HQ Trivia Is Dictating When and How Consumers Use Apps and Inspiring a Host of Imitators

It's providing a potential model for marketers

A silver hand holds a phone up to the ear of a bearded man in a colorful suit, against a purple background.
Scott Rogowsky is known as “Quiz Daddy” to fans. Photo: Justin Bettman for Adweek; Suit: Shinesty; Prop styling: Dianna McDougall
Headshot of Lauren Johnson

Since December, twice a day, like clockwork, Terry Berger, a 17-year-old high school junior from Atlanta, has been playing HQ Trivia, the mobile app game-show sensation. At 3 p.m. Berger, her fellow students and teachers huddle together over their smartphones, answering often silly, mostly vanilla questions about pop culture, science and history for the chance to win cash prizes. At 9 p.m. she’s at it again, this time with her family. In fact, HQ’s daily-double playing schedule is so drilled into Berger’s internal timetable that she doesn’t even need the app’s triggered push notifications to remind her it’s game time.

Nearly two weeks ago, Berger won $9.50, and while not exactly Powerball spoils, she calls it “the most exciting moment of my life,” saying, “I just [like] the thrill of playing, knowing that it’s a real money prize and seeing how many people are playing—you want to be a part of that.”

Justin Bettman; Suit: Shinesty; Prop styling: Dianna McDougall

Like Berger, scores of players in offices, schools, factories and cafés across America—known as “HQties”—have made the game-show app their twice-daily habit. According to the app-research firm Sensor Tower, since launching in August, HQ has been downloaded more than 5 million times.

For those few uninitiated souls, HQ works like this: In real-time, the show’s emcee poses 12 questions with three possible answers, while players vie for a shot at splitting a jackpot—averaging anywhere from $1,500 to $25,000. (HQ doesn’t run ads, subscriptions or sponsored content; it’s completely fueled by venture funding.) On Super Bowl Sunday, 2 million people logged on for a single session, angling for $20,000 in winnings (168 people shared the prize). As for HQ’s main host, one-time stand-up comic Scott Rogowsky (“Quiz Daddy” to fans) has become a bona fide breakout star (see Adweek’s Q&A with Rogowsky).

The brainchild of Rus Yusupov and Colin Kroll, co-founders of video app Vine, HQ is a throwback to the old group quiz shows stretching back to World War II, paired with the best elements of mobile gaming and live video. More than merely the digital version of Jeopardy! or, say, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? however, HQ has turned our current fetish for whenever-you-want-it entertainment on its head, creating a shared, communal experience. And that, say marketers and brands, has potentially broader ramifications when it comes to cracking the digital universe to reach consumers.

HQ Trivia is 7 months old.

“People are scheduling their days around playing HQ,” says co-founder and CEO Yusupov, “and it’s a very dramatic shift from what we’ve been seeing in digital media with Netflix, Hulu and these services that promise convenience.” What distinguishes HQ, he says, is “these shared moments,” much like back in the day of Must-See TV.

Only 7 months old, HQ has already spawned a host of knock-off game apps like The Q, Cash Show and TopBuzz’s Beat the Q.

Will Jamieson, CEO of video platform Stream, created The Q in December after he noticed HQ’s app was buggy with lags and other glitches and offered to help. When they never called him back, he “realized this was going to be an excellent opportunity to hop back into the consumer space.” Blue Label Labs, a New York-based app development firm, reports an uptick in marketers looking to capitalize on HQ’s success. The company says it is in the process of building a dating app with gaming features for an unnamed client.

At the moment, HQ is not too worried about the imitators, touting its superior graphics and production values. What’s more, The Q, according to Jamieson, pulls in 10,000 to 15,000 daily players—a fraction of HQ’s active user base. Says host Rogowsky, “The competition that’s starting to come out is only helping us.”

New York streetwear retailer Supreme has digitally replicated its around-the-block lines using its mobile app and push notifications to drop its latest and exclusive collection of hoodies and T-shirts.

But it’s HQ’s model—creating demand and then dictating when and how consumers use the app—that is proving to be an irresistible proposition to more than just game-app copycats.

