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Growing your user base with rock solid Acquisition strategies

Acquisition Deep Dive

In our last lesson we showed you how to set up your success metrics and broadly introduced the topics of acquisition, engagement and retention. Now that you are set up with your metrics we will use this lesson to look at how to develop a strategy to grow your acquisition numbers and provide you with a number of resources you can use to further research the acquisition channels we suggest.

To refresh your memory, acquisition is all about bringing new people to your mobile app and converting them into active users. It's not enough to just keep focusing on growing your total downloads, because it's rare to blessed with high user retention automatically. So as we go through acquisition channels, keep in mind that you want active, high quality, retained users, not just downloads.

When developing a successful strategy, the first thing to look at is all of the available channels that you can use to drive installs of your app. While the importance of channels differs depending on your market vertical, the top channels across categories tend to be:

  • Ads
    • Mobile App Install Ads
    • Offline Ads
  • Incentivized Downloads
  • App Store Optimization
  • PR & Publicity Stunts
  • Inbound Content

Some additional channels, that tend to be less valuable, but may be effective in your case are:

  • Traditional SEM/SEO
  • Email Marketing
  • Business Development and Partnerships
  • Outbound Sales
  • Affiliate Programs
  • Trade Shows
  • Offline Events
  • Speaking Engagements
  • Community Building
  • External Blog Targeting/Influencer Marketing

In the rest of this lesson we'll take a deeper dive into the top acquisition channels for mobile. We'll also provide some additional reading material wherever possible, so you can do further research on your own.

Acquisition Channels

Mobile App Install Ads

Mobile app install ads are designed specifically to drive a potential user to install your app directly from the ad. These are typically displayed in search engines as well as in a number of major social networks. Both Social and search platforms have their strengths in attracting new users, but social, particularly Facebook's install ads, has become one of the more popular channels. This is because social networks already have a wealth of demographic data about users, allowing advertisers to narrowly target their ads to just the right audience.

As a mobile developer, using social ads, I can target ads at the very specific group of people that I know might be interested in my app. Also, social networks do a great job of applying social or peer pressure. Before installing you get to see how many people in your network like and/or use an app. Install ads are so effective, they have been a main driver of Facebook's tremendous mobile revenue growth.

Install ads are also very specifically delivered just to people running the right mobile devices to install the app right away. This means that there is no friction between seeing an ad, deciding to install and having the app show up on the device. With just a tap, you are in the app store ready to install.

This is turning out to be a great medium for advertising and user acquisition. If you want to dive deeper, we've found Appsbuilder's run through of the top social and search ad channels to be very helpful. Appsbuilder's article shows each platform's requirements, targeting capabilities, and what type of campaign each channel is perfect for.

Some other great articles to help get you started with install ads are:

Offline ads

You may typically think of offline ads, such as TV spots, billboards, bus ads, etc. as oldschool, but these ad mediums are really starting to pick up steam for mobile apps. Mobile games are spending big dollars on TV ads, local apps such as ridesharing and food ordering apps are taking up more and more space on bus shelters and taxis, and social networks are starting to plaster themselves across cities on billboards.

The amazing thing is that offline ads are not just for the biggest players with millions of dollars. Over the years, a lot of well known strategies have come up for buying surplus physical ad space like billboards, to keep costs down. In a world where online ads are getting ignored due to noise, startups and enterprises alike are looking to more traditional forms of advertising to drive acquisition strategies.

The biggest challenge with offline ads though, is that attribution becomes much more difficult. The problem with offline ads is that all of your install traffic looks like direct installs. This means that tracking Customer Acquisition Costs, requires a bit more creativity. You could, for instance, take two markets with very similar traffic and demographics and start offline ads in one area but not the other.You could then make some assumptions and attribute any growth in direct downloads to your ads and then apply the information that you gathered from that simple experiment to make estimates for attribution in other markets.

Another approach to offline ads are mailers and other physical flyers with introductory offers for your services. These offer great opportunities for tracking, because you could drive a download through a custom link or QR code, giving you a better opportunity to track spend and associate users with those dollars.

Offline ads can feel like a bit of a black hole without many resources to fall back on to get a sense if you are doing things right or wrong. We have found Sensor Towers - Ideas for marketing your mobile app offline to be a good primer.

Incentivized Downloads

Incentivized downloads, while famously frowned upon by Apple (LINK), is still a popular form of attracting downloads. It involves promoting through another application and incentivizing the user to download your app by providing them with a reward. This form of advertising is most popular with games, as they tend to already have an easy form of in-app currency that can be used to reward people. Also, game players are always looking for games to try, and often stick within genres. So, just by knowing the game that you are targeting, you can be relatively assured that you know what those users will be attracted to.

There are many challenges present with incentivized downloads though. They can be ineffective due to the fact that you are rewarding someone in one app to start using another. This is great behavior for the originating app as it is proving engagement with its users. The problem is that the action is proving that the user wants to keep playing the current game or using the current app more, not that they really want to try a new app. So there will be a selection of users that you will pay to download your app, using this channel, and they will never plan on even trying it. But that can just be looked at as a cost of acquisition. So as long as you understand what that rate is, you can easily account for it and plan your budgets around it.

Incentivized downloads can be sticky subject for a lot of people, so make sure you understand for yourself all of the ins and outs. Make sure you do your own research and understand for yourself why people like it or frown upon it. Here are a couple of posts to get you started.

App Store Optimization

By now, pretty much everyone knows about SEO, and the tactics and tools that help to get your website ranked high in Google search results. Think of App Store Optimization (ASO) as the exact same thing, but for the Apple App Store and Google Play store. ASO is all about figuring out what your target users are searching for when looking for an app and making sure that you set up your store listing to rank highly when that search happens.

