With millions of apps in the Apple App Store or Google Play store, it is getting harder and harder to get traction for new apps. Having a good game plan for building traction and executing it seems to be the most challenging task in the life-cycle of an app, especially for self-funded startups and entrepreneurs.
Startups with angel/venture capital can hire high-end marketing agencies from New York or San Francisco to deal with app launches. But folks with ideas and shoe-string budgets are often left to their own devices when it comes to finding traction for their apps. I am no traction expert; in fact, I am always actively seeking organic and above-board methods of increasing user adoption for our up and coming apps.
Here I will summarize my findings on the practical approaches I see available to an entrepreneur or startup. Your mileage will vary depending on your app, target audience, and actual implementation of these approaches/strategies. Good Luck!
What App Are You?
Yes, it is essential to know what category your app belongs to in the market place. From my research, I found there are two types of app:
- Entertainment / Time Waster apps — games, social media apps, etc. that entertain the end-user. I often call these the “time-waster” apps
- Convenience / Utility apps — anything that saves time or money for the end-users
Ask yourself the following questions to identify your app type:
- Does your app exist solely to entertain the intended target users?
- Does your app create a utility by saving time or money for the intended target users?
Any app that saves time or money for a user is a utility and not a time-waster. Utility apps are often easy to develop as they solve a specific problem that exists — at least in the developer’s reality. But they are tough to market and get found in the sea of utility apps in the app market. Just think of how many apps are out there doing the same thing with a slight twist.
When you are creating a utility app, it is good to know that you might be catering to the inter-market variability aspect of the app ecosystem. Inter-market variability is why creating another spaghetti sauce in the market of many spaghetti sauces is considered okay because there isn’t a perfect spaghetti sauce!
Thanks to this inter-market variability, there are many different camera apps in the app stores to cater to various levels of user experiences.
Creating a new app that does something better than an existing app is a good idea. But, it is a nightmare to market and build traction for as you are competing for shelf space in a crowded area.
Since my company does not develop entertainment apps, I am not interested in researching how to build traction for such an app. I am mostly interested in creating educational or convenience apps. Therefore, the rest of the article will focus on non-entertainment app traction building strategies.
Are you building an app with an organic traction path?
If you are building a game, the answer is yes. If you are making a non-game app, your traction path needs to be defined, orchestrated and carefully executed. Why? Games — no matter what they bring to the table — appears to get natural downloads. There are tons of kids and adults looking for something new to play.
Face it, most people are game players and not game makers, and game players are bored easily. They are always looking for something new to play, stream, or share with friends. This need to kill the boredom is why games, more broadly, entertainment apps, have a better shot of getting organic traction.
I know games have a place in our lives and the fact the gaming industry is more significant than many sectors combined.
So if you are making game apps, you will get organic downloads. However, organic downloads might not be enough to lead to profitability.
Does your monetization strategy affect traction?
Absolutely. How you plan to make money from your app will vastly affect your traction game. If you have a free app vs. an app that is behind a paywall — such as a subscription-only app or focused on in-app purchases, they will impact your traction.
Should you make a free app?
Making apps free became very popular as it encourages downloads. People love downloading free apps, as there is no hard decision to make. Download it, try it, don’t like it? Delete it, and you are not obligated to anything. Sounds great, right?
Allowing users to try out your app without having to deal with payment is a good strategy for startups.
Should you make a subscription app?
Making apps subscription only is a high-risk gamble. From our limited experiences, it does not seem to pan out for most apps. Only apps with excellent brand recognition can pull off the subscription.
Should you make money using in-app purchases (IAP)?
Game app developers love in-app purchases. For example, Fortnite — a popular game — has hit over $1 billion in revenue with in-app purchases. So should every new game developer implement in-app purchases in their game? It should work well for games based on what we see as the trend.
However, deploying the in-app method of monetization is not simple. Many major game developers in Japan often hire statisticians and mathematicians to calculate how, when, where, and why people buy via in-app purchase methods. They tweak, add, and otherwise improve the game to keep people playing under the idea that if they play long enough, they will want to buy something.
Should you make money using advertising instead?
Frankly, this is my least favorite method of monetization for apps. Advertising often requires letting go of your control in your app. You can hardly control what type of ads are shown. The ad experience is seldom desirable.
The app monetization model I like the most
I am not a big fan of apps that require a subscription unless they are magazines or publications or training tools.
I consider subscription a high resistance path — apps that are asking me to “commit” to a subscription often makes me wonder if I need it. I also feel guilty when I find out I have so many subscriptions that I have hardly used. So subscription to me is often a deal killer.
I prefer apps that ask for money after a free-trial period, and the payment is a one-time fee that covers at least one year of free upgrades. After that, if I want to continue to use the app and update, I will pay additional upgrade fees if needed.
I also understand that in-app purchases are big revenue generators for many apps, especially games. But, for utility apps, I dislike making in-app purchases again and again for advanced features.
I am big on paying once and using an app for a while — say a year. If I am still using the same app after a year, I am open to paying again for an upgraded version. But I am not interested in a recurring subscription plan.
I prefer to offer a free version to everyone with good enough functionalities. Then create a premium version that requires a reasonable one-time payment with support and free upgrades for a reasonable period.
Should you target both Android and iPhone market at once?
Even a few years ago, it used to cost nearly 2x to build an app that targeted both the iOS and Android markets. Games possibly have much more cost sensitivity due to the nature of the operating system and hardware support they utilize. But this article is not about game traction.
There are lots of options when it comes to targeting both markets without creating two different code bases. For example, using Google’s Flutter/DART technology, one can now successfully target both iOS and Android platforms without compromising native speed and features.
If you know that the majority of your target customers are using iPhone or Android, you can also release your app on a single market place first. However, it is tough to know the breakdown between Android and iPhone users unless you have previously surveyed your target market.
For example, recently, my company developed a free utility app called Book Jar for parents of K-12 children in the US. This app helps parents find book recommendations that match their children’s Accelerated Reader (AR) goals and reading levels. When we launched it, we did a small Instagram campaign. The details of this campaign can be found in this article. What we learned was shocking!
We found that more than 98% of the downloads came from moms who were using iPhones! We expected a more even spread of the downloads between Android and iPhone versions. We plan to do more promotions of the same nature on Instagram and see if this audience pattern holds up. If it does, we will focus solely on the iPhone version of the app to get our majority download.
Should you hire a marketing agency focused on app marketing?
If you have the budget to hire app marketing experts, you should. Most startups and self-funded entrepreneurs do not. It is also challenging to identify third-party marketers who use above-board methods to maximize customer acquisition and not just give you bot-powered downloads.
If you engage a third-party marketer to help you, make sure you set some realistic Return on Investment (ROI) centric goals such as:
- Number of actual customers acquired during the marketing period
- Number of downloads that are active and engaged with your app for a period
Getting a ton of bot-generated downloads might help you get on some app chart, but it does not work well long-term.
Getting noticed is a hard problem to solve. Forced attention through advertisement works for a specific type of apps — games. It is tough for a utility app to get noticed as the power of a good app is often not easy to share in a quick video clip in a few seconds. Throwing money in social media marketing or advertising within the app ecosystem is not cheap. Getting access to influencers in a niche or general area is not easy either.
Choose the right monetization strategy to make it easy for your target users to try your app. Let them use it, like it. Offer them a premium edition for a fee with least resistant path — avoid subscription, nagging of in-app purchases, etc.