Already a number of consumer brands have begun using similar appointment-based tactics to foster anticipation, build demand and drive usage of their apps. Fashion retailer Supreme, for example, has been using this tactic for years, both in-store and online to drive anticipation around its products. Two weeks ago, Supreme released a new line ranging from $70 T-shirts to $400 jackets sold exclusively through its app during a specific time window. After it sent out a push notification alerting consumers of the “drop,” the company sold out within minutes.

Similarly, Nike tapped into the community of so-called sneaker heads and their pent-up obsession for running shoes with its Snkrs app. The app, first launched in 2015, distinguishes itself with its clever IRL, “insider access” and savvy digital sales tactics—such as the time it provided hidden clues for users to unlock in order to buy a pair of chef David Chang’s SB dunk­ shoes. The clues were found by hovering the app over his restaurant’s menu during a lightning sale.

“Urgency,” says Ron Faris, gm of Snkrs and Nike’s s23NYC digital studio, “is one of the key currencies that we use in these experiences.” In addition to triggering quick sales, he says that the app also “creates emotion” by building hype around limited-time events. “We know from looking at the data which users respond better because they want to be part of the thrill of the chase, they want to be part of a level of access,” he says.

Immediately after Justin Timberlake wore a pair of $200 Air Jordan III’s during his Super Bowl halftime show last month, the Nike Snkers app “dropped” a limited-edition “JTH” version. Within minutes of going live, they sold out.

Just look at the numbers. According to Nike, Snkrs has 3 million users. During the past six months, the app has grown its monthly active users by a whopping 50 percent.

Perhaps, more than anything, what the HQ model has done is disprove conventional wisdom when it comes to app-driven online behavior. “If you give people a reason to build new behavior patterns,” says Noah Mallin, head of experience, content and sponsorship at Wavemaker, “they’ll do that.” But, he cautions, “you have to give them a compelling reason to do so.” For brands that have long struggled to build an audience for their mobile apps, the HQ paradigm of deploying time-sensitive push notifications offers a way to drive consistent traffic to their apps.

Much like gambling, these appointment-based apps play off of the human need for thrills and risk—as well as the desire for exclusivity and inclusiveness. According to Derek Fridman, head of global experience design at Huge, people don’t want to miss out on events, meaning that there’s a large opportunity for brands to capitalize on a quick rush of excitement. He says that brands are playing into “those mechanics that we’re inherently wired to respond to in a way to get you to pay attention.” By offering limited-time, exclusive content builds, he explains, “this community of people know to be there at the right place and time. I think we’re going to see more and more of it related to retail because our phones are always by our side.”

Another prospect for brands that HQ brings to the table is the amount of data the app amasses daily about its users. In addition to knowing when and how people open the app, it also provides insight into the kinds of messaging consumers respond to. For instance, brands could theoretically analyze if a shorter piece of copy on a push notification was more effective in driving a conversion than a lengthier one.

The Headspace meditation app helps users reach namaste with push notification reminders set at specific times, while yoga-inspired motivational quotes like, “Give your mind some much-needed TLC,” entice them to open the app.

Still, Wavemaker’s Mallin rings a note of caution, saying time- and appointment-based apps require a long-term strategy that can be draining for marketers to maintain. “Over time it becomes hard to feed the beast and keep people excited, especially if you’re doing it on a daily basis,” he says.

For the moment, however, HQ Trivia is an unqualified hit. Whether it has legs or finds itself becoming a trivia question in the next big game-app thing remains an open question. What is certain is that increasingly brands are beginning to adapt the HQ model in order to create demand and reach consumers.

In the meantime, a nation of HQties awaits their next shot. Just ask Berger, who says she doesn’t plan to quit the app anytime soon. “I can say with 99 percent confidence that I’ll be playing in a few months,” she says.

This story first appeared in the March 5, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@laurenjohnson lauren.johnson@adweek.com Lauren Johnson is a senior technology editor for Adweek, where she specializes in covering mobile, social platforms and emerging tech.