After the Gold Rush: Lessons on Platform Maturation from HQ Trivia

Associations could learn a lot from the popular live trivia game, which is facing challenges as its model matures. The problem? Eventually, the growth sputters out—which means user engagement matters.

Call me a die-hard, but HQ Trivia has been a daily ritual of mine for about two years now.

That admittedly makes me a bit of a rarity in mobile culture in 2019—the app, a nightly quiz game built around live video and set up in an “appointment viewing” format, has struggled to stay afloat. Famously, HQ had as many as a million simultaneous players on an average night at the start of 2018; now, it gets a fifth of that number. And replacement fans are hard to come by—apparently, downloads of the mobile game, for iOS and Android, have been down by a stunning 92 percent during the first six months of this year.

And now, there’s talk of layoffs.

But as the startup mobile quiz app loses its momentum in an age when digital competition is everywhere, I have to wonder if there are some parallels that associations should heed when trying to build mobile, interactive things—while ensuring that there’s still runway for that idea to fly a couple of years in.

Now, to preface: HQ has had some hard knocks against it over its relatively short existence, including the high-profile death of a cofounder and a series of cultural issues that have been reported in depth in other places. It also saw its star host, Scott Rogowsky, depart acrimoniously to become a sports commentator. (Fortunately his replacement, Matt Richards, isn’t half bad.) Certainly, any of these on their own would help take the sizzle out of their big “pop,” but together, it feels like an overwhelming amount of adversity. It’s led some to joke that HQ would make an excellent Social Network-style movie.

That said, you can set a lot of that aside when looking at what it represents: It’s a key example of a maturing application struggling to follow through on its initial launch strategy. Sound familiar?

It’s with that in mind that I offer these HQ-inspired suggestions for maintaining momentum for your tech initiative beyond the first year:

Don’t let the initial rush of excitement define you. Famously, early social networks like Facebook grew prominent by only focusing on small communities, allowing them to eventually see lasting success on a wider scale. HQ sort of did the opposite, which meant that a lot of people used it at once, but it proved less sustainable. Given the choice between flashy and sustainable, sustainable should win every time.

Find—and maintain—engagement with your existing users. There was a period where the best word to describe HQ’s growth was “hockey stick,” as millions of casual users took a chance on an app with novel game play that worked well in social settings. But growth like that eventually slows down, and the trivia game moves from driving massive growth to encouraging die-hards to come back every night. While having a lot of users for a specific product is ideal, you can still have a lot of success with a smaller audience of people who really want to use your tool or platform.

Keep squashing those bugs. HQ, on a technical basis, is trying to do something really challenging: It’s trying to send streaming video to a massive number of people at once, while offering interactivity. This is a killer feature. And it’s common for the game to buckle under the weight, whether due to video bottlenecks or app issues. These problems have likely scared users away—and it highlights the fact that working technology is often intrinsic to a functional platform.

Don’t become a slave to the model. For all the innovation that HQ brought to the mobile app space, you can argue that it got a bit stagnant over time by focusing on appointment-based events rather than offering a mixture of instant gratification and events. This was novel upon its launch, because most apps weren’t built this way, but it meant that it gave users nothing to do during the rest of the day. By the time the company started making changes, many of its users had already left.

Build a model for the users you have, not the users you want. The business model focus of HQ has been to have big prizes covered by advertisers that traditionally would use televised mediums to reach a large audience. (While its audience has shrunk, it still gets a decent number of ads.) But that doesn’t work if your user base is relatively small, as is the case of HQ’s sister game, the Wheel of Fortune-style HQ Words. The company is testing a membership model to see if it can compel a smaller number of people to pay a monthly fee for a bigger prize. Will it work? Who knows. But it at least reflects that HQ appears to understand that a business model pivot may be needed.

If your association launches an app, an online course, or a professional community, odds are that you’re going to run into a microcosm of what HQ has run into: a rush of usage, but then a period where things slow down. It’s the nature of the internet when a tech tool is intended to be interacted with, not simply read.

And to be fair, HQ does a lot of things right—it makes people creatures of habit. But given its massive period of early growth, it makes sense that it might struggle nailing down the execution. It needs to focus on the people who made it a habit—as should associations in building out platforms of their own.

The hockey stick won’t be around forever.

HQ Trivia host Matt Richards, who replaced Scott Rogowsky earlier this year. (Handout photo)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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