The 4 Waves of Mobile Marketing

Rob Moffat
Dec 12, 2014 · 5 min read

A brief history of marketing mobile apps, and what the future might hold

The first wave (2008–2010): Word of mouth

Apps are a new thing, so people show them to each other.

Approach: Make your app as attention-grabbing as possible: notably great graphics, or notably poor ones. Innovative concepts and humour

Marketing channels: None (some big game developers try brand marketing with disappointing results)

Examples: Flight Control, Pocket God, Paper toss, iFart mobile

The second wave (2010–2012): App store ranking

Apps are no longer the new thing, so word of mouth has less of an effect. Overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of apps being released, people need a filter. They settle on using the app store top charts: “if millions of other people have downloaded this app, it must be good”.

Approach: In app purchasing has yet to really take off, so paid apps are still the big thing. 99c price point is the sweet spot on price-demand elasticity curve. This severely limits the amount that games publishers are able to pay for new users, so securing free installs from the app store is crucial. Publishers build a mass market app and do everything they can to push it up the app store.

Marketing channels: ‘Free app a day’ apps (until Apple killed them off in late 2012). Bursts of mobile display advertising when app is released. Intensive networking with Apple to try to get featured. More recently, ‘app store SEO’ where you try to rank #1 for relevant search terms for your app, or common non-relevant search terms.

Examples: Angry Birds, Plants vs. Zombies, Cut the rope

The third wave (2012–2013): Social

App developers have been looking to make social work for them on the app store since the early days, led by the facebook game publishers (e.g. King, Wooga) moving across to mobile. In 2012 they started to crack this.

Around the same time social apps started using the phone book to automatically create and push out a social network

Approach: Competitive challenges (head to head quizzes, leaderboards, levels). Be mass market enough that people’s ‘real world’ friends are on the app with them.

Marketing channels: Facebook sharing, mobile address book and push notifications.

Examples: Snapchat, Instagram, Whatsapp, Candy Crush, Diamond Dash, Words with friends

The fourth wave (2013 — present): Lifetime value

App developers crack the free-to-play / in-app purchasing model. A tiny percentage of ‘whales’ will play a game for years, spending hundreds of dollars in the process. Finally app marketers have significant budgets to play with and can afford a paid-only user acquisition strategy.

Approach: Games that hook users in, building something (an empire, a farm, a car) over time. Obstacles that create just enough frustration to get users to pay to get past. Ideally a competitive player vs player element for the core users that keeps them playing when they have finished the single player version.

Marketing channels: Paid mobile advertising in spades. The most efficient channels are facebook install ads and in-game advertising (particularly interstitials), but also big spending on ad networks. The economics of LTV>CPI have to work. Being top 25 in the app store still brings free downloads, but can only be sustained by continued big ad spending. This leads to a strong reinforcing cycle where some apps dominate the top 10 for months/years.

Examples: Clash of Clans, Hay Day, Dating apps, Candy Crush (again), CSR Racing, Big Fish Casino


Some ‘old’ waves can still work if an app is sufficiently distinctive. Word of mouth in particular can still be a great marketing channel, if you have an app that give people a reason to talk about it. Examples this year include Flappy Birds, Vivino, Citymapper, and the second hand fashion apps (Depop, Vinted etc.).

The next wave?

If you are not King or Supercell, app marketing can look a bit depressing at the moment. The reinforcing cycles that keep Clash of Clans and Candy Crush top of the app store are intimidating. To push an app to the top of the rankings can take millions of dollars, with a low probability of success. If you are not a game publisher the situation looks even worse.

What could be the next wave of mobile app marketing?

Deep linking. Opens up broader app SEO and SEM. Being pushed heavily by Google for obvious reasons, although remains to be seen how far they will promote as-yet-uninstalled apps over responsive websites. More info

TV. Mobile apps lend themselves well to direct response TV campaigns. I have seen mixed results, with TV delivering good RoI for some apps (after allowing for halo effects), but not working at all for others. As the RoI of TV becomes more trackable expect to see a lot more mobile/web companies advertising on TV. Unfortunately not a viable solution for small companies, as usually TV advertising requires at least €1–2M of spend (on creative and optimization of buying) before it starts to deliver.

Location-based push (iBeacon etc.). In 2015 retailers will be bombarding customers when in-store with push notifications to download their mobile app (as already happens today with in-store wifi). Is there a viable model here for targeted pushes of relevant third party apps (e.g. Citymapper to people arriving at airports) If so, how do Apple/Google choose to monetise this, and what cut goes to the owner of the location?

Real time bidding. The hype around mobile RTB is slowly turning into reality, although still limited by lack of reliable targeting data. Facebook are the obvious potential winner here with the Facebook Audience Network , although success of this will depend on how flexible and open the data is

Cross-promotion. King are cross-promoting aggressively from Candy Crush Soda to their other games (see this post from Eric Seufert). Interesting to see whether this works out, as past experience for many games companies with mobile cross-linking has been disappointing.

Some interesting possibilities above, but I’m not smart enough to see an obvious winner. One of Balderton’s seed investments Tapdaq have a great team working on solving the mobile distribution problem. I am looking forward to seeing what they release in 2015.

Please let me know any thoughts you have in comments or on Twitter.

Growth Hacking, Marketing and Venture Capital

Notes as I scratch the surface of three nascent & hard industries

    Rob Moffat

    Written by

    Partner at Balderton Capital in London. Companies I work with here include Carwow, Wooga, Cleo, Mojiworks, Zego, Dinghy, PKB, Prodigy. Formerly Google & Bain.

    Growth Hacking, Marketing and Venture Capital

    Notes as I scratch the surface of three nascent & hard industries