Our legacy to app makers: how we succeeded on the App Store and acquired 4,000,000 users

A little over a year ago, we founded Beta Labs with the goal of creating engaging mobile apps, tailored to young millennials and gen Z. Fortunately to this day, more than four million users have downloaded the apps we built in 2016.

Today, we’re starting a new journey with our new startup, Want. This endeavor involves way more than just creating profitable “short term” apps, which had been the main focus on Beta Labs. So we decided to take a moment and share some of the secrets, key learnings, and interesting insights for the rest of the app developers hustling to acquire users with marketing wizardry.

Top Nine, Game Switch and Animately on the Charts

So what was the key to our success? A simple three step process.

[TL;DR] There are many ways to succeed on the App Store. Ours was the combination of influencer marketing and building an app that exploited some kind of trend.

Influencer marketing has always been at the core of our strategy. We’ve partnered with hundreds of influencers and owners of social media accounts with a large audience, mostly on a per-impressions or per-posts scheme.

Influencers enabled us to advertise and promote our apps successfully, but with more than 500,000 active developers and 2,200,000 apps on the App Store, you need to do more than just apply great marketing skills to differentiate from the crowd. In our case, another key factor was that we would always exploit some kind of trend or opportunity gap. I’ll cover only our experience with Game Switch, Animately, and Top Nine on this article.

The process is pretty simple:

Our three step process

As you can imagine, execution is not that simple and straight forward. However, it worked for us pretty well most of the times.

1- Detecting trends and opportunities

[TL;DR] Exploit seasonal trends. Pay attention to newcomers on the Top Charts. Uncover the trending searches on the search tab. Check out OS release notes regularly. Use mobile data intelligence platforms.

There can be hundreds of different ways to succeed on this crucial step. We used many as well. Top 9 was Andy’s idea, based on the trend that every December, Instagram users look for an app that generates a collage with their best 9 photos of the year. The takeaway is that Google Trends may be a great tool to validate seasonal trends. Take a look at the trends last year:

With Game Switch, we just looked at the Top charts. “Steve — The Jumping dinosaur” appeared on the 150th position of the App Store. We saw that playing games from the iOS notification center was an interesting paradigm, so we jumped right in. Then it reached the top charts, and the buzz around it started.

Another key method to understand trends is looking at the search tab in the App Store. This was the case for Animately. We saw the keyword “Wallpapers,” and after looking at the “Live photos” section of the release notes for iOS 9.1.0 we saw the opportunity to create Live Photo Wallpapers. A simple OS update may give way for the creation of an entirely new app space.

To give you an example, if you open the App Store search tab almost every Saturday 8 PM EST, you’ll see Truth or Dare is a trending search. That’s because there have been more than 7 million users searching for the keywords “Truth or Dare” almost every weekend for the past 5 months now. Cool opportunity right? Yeah, it was an amazing opportunity. Now it’s saturated and it’s only cool for those who are among the first results, which happen to be the first ones to have created a decent and engaging app. As with any other search algorithm, it will favor the older over the newer ones.

If you want to create a profitable business out of building apps, is critical to understand that this step is very different than having an “app idea.” My grandma and my 7-year-old cousin have app ideas. It’s more about understanding potential, competition, trends, and the opportunity out of developing something relatively simple with the right marketing strategy. You’ll find tons of interesting posts about how to find profitable opportunities, including ones calling out the less morally-equipped ones, for exploiting the system in order to scam the more vulnerable users.

2- Build the app before the trend is over

[TL;DR] You’ve detected a trend or opportunity; that means dozens of others probably did as well. Be fast and build with an MVP mindset. A lot of developers will copy innovator’s app in no time.

In technology, there’s always a tradeoff between the time it takes to develop something and the quality of the end product.

Charly is a detail-obsessed, design-centered software engineer. You get the picture, right? As the leader of our engineering team, he wants to make sure our infrastructure will be able to handle thousands of users at any given moment, providing the best possible UX. Most of the apps we’ve made went viral, staying at the top charts for a couple of days. Being on the Top 10 of the US App Store spells at least 100,000 downloads a day.

If you are building apps based on trends, be advised that hundreds of similar apps will pop up. Warrent Buffet’s idea of the “Three I’s” is perfectly mirrored on the App Store: First are the Innovators. Then there’s the Imitators. Then there’s the Idiots. Idiots saturate the business.

There are many developers who will create incremental innovations to an existing app. But there are many, many others who will create an exact copy of your app. This means roughly the same icon, same UX, and even almost the same UI. As an innovator, you invest time understanding and A/B testing the high converting UX for in-app purchases or better engagement (= more ads). As an imitator, they just need to copy it! The way the App Store handles copycats is very frustrating. To be honest, there’s still a lot of room for improvement.

MVP mindset

Getting the time/quality tradeoff right can separate your app from failure to success. You want the design to be amazing and to launch with 100% of the features, but it’s better to be one of the innovators. If you’re not fast enough, you may be already among the imitators.

We learnt this the hard way. Remember the Pokemon Go Chat apps? Have you heard of the GoAtlas app? Of course you haven’t, because it was too late by the time we were going to launch it, so we didn’t. We were confident it was going to handle 300K active users a day, not like the #1 app that crashed for not being able. Developing an architecture that complex for real time messaging at scale took us more than what the market could wait.

