Photo by Joe Yates on Unsplash

How we reached 1 million downloads with a $0 budget

10 tips on how you can market your app for free

Published in
8 min readMar 15, 2021

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It took me 441 days after the release of our app “Avocation” to hit the 1 million downloads milestone. When I started this project I knew absolutely nothing about marketing and ASO, but I learned a lot during that time. Spending money on paid acquisition channels was not an option for me, so I discovered ways to grow organically. These are ten actions I would recommend to you if you are looking for growth tips.

Put your most important Keyword into the app name

This is one of the easiest but also most powerful ASO tricks. First, you should brainstorm and figure out what’s your most important keyword. What term should users search for to see your product ranked at the top?

Exactly this keyword should be a part of your app name!

Results for the keyword “Habit Tracker” in the US (App Store)

Why? Because it looks like the app name plays a big role in how the App Store, as well as the Play Store, rank your app for a specific search term. If you take a look at some ASO Tools like AppFigures, you can even get information on whether a certain app uses the keyword in the name or subtitle.

In the example on the left, I checked the keyword “habit tracker” in the US App Store.

As you can see almost every app that ranks in the top 10 uses the keyword directly in the app name!

Don’t worry about your app name after installation! The name of your app can be different in the store, so after the user installed your app, the keyword will not be shown on the device.

Ask for reviews in your app

Your app reviews are also important for your search ranking. The problem with reviews is that it’s not easy to get them, especially the positive ones!

Remember that a dissatisfied or angry user almost never forgets to leave you a bad review, but someone who uses your app every day is very likely to forget to give you a review. Just think of yourself: How many apps do you use every day and for how many of those did you leave a review?

Users who use your app everyday tend to forget to leave you a review.
So make sure to remind them to give you a review!

However, give your users some time before you ask them for a review, otherwise, this could go in the opposite direction and annoy people.

A good idea is to check if the user keeps coming back to your app for at least some days and then show a dialog where you ask for a review at the next app start. If someone uses your app for a couple of days, it’s very likely that they enjoy using your app and leave a great review!

Translate your app into new languages

Making your app accessible to more people is a huge opportunity to increase your downloads. The market for apps in English language is very competitive and you might have better chances serving the same target audience in another language.

This worked with our app as well! Our five best-performing languages are

  • 🇷🇺 Russian
  • 🇺🇸 English
  • 🇨🇳 Chinese
  • 🇩🇪 German
  • 🇵🇹 Portuguese

If you speak different languages make use of that advantage and translate your app into these languages right away! Perhaps someone you know can help you out with a translation.

Otherwise, you can always go on websites like UpWork or Fiverr and hire someone to create a translation for you. We did that for some of our translations too and usually paid around 100€ per language which was definitely worth it.

If you can, make sure to repeat your keyword research for different languages as they will likely vary.

Invest time to create good screenshots

Congratulations, if a user landed on your app page you already did very well in the steps above. Now it’s time to convince the user to download your app, and the best way to do that is to have great screenshots.

Humans are visual beings.
We respond to and process visual data better than any other type of data

Don’t just upload random screenshots of your app. Instead, use screenshots to highlight some of your features with a short text and make them visually interesting to spark attention.

Let’s take a look at some apps that do a great job with their screenshots:

Experiment with your app subtitle and description

The subtitle and description of your app are what stores use to rank you for certain keywords. Use this opportunity and integrate your keywords into your writing.

Nevertheless, make sure that your description is still easy to read and gives the user a good idea of what your app is doing and if it could be a good fit.

Experiment as much as possible with which keywords you want to keep and which ones you ditch. With every single experiment you will learn something and move a little bit forward, even if it sometimes means taking a step back again.

Submit a request to get featured by Apple

Getting featured is one of the best ways for organic growth. Even though there is no guaranteed way of getting featured by Apple, you can always work on improving your chances.

You should start by taking a look at Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines. This is a great resource for improving the UX of your app and you can be sure that Apple expects your app to follow their advice. Don’t get this wrong: you don’t have to follow everything they mention there - in that case, each app would look the same. Still, it is worth taking a look at them and implement what you like in your app.

If you want to go more in-depth you can also check out Apple’s “Discovery on the App Store” website where they elaborate on how they choose apps to be featured.

Afterward, you need to let Apple know about your app. There are over 800 new apps published every day on the App Store. Even though Apple will review your app before you publish it, this alone will hardly lead to a featuring.

If you want to get featured you will need to let Apple know about you.
Don’t wait for them to find you!

The best way to get featured is to contact their App Store editorial team by submitting this form (you need an active Apple Developer Account to access this page) where you fill out a couple of questions about you and your app. Make sure to take your time and answer these as detailed as possible.

It can take a few weeks till Apple looks through your submission, but you can be sure that someone will take a look and consider featuring you somewhere!

Share your story in relevant Subreddits

Promoting your app on Reddit is something that either goes very well or very bad. If you follow some basic advice though, you can improve your chances for it to go in a positive direction.

First of all, make sure to share your app in relevant subreddits. It’s in your interest to find the best possible users for your app because a download will not help you a lot if the user de-installs your app right away. Therefore, find subreddits where your app can genuinely help people with a problem they are facing. This will vastly improve your chances of a successful post!

Another important point is that people don’t like self-promotion. Usually, these pitches are very impersonal, with too much information, and don’t actually explain to the person how your product could help them.

Make the post about yourself and not your app

Instead, talk about yourself and what inspired you to create this app. If you solved a problem that you are experiencing yourself, you will have a perfect post writing about that! People might identify themselves with you and if they see that you solved your problem, they give it a try as well.

If you want an example you can take a look at a post that did very well for me and resulted in a lot of downloads and even my first in-app purchases!

Monitor your performance

To know if your work is actually impacting your growth you should start monitoring your performance. The stores will already provide you with data like downloads and conversion rates. If your app is available on iOS and Android you can even merge the metrics of both into one chart with tools like AppFigures for free.

If you want to go further in-depth and know if your users are active, which features they are using and how often they come back to your app, you might also want to add something like Google Analytics on top of that.

Based on how your metrics are performing you can determine if experiments were successful or failed. Keep the successful ones and revert the failed ones.

Provide value on Social Media

For Avocation, we decided to focus 100% on Instagram and no other platform. Which platform works best for you will depend on where your target audience is active, so think about which platform is most beneficial in your case.

My recommendation is to focus on a single platform first and do an awesome job there. That will already be enough work and every additional platform will just further distract you from other tasks.

Stop promoting and start providing value to people on social channels

Don’t use social media just for the promotion of your app. You should rather focus on providing useful content to users. If they like your content they will also check out your app!

This is how our Instagram for Avocation looks like:

Be patient

It will most likely take a while till you see the effect of your work but be patient and improve your app constantly. Experiment as much as you can!

Don’t give up too fast

It took me around four months to get our app ranked for the most important keywords, but now I got there and rarely have to update the metadata anymore to keep my position in the search. Many of your competitors will give up too fast when they don’t see immediate results, use that to your advantage!

I hope these tips will help you to grow your app! If you have any questions add a comment or DM me on Twitter. If you liked this article, make sure to subscribe to my newsletter where I write about programming and starting your own side-hustle or business!

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Freelance Web Developer and Indie App Developer. More about my work on https://joech.io