The problem with ASO is that as opaque as SEO is, ASO is worse. There are tools available to help you assess appropriate keyword targeting, but it definitely has a wild-west feel compared to SEO which has settled into more of a science. Tactics in ASO are extremely varied, and can be more about being creative than being analytical. That doesn't mean your efforts here shouldn't be tracked, it just means that you might have to think creatively to find ways to be successful. And things are getting easier, with Apple's recently announced recently announced App Analytics there are now at least some tools to better understand how people convert on your App Store listing.

Here are some great resources to get you started testing ASO strategies:

Traditional and Non-Traditional PR

Getting your brand or app mentioned in the media is something that most people strive for. It gives you a sense of accomplishment and excitement. This feeling is a big reason why PR is a major strategy for all businesses. It's well known that coverage of your app from a key media source can drive a significant amount of traffic. The challenge is that you can spend a lot of time, effort and money chasing big stories without seeing any results.

PR needs to be held to the same accountability as every other acquisition channel, and potentially needs to be held to a higher standard, because the glamour of PR can introduce bias into the decision as to whether or not a PR strategy was successful.

Beyond setting up appropriate tracking, which is clearly necessary for all acquisition channels, you will also want to split out PR activities into traditional and non-traditional PR. Traditional PR is any typical media announcement or coverage where a writer talks about your business, app or technology as part of a launch or general interest piece. These are the vast majority of the articles you'll read on your favorite news sites. Non-traditional PR can mainly be thought of as publicity stunts, odd things that you do just to get your name in news. This can tend to be things like when Richard Branson ziplines into a news conference or a company representative streaks through a sports venue, they are actions that have little to do with your product or service but will get you some amount of airtime, just because you're doing something unexpected.

Each type of activity comes with its benefits and downfalls. As with every channel you'll need to assess whether or not you are actually going to drive active users from any traditional or non-traditional PR activities. Traditional PR, that is well placed, can be very effective, non-traditional PR will get you noisier traffic, but if you are able to get more traffic overall with the same effort it could be a net positive.

At the end of the day this one is all about creativity and trying to find something that is interesting enough for someone to write about, so to help get your brain pumping, here are ten brilliant publicity stunts.

Content and Inbound Strategies

The last channel we'll be covering in this lesson is content and inbound. Inbound content acquisition is about creating great content that can be placed strategically on either your site or external sites. Inbound strategies have been popularized for most industries by web companies such as Hubspot. It's well worn territory so we won't spend too much time going over it here. The important thing to understand when it comes to inbound strategies for mobile apps is that it is a long game that takes investment over time. There are very few pieces of content that you could generate that will become an instant hit.

Instead, think of inbound content as a gradually compounding strategy. Develop a plan and a schedule for reliably generating great content. Whatever it is, whether once a week or once a month, just stick to it and make sure that you are writing something that people will find interesting or helpful.

Over time you will have built up a base of content that will regularly bring people back to your site. From there, if your site is optimized properly you can push people to download your app or learn more about your mobile product. Because this is a long term investment strategy, it is not suited for people who are looking for instant results. It requires some faith, and a good understanding of leading indicators to help you invest in the right content even with only small early gains.

Inbound is one of the toughest strategies, but it can be very rewarding if done right. Take some time to research the channel before taking any action. As Hubspot is the leader in Inbound marketing you might want to start by looking at their Inbound forum or their blog and more specifically, their inbound 101 post.

Summing it All Up

If you've gotten this far you've taken in a lot of information really quickly. So how do you process it and pick the best channel for your company and your app? No channel is a bad channel and every app is different, so we can't tell you which method to go for. This one you'll have to run some quick tests on to see if any channels show viability then dive deep on the one or two channels that show promise. We've included a few quick tips below on how to set yourself up to test channels effectively before getting started.

Results-Driven Acquisition Strategy

The first important step before you put any money toward advertising is to ensure you can track which source a user came from. Here is a list of some great companies that specialize in attribution.

When you are collecting your data, you want to set yourself up to be able to track your users from a specific campaign to the point of becoming an active user. As we said earlier, it's important to understand your cost per active user not just the cost per download.

The main things you will want to know are:

  • the source
  • the cost per click
  • the number of resulting download
  • the number of resulting active users

For each campaign, you can then determine how much it cost for each active user.

In order for a campaign to be viable there needs to be a positive return on your investment. This means you will want your cost per active user to be less than a user's lifetime value. If you are spending too much on your cost per click to gain active users, you will never be profitable. Your download numbers might look great, but you won't have a viable business.

When you look back at your key metrics the goal you want your campaigns to achieve is growing your active user base week over week. You also want to find the channels and ads that optimize your cost per active user, so you are paying as little as possible per user along with ensuring your cost per active user is lower than your lifetime value.

Lastly, it's important to note that there could be a time where you may take a loss to acquire new users. For certain applications, it may be critical to have an initial user base before you get a user to stick around and become an active user or a paying customer. For example, without a large group of people sharing and posting in a social app you will probably find it hard to keep users around. Once your active users enjoy your product, they will begin sharing it with their friends and your viral coefficient will help drive down the cost per active user. In order to first get a user base large enough for that to happen you may first need to take a loss on acquiring those users. You need to, however, make sure you are tracking what those users are doing in your application and ensure you are creating an experience they want to share. This is where you begin tracking and growing your engagement numbers which we will cover in our next lesson.

Until then, start experimenting with different acquisition channels to see what works best for you and your app.