3- Marketing strategy based on Influencers and viral loops

[TL;DR] Read if you want to understand how viral loops work for apps. Influencers are an amazing way to execute “the big push.” You’ll also find many marketing secrets as well.

If you want to create viral apps, the most important insight to take into account is that the marketing strategy needs to be created before anyone writes a single line of code. Ideally, the app needs to be designed for growth, integrating the marketing strategy with the product. Otherwise, you need to have a good picture of how the ad creative is going to be like. If it’s a game, consider using videos of influencers or random people playing it. That’s how Color Switch made it to the top initially. Another example of an amazing marketing strategy around a simple BuildBox app is the current hit: “The floor is lava”. Look at the creative from the geniuses behind it:

Clear brand + engaging video playing floor is lava at Wallmart

Influencer marketing

Influencer marketing is the grey territory between an ad showcasing a testimonial and a subtle product mention that almost blend in. That’s also exactly what the FTC doesn’t like, as companies are “required to ensure that its influencers clearly disclose when they have been compensated in exchange for their endorsements.” And believe me, this is enforced. Influencers on Instagram began using the #Ad to comply, and that’s why Instagram is launching a “paid partnership” now. Influencer marketing has become somewhat of a buzz word lately, but it’s a very effective way to entice someone’s followers. After all, they’re following the account because its influence makes them tick.

There are different types of influencers: celebrities, niche influencers, or publishers with a large following like parody accounts or ones that simply post engaging content. We’ve never worked with celebs, partly because we didn’t have the budget for it, but mainly because these influencers don’t drive instant conversions. Instead, they help you develop the brand image. We normally combined the other two. We would use niche influencers to generate social proof, together with large accounts to help us amplify it. The social network of choice will depend on the audience you are targeting. We used Twitter and Instagram mostly, but you’ll find influencers on all networks. Pinterest influencers are a gold mine for targeting women in their 30s for example. Snapchat and Youtube are well known ways to approach Gen Z, but you’ll be surprised by Musical.ly’s performance.

However, working with influencers is not simple. You’ll need to negotiate with each of them, and they won’t be cheap. We stay profitable by knowing we will get organic downloads after hitting the top charts and trending searches. If the viral loops structure breaks somewhere, we may even lose money. Coast9.com is an influencer marketing agency that will be able to help you with all this effort.

Viral loops

This is how viral loops works for the App Store, and the process for any of our marketing campaigns:

Viral loops for Apps

As with any marketing channel, the advertising creative plays a key role. Every marketer will tell you, the only way to understand what the best creative is, is to test with several ones until you see better results. Once you get some results, increase the budget on the better ones. We invest a lot of effort on creatives, trying to make them as relatable as possible for the social media influencer’s following. For instance, this was one of the creatives we used to promote the Animately app:

We used a wallpaper that the audience could easily relate to. If you check the @animateiy account, you wouldn’t have been able to stand following us, as we would have spammed you during 10 days. That stage represents “the big push” on the viral loops model.

Ad Spent through time (not exact values)

Analyzing the strategy for Animately, you can also see a few phases: First, what I call “the three T phase” Test, Tweak, Test. During this time we optimized both the creative and the app (wording, captions, etc.), until we found the best performer. Then, “The big push.” This stage involves scheduling a synchronized campaign with all the influencers simultaneously, so the effect is amplified. The key lies in investing most of the budget in only 2 days, preferably Saturday and Sunday if you rely on influencers. Engagement and conversion rates during weekends are much higher.

The big push combined with an engaging creative seeds the next loop, where users share, comment, and like the creative, generating buzz. The bigger risk here is not being able to get to the next loop. However, we don’t want to spend more budget than what’s needed for it. When doing viral loops for apps, the next loop is triggered when reaching the trending searches and top charts. This will bring hundreds of thousands of “organic” views that we’ll try to convert into downloads with an amazing App Store listing.

Two weeks ago, Tim Cook announced that 500 million people go to the App Store every week searching for apps. It doesn’t matter if the revenue made with the app during the first stage doesn’t cover the cost of “the big push.” Believe me, it will work out after reaching the top charts, just make sure to reach them in the first place!

The next loop really depends on the app. At this point how good the app is doesn’t matter that much (yet,) as long as it’s aligned with an interesting trend and the marketing campaign is good enough (including the App Store listing.) If your app was designed to encourage organic growth, then reaching the next loop will probably be easy. Top 9 was designed for growth. To understand how we got to the next loop, you can read the marketing strategy we used for it here, and also learn how we got 300,000 users in 24 hours using Coast9.

If on the other hand your app wasn’t designed for growth, the bad news is that viral things don’t last too long. As you can see on the chart, you’ll need to save an ad budget for the final stage. This stage consists of making efforts to “hang on” to the charts. Even for a while after the trend is starting to drop, there will be new App Store visitors who will see your app and download it. After 2 or 3 days however, this will not be enough to hang on the charts. You’ll need another push, perhaps not as big or aggressive as the last one, but just enough to offset the decreasing amount of organic downloads you were having before. That’s why you should progressively increase it until it’s no longer a good tradeoff.

