MSQRD CEO Shares 5 Marketing Hacks Behind the App’s Viral Success

by Anna Pratskevich
MSQRD App Screenshot

Facebook acquired MSQRD (Masquerade), the company behind a viral photo and video filter app, for an undisclosed amount in March this year.

The 3D mask technology will be used in Facebook live video, which Mark Zuckerberg introduced at F8 conference. I caught up with Eugene Nevgen, the CEO of Masquerade and co-founder of SplitMetrics, an app store optimization platform, while he was in San Francisco for F8.

We met for coffee: Eugene and his co-founder, Sergey Gonchar, were still jet-lagged after their flight from Minsk, Belarus. Eugene just turned 24 (his co-founder is 23), so he was checking on his Facebook birthday posts as we chatted about the company’s successful exit, MSQRD’s team relocation to Facebook office in London, and his plans for the future. “I used to reach out to media myself and ask to write about us – and now everyone wants an interview. Someone recently asked me for an autograph. It’s crazy,” Eugene laughs.

3D Mask Filters for Celebrity Selfies

MSQRD used to let you put on celebrity masks and animated filters while shooting photos or recording videos. The app was featured on Jimmy Kimmel’s show and got over 16 million installs in the first couple of months after its launch. Among MSQRD’s multiple celebrity fans are Cara Delevingne, who posted several Instagram videos with Leonardo DiCaprio’s mask on, and Leo himself. Eugene started MSQRD at a 48-hour hackathon Garage48 in Minsk, Belarus in the fall of 2015.

His co-founder, Sergey Gonchar, a talented graphics programmer, came to Belarus from Montenegro to work on the project; he and Eugene went to school together and had known each other for a while. Together with their third co-founder Eugene Zatepyakin, an expert in computer vision and machine learning who actually authored the face-tracking algo employed in the app, the guys set off to build the product which was soon to make headlines all over media.

Eugene Nevgen (on the left) and Sergey Gonchar at Facebook Developer Conference Eugene Nevgen (on the left) and Sergey Gonchar at Facebook Developer Conference

As we sat down to talk about Eugene’s new life at Facebook and MSQRD’s impressive growth, I asked him to share some of his app marketing hacks.

#1: Localize for Culture, Not Just Language

“One thing that we quickly realized from the start is that we need to localize beyond the text,” Eugene said. “We didn’t just translate the app’s description and captions. We chose different masks for the first screenshot of MSQRD’s app store page. For example, Joseph Stalin’s mask, perhaps not surprisingly, worked better in Russia. For the United States, we chose celebrity masks – Leonardo DiCaprio and Snoop Dog. In Asia, we placed the panda filter first.” As a result of their custom approach to app page design in different countries, MSQRD, initially popular in Russia and Belarus only, quickly took off both in the United States and Asia-Pacific.

#2: Test if you should make a video preview

MSQRD Panda Mask

Media covering MSQRD acquisition often emphasized that the app became viral with zero money spent on marketing. I knew that Eugene was in app store optimization business prior to founding MSQRD, so I was curious to know why he didn’t leverage his expertise.

“We did optimize the app store page and, of course, we tested. For example, we found that the video preview improved conversion,” Eugene confirmed.

The way A/B testing works is you split ad traffic in half, and drive it to landing pages that mimic the app store. Eugene’s team had two identical pages set up, except that one had a video preview, and one didn’t. When a visitor got to the “emulated” app store, every click, scroll, and second spent on the page was tracked by the system.

According to Eugene’s team experiment, video preview improved conversion rate by 13%. It also decreased bounce rate from the page by 5% and increased the number of direct installs.

MSQRD Video Preview A/B Test in SplitMetrics MSQRD Video Preview A/B Test in SplitMetrics

#3: Remember you only have 12 seconds

“When we looked at on-page analytics from A/B tests, we found that 80% of visitors stopped watching video preview at 12 seconds,” Eugene shared. App store allows developers to upload video previews between 15 and 30 seconds. The same video will appear in all countries and regions. “By placing our most viral masks in the first seconds, we improved our conversion rate,” Eugene said.

#4: Design app store screenshots for search visibility

Less than 2% of people view screenshots in full-screen mode, according to the data from several experiments that Eugene’s team ran on MSQRD’s app store page. “Many designers preview app store screenshots in full-screen mode, assuming that’s what all people do,” Eugene, who previously worked as a UI designer, explained. “They won’t, so it’s important to make sure you use large fonts and keep the captions concise. Your app’s core proposition should be clear right away to whoever sees your app in search results.”

Tip #5: Ship fast and get the timing right
Right before the New Year’s, the guys added a monkey mask to the app’s 3D filter collection. According to the Chinese zodiac, 2016 is the year of the monkey. Thousands of people used the filter to record videos for friends and family.

In Eastern Europe, where the app first took off, people take their horoscopes seriously, buying themed decorations and toys, so the new mask timing was perfect.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s mask went viral on Instagram before the Academy Awards’ ceremony. After Jimmy Kimmel used MSQRD to morph into Leo DiCaprio on his show, the team quickly designed and added Jimmy’s mask to the app. Shortly after the new release, MSQRD made another appearance on TV; this time, Jimmy Kimmel featured his new personal 3D filter.

So How Do You Make Your App Successful?

MSQRD obviously had a great product and a stellar team (just like hundreds of other mobile startups). Riding the wave of seasonal interests and trending topics definitely helped. User adoption skyrocketed after the team added Leonardo DiCaprio’s mask at the time when millions of people were anticipating Leo’s first Oscar. Facebook extended its acquisition offer right as the social network was about to launch live streaming.

However, according to Eugene, none of that would matter if not for the data-driven approach to the product design and app store marketing.

Eugene evangelized the idea of a/b testing app store landing pages at his first company SplitMetrics and then applied to MSQRD.

You can get all pieces of the puzzle right, but if your landing page doesn’t convert, you’re missing the critical component. This is especially important if you’re betting on the spur-of-the-moment traffic. If you’re sending millions of users to a page that is not localized or optimized for conversion, a lot of those clicks are wasted. Morning after the Oscars comes, you’ve got to wait for another event and a different celebrity mask.