The marketing strategy behind tbh app that was acquired 9 weeks after launch by Facebook for $30M

TLDR Nikita Bier and his team were close to bankruptcy. They had funds for another 2 weeks of work. 9 weeks later their tbh app was acquired by Facebook for $30 million.


  • Aug 3, 2017 – tbh app was launched by Nikita Bier, Erik Hazzard, Kyle Zaragoza, and Nicolas Ducdodon

  • Aug 5, 2017 – They chose to launch tbh in high school in Georgia because it had the earliest semester start date. At the time they were nearly bankrupt

  • Aug 7, 2017 – 40% of the Georgia high school had downloaded the app. The app has also had spread to three more schools.

  • Aug 8, 2017 – tbh reached 3,000 schools

  • Sep 15, 2017 – tbh was ranked #1 in the U.S. App Store

  • Oct 2017 – tbh hit 5M downloads and 2.5M daily active users in 9 weeks, without buying a single ad or doing a single interview

  • Oct 16, 2017 – Facebook acquired tbh for an estimated $30M

  • July 2, 2018 – Facebook announced that tbh would be discontinued, due to low usage

Part I – Strategy & Tools

Friction-Free Engagement
After launching the app, the user immediately is bombarded with the notifications (gems) that someone has praised you.

This instantly encouraged users to stay on the app.

Set The Limits
Tbh’s polls were highly addictive – who doesn’t love to receive an ego boost?
The app only allowed you to answer 12 polls per hour, so the user never got sick of it and always craved for more.

tbh spoke in its users’ language – Gen Z.
The app used terms like:

  • tbh (to be honest)

  • slide into the DMs

  • most woke

  • most lit

Teenagers using the app felt like it was built by one of them.

User-generated Content & Moderation
Tbh allowed its users to create and submit their own polls.
They let the users control the content rather than guessing what users would like to see.

Thousands of poll suggestions were submitted by users. Tbh’s team simply had to filter through it and approve only the positive ones.
The work of an entire content team could be done by 1 person.

Uncovering The Mysterious Admirer
Later on tbh introduced direct messaging. This lets its users message someone who has already praised them. Praiser had an option to reveal their identity.

Solving Competitors Problems
Other anonymous apps (e.g. YikYak) had crumbled because they were unable to control users’ cyberbullying or racist comments.

Tbh succeeded because it limited people’s choices to interact – only via polls.
The polls were innocent “Who has the best smile?” or “Who makes you laugh the hardest?” and the user had an option to choose between four featured friends.

Designed For Virality
The app was designed specifically for viral growth. One could argue the whole app was the one big growth hack.

  1. Address Book – Before using the app, you needed to grant the app access to your address book, but it didn’t mean spamming the user’s contacts. This simplified to invite others.

  2. Gems – Every account needed to collect gems in order to unlock more features. To collect gems you needed to either answer more polls or gain new followers – which was simplified to the mere click of a button

  3. Sharing – Every tbh profile had its own unique link that users could easily copy to their Snapchat.

Start With Small Market & Restrict Access For Others
When you start a company you want to start with a small market and then move to the big one – Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal

By targetting directly each high school individually, one by one, tbh made sure to gain the critical mass among high schoolers to create a hype around it. After that, they moved to the next school.

Other than that, they only granted access to the app 1 state at a time, leaving kids online speculating when it would finally arrive to their state. This type of limited release aroused exclusivity and blew up demand.

Most companies go for an all-access immediate approach. They overestimate the demand for their product or service, thereby ruining the “restricted access” growth hack.

Utilized Instagram
The tbh fad had blown up with teens on Instagram. Users would offer to send “TBH” compliments to people who liked or commented on their photos

  1. Tbh noticed teens often list their high school in their Instagram bio.
    The company would visit a school’s location page and using their own Instagram account followed all accounts that included the school’s name.

  2. They would make one Instagram account for each high school it wanted to target. They made it private and left a mysterious CTA (call to action) in their bio.
    Something like “You’re invited to tbh at ANHS. Stay tuned.”
    The company found teens were naturally curious and would follow the private account back.

  3. They would then wait 24 hours to receive the upcoming Follow Requests.
    They were curious about the profile so they requested access

  4. At 4:00PM when highschoolers got out they added the App Store URL to the profile

  5. They made the profile Public – this notified all students at the same time that their Follow Request had been accepted.
    This led them to visit tbh profile, notice their App Store page, and try the app.
    By collecting users’ interest first, and later on contacting them simultaneously, they ensured critical mass during launch hour.

Part II – Psychology

Reciprocity Principle
People feel a sense of obligation to do something for you when you’ve done something for them.

When teenagers received a compliment on tbh, they felt obliged to give a compliment to someone else.

Curiosity is one of the deepest humans desires they need to fulfill. People cannot ignore the mystery.

When there’s a question, there needs to be an answer.
Every beginning has an ending, and so on…

Tbh team made sure to create an interest with the mysterious CTA just before the launch.

FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)
Social anxiety, originating from the belief that others might be having fun while the person is not present. It is characterized by a desire to continually stay connected with the newest information

Users didn’t want to miss the opportunity to get their ego boosted by the flattering opinion coming from their friends.
This kept them coming back.

The Hook Model
The Hook Model is a four-phase process that companies use to form customer habits products. At its core, it’s about keeping the user engaged and keep coming back.

In case of tbh, the model looked like this:

  1. Trigger – What gets the user to the product?

  • Internal – tbh gems

  • External – the need for validation

  1. Action – What is the simplest behavior in anticipation of reward?

  • Answer more polls

  • Invite friends

  1. Variable Rewards – Is the reward fulfilling, yet leaves the user wanting more?

  • The more gems you collect, the more features you unlock

  1. Investment – What is the “bit of work” done to increase the likelihood of returning? Also known as the Ikea Effect

  • The more features you unlock, the more people you invite, the harder for you is to quit the app

Validation Seeking
Humans are a social species. Because of that, we’ve developed the need for acceptance from others as a feedback mechanism informing us about fitting into the group.

Today’s need for acceptance differs of course from the one that evolved over millions of years. We don’t seek acceptance anymore as a form of survival mechanism (safety was in numbers – the bigger group, the safer).

Though doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect us as much. I would argue that due to social media we seek validation even more often.

The way people frame themselves and their identity based on how others respond to their posts are what made social media so powerful, including the tbh app. Teenagers as a demographic are the most prone to that. That’s why tbh worked that well on them.


Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed it I share more viral marketing/growth hacking examples here

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