You could try using native Twitter and Instagram ads, targeting people who have engaged with all the past tweets and Instagram posts of a certain influencer. Make sure to also target friends/followers of that audience. Again, social proof is key.

Another secret of the App Store is Search Ads. The opportunity lies in the fact that there aren’t many advertisers on the platform yet, so your bid can be relatively low. With the right targeting/set up, you can get installs for as low as $0.10 (yes, 10 cents.)

Does this mean I can easily build “the million dollar app”?

[TL;DR] The only way to crush it on the App Store is by building something really amazing. That takes a lot of work, and it’s a very different business model than the one we had with Beta Labs. Read on to discover ASO tricks.

Haha. For a second I pictured myself like that when we first reached the top charts. Great feeling. So no, the answer is no. Hell no. The only way to succeed is working really hard every single day of the year, no gimmicks. This post is meant to be helpful for anyone on that path. Of course there are many highly profitable growth hacks, but none will last too long.

Achieving high retention and organic growth is what will differentiate a YYYUGE success from just one more app that made it to the top charts and dropped (though reaching them will certainly enable you to get short term profit out of it.) Nir Eyal and Ryan Hoover wrote the bible for this, use it. Huge thanks to Tory for it and for all the support so far :)

Make them search

First of all, understand that influencers need content to keep their followers engaged, so if you’ve got something that’s aligned with their content, they’ll be happy for not harming their audience, even more if you don’t show any link. That’s where the trick lies for ASO and trending search. An example of this is our creative with Game Switch. We have an amazing relationship with the owner of the “Dory” account on Twitter, so we were able to get a post for free. Of course we bought the owner a huge gift afterwards, as the account has 1.7M followers, and conversion was amazing.

If you analyze the trending searches on the search tab right now, you’ll notice that there will be at least one app that made it there through Instagram influencers. You’ll be able to tell this just by doing a quick search on Instagram. Although don’t look for “Link in bio”. Another way to do it, is by linking directly to the in-app search. Be careful about this, as the algorithm can penalize you. If you’re reading this on an iPhone, check out how it works following this link. Otherwise it will break. We did well with this for Want, although it wasn’t crowded.

Want is #1 for the Key Word

The reason we made apps a profitable business was mainly because we were able to leverage our influencer network. However, ASO is a huge source of acquisition as well. As you can imagine, there many ins and outs about this topic. I recommend you paying for Keyword analysis data on Mobile Action. iOS 11 just rebuilt the App Store app. There are also plenty of opportunities for newcomers here. Personally, I think the fact that videos will play automatically is key, so if you’re publishing an app, make sure you have a captivating one.

So if building simple apps with Beta Labs was highly profitable, why are you pursuing “the billion dollar startup” dream?

I really enjoyed the first class of YC Startup School. I think Dustin Moskovitz answers the question better than us: “We can’t not do it.”

We began working with ecommerce clients last year. They wanted to reach the same audience we knew how to target, so we worked on their influencer marketing efforts which turned into millions in sales. We learned as many insights as we did in the mobile world. This is where we saw an enormous opportunity on the space, that we hope when combined with our ability to create products is going be game changing.

Creating a gamified ecommerce marketplace, based on content posted by users and influencers, is something we will enjoy for the next 5 or 10 years, hopefully. If you would like to know more about it, please read our vision for Want here. We’re always looking for feedback and advice.

Want is still in early development and it’s not 100% ready yet. We are still in “the three T phase.” This time, this phase will take longer. The main difference is that we are not only tweaking for conversions in-app, but we are tweaking for retention and organic growth as well. After creating apps without retention that got really high on the charts, I think Sam Altman can’t be more right when he says “you wanna start with a small number of users that really love you.”

Why did we write this? We’re recruiting.

The main reason we began writing this post was to be helpful to as many app makers as possible, but we are also looking to work with people who would like to contribute to this huge project. What kinds of profiles? All kind. Developers, marketers, content creators, influencers, advisors or really anyone who’s invested 20 minutes of their life into reading this. From all ages and willing to work in San Francisco, Uruguay or remotely. If you feel this post was helpful to you and know someone who may be a good fit, encouraging them to contact us is how you can give back.

We are also looking for the right investors. We applied to YC before Want was even built. We scored an interview but got rejected. Want is still self-funded. Not because of lack of interest from investors, but because we believe we can stay like this until we reach the right KPIs.

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We've come to know a few things about viral loops when working with a younger audience, but this is our first time creating something for people in tech. We believe this content is valuable to your network, and if so please help us reach the next loop by clicking any of the share buttons. It would mean a lot to us.

Want is a new company established in the U.S., so thanks to Stripe for creating Atlas, and for all the support from the team on that process. Beta Labs will not be shut down, not only because some apps are still running, but because it will remain as a place to share different experiments we may do. We will share insights on many topics we weren’t able to cover here, like monetization secrets for marketers, tips for developers about our technology stack, and interesting stories in our journey. Suscribe to the Beta Labs blog here or follow Beta Labs on Twitter!