention seeking of social media platforms overwhelms many people. Apps always desperately want us to open them so we can sacrifice our attention to them. This abuse leads people to ignore or turn off push notifications for many apps. BeReal doesn’t do this. It limits push notifications to the time to post and when your friends post afterwards. Even the feed is blocked off until you post for the day. By doing this, it maintains the value of its notifications, a key part of its core loop.
The core interaction loop doesn’t work if people aren’t posting. Unlike other platforms, BeReal can’t rely on celebrities, models, or professional content creators to create content that gets lots of attention. They need everyone to participate. They’ve done this by providing structure for creation and making it low-pressure.
Low-Pressure, Structured Content Creation
Once you’ve tried it a couple of times, BeReal makes it easy to get hooked. The process for creating content is low-pressure and structured. There isn’t an expectation of high-quality content and many of the creative decisions, such as time and place, are made for you.
BeReal doesn’t require an elaborate “content strategy” or skill for taking photos. This works because it is framed around “authenticity” so you don’t lose status for posting bad content. There isn’t pressure to post something good, anything works. Once you post for the day, you are rewarded with seeing your friends’ posts. The “professionals” haven’t flooded BeReal yet, it still feels casual and that is nice.
Most people share random photos each day such as them watching TV, at work, or outside. Occasionally, you get a lucky notification while you are doing something interesting. For example, TikTok is filled with clips of people getting the BeReal notification at a Harry Styles concert and screaming with glee. All the mundane posts make the special posts feel even better.
Taking pictures with both the front and back camera at once also forces authenticity and lowers pressure. No matter how much you plan one half of the post, the other half could be messed up. I know when I’m focusing on what the camera is looking at, my face can look stupid. On BeReal, it’s ok because I have a smaller number of friends on there (it is a social graph reset), that photo goes away tomorrow, and everyone else is doing the same.
By taking the pressure off posting, people are more likely to do it, especially when they still get the rewards and status for doing it. As long as BeReal maintains the core interaction loop of taking photos and getting rewarded, people will continue to use it.
The biggest challenge BeReal will face in the future is maintaining all of this while introducing monetization. In an opposite trend to the algorithmic feeds, you need friends to use BeReal. TikTok, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter all show you content from people and companies you don’t know because it makes money. BeReal mostly hasn’t done that yet (they do have a global feed, but it isn’t the main one), but it does have the youth’s attention that brands desire.
BeReal is likely working hard to figure out the balance between monetization, brands, and the core interaction loop. If their core interaction loop decays or gets boring, they are in trouble. Their rapid growth has also meant less lock-in. Users don’t have a long history of elaborately crafted posts to hold onto.
Monetization is a threat to BeReal’s core interaction loop. When platforms monetize, they create features for brands. When those features make money, they become more focused on expanding those features. As we’ve seen with Facebook and Instagram’s focus on “engagement” and ads, features for brands and pros can overtake the entire core loop and leave a platform that looks nothing like it did in the past.
For the sake of the future of social media, I hope BeReal maintains the balance between its core user-focused interaction loop and monetization.
Let me know what you think on Twitter.
Thanks to Jeremy Nguyen, Jude Klinger, and Leo Ariel from Foster for the feedback.