How to Promote an App on the App Store and Google Play
We’ve tried to develop a unified model for a product-focused company based on our experience by answering the questions “What? When? Why?” and even “And what then?”
Before we wrote this article we had our apps downloaded over two million times, ran about 50 large promotional campaigns, and made it onto the App Store top-lists in over 24 countries to finally combine all of it into a single workflow.
We’ve developed a unified four-layer model for app promotion and added our recommendations. You won’t find almost any obvious stuff about keywords, nice-looking icons, screenshots, or ad campaigns in this article. We’ve tried to develop a unified model for a product-focused company based on our experience by answering the questions “What? When? Why?” and even “And what then?”
If you’re developing your own app, want to start developing one, or just have a friend who’s a developer or marketing professional at a product-focused company, you’ll find lots of useful information in this article.
App Promotion Model
We’ve developed an app promotion model with multiple layers based on the OSI network model (Open Systems Interconnection model).
- The Base Layer is the product-development stage. It includes writing the code and developing the design.
- The Key Layer starts when the app is already done. It includes posting the app on the App Store and selecting keywords, screenshots, an icon, etc.
- The Public Layer is when the app is already available for download by users or its release date has been revealed. It includes working with journalists.
- The Advertising Layer is the business itself. It includes calculating profitability.
Each of these layers will be discussed individually below.
Many key decisions are made on the Base Layer. But since this article is only about marketing, we won’t be discussing architecture or UX issues here.
Everyone is familiar with the conventional wisdom that you need to start marketing your product well before it enters the market. But not many people actually understand the essence of this statement. Sure, preparing press releases, drawing a landing page, and making promo videos is important. At the same time, when we’re developing a product we’re already thinking about promoting the next one and increasing the return on the current one.
What is mandatory for all of our products, and what is implemented during the development stage in particular?
- Push notifications — every product is obliged to ask for permission for sending push notifications, even when its functionality doesn’t demand it. To increase conversions, we inserted an intermediary screen in certain products. This allowed us to use push notifications to remind the user about our product or advertise a new one, thus redirecting traffic from one channel into another. This has a number of advantages that we’ll discuss later. We used our own software for push notification, and we’re currently switching over to a very convenient service called Parse.
- Splash screens and banners — even if you have an ad-based monetization model, we strongly recommend adding this option to enable your own banners or full-screen ads. They should be controlled from a server. So, you can remotely enable and disable ads, as well as swap art and links in and out of ads.
- Email subscriptions are still a very effective promotional tool with high conversion rates. And you never know who might have subscribed to your mailouts. One of your subscribers could be a journalist from the Washington Post who goes on to write an article about you. By the way, it was actually a mailout that introduced us to one of our best partners, the website Appadvice.
Summing up, if you have a product or suite of products, you’ll be able to get a significant amount of free traffic when the next one comes out. And if you’re a multi-brand company, you can launch a series of products that work to support the primary one, but this is a topic for another article.
You’ll also want to pay special attention to analytics on the Base Layer. We can’t get into all of this just in one article, so we’ll give you a few quick recommendations for now. For analytics, we recommend using Flurry, Google Analytics, and Mixpanel (paid).
This is the layer of iTunes Connect, i.e. it’s the place where you create the face of your product. There are already millions of articles and thousands of presentations out there about how to pick the right icon, draw screenshots that will sell your product, and select keywords. You can find all this stuff very easily, and if you’ve been developing apps for a long time, you’re already sick of it.
Here are a few less-than-obvious tips:
- The description text that is placed at the top of the screen is easier to read. Keywords can and should be written where applicable one by one separated with commas and without spaces.
- Keywords that can fit in the title are ranking higher. But not all the titles are indexed in full by the App Store’s search engine — sometimes it’s only the first 100 characters.
- You can find an old, but a still relevant article about keywords here.
On the Key Layer, you also have access to an important way to increase downloads: price drops. If you set the price of your app at, say, $4, then drop it down to zero, and you’ll get more downloads. Across different products, this number can fluctuate between 1,000 and 80,000 free downloads. When you bring the price back to where it used to be, you’ll get a short sales surplus. Needless to say, you can’t exactly call this a business model. But if you thought about what we discussed above during the Base Layer, this will provide you with more than just a few thousand downloads and a couple of bucks. It’ll also give you a few thousand push devices and hundreds of new email subscribers. In the future, they could end up bringing you more than just selling your current product.
Everything on this layer is pretty simple — it’s awesome when you get write-ups in major publications. You get lots of downloads without having to pay for it, and you get a huge ego boost in the bargain.
Sure, you should get to know the press beforehand, grant them access to the beta version of your product through TestFlight and other services, ask them for advice, etc. But there’s a major caveat here: don’t spend a lot of time on this. If you’ve got a good relationship with the press, great — they’ll write about you if you’ve got an awesome product, just let them know.
Journalists read almost all their emails. It’s their job. But articles in major publications shouldn’t be a goal in and of itself, it should be a nice bonus. And if it doesn’t happen, no biggie. You can’t build a business based entirely on getting love from the press, but if it ends up happening down the road and it works for you, awesome.
Our app Wallgram got write-ups in all the major Western blogs and almost all the resources on the Ukrainian and Russian web. It’s remarkable that sales plummeted just one day after the main write-ups came out.
You can find a list of the main websites for press releases here.
This is the layer where the actual business begins. On this layer, you’ll be able to use absolutely everything you did on the previous layers, and everything you didn’t do will come back to haunt you — that’s advertising.
App development isn’t an online store that sells stuffed animals, so the traditional ROI model is hardly relevant here. The prime cost of the current version of the product is static, and when you increase sales, its portion drops continuously. So, for ad campaigns, we’ve picked a formula that should be familiar from physics class: the formula for determining energy efficiency. The great thing about app development is that in the real world its efficiency rate can never be greater than one, but on the App Store it can and should be above 100%.
Logically speaking, in order to increase an advertising campaign efficiency rate, you need to work on augmenting the average revenue per user and cutting the cost of attracting new users.
So, what about ARPU (average revenue per user)?
ARPU is calculated as the ratio of the revenue over a given period to the total number of users. In other words, if your app made, say, $10,000 in a month and was downloaded by 100,000 people, then ARPU is calculated as 10,000/1000,000 and works out at $0.10. Returning to the previous efficiency formula, in order for your business model to work, you need it to cost less than ten cents to attract each user, which is unlikely, so you need to increase ARPU. How is it possible?
- Increasing conversions — on the Base Layer we add analytics and immediately start studying funnels, i.e. the sequence of actions taken by the user before they start paying or performing another desired action. Then we do this individually for each product. If we find that 40% of users see the purchasing screen, but only 3% of them make a purchase, we change our formulations, images, etc. — there’s no magic bullet here, unfortunately.
- Safely increasing the price — logically speaking, if 100 people pay us a dollar, we earn $100, but if we increase the price to two dollars, fewer people will pay us. For instance, 70 people still will but they will pay us $140 in total, so we’re now making $40 more than we were before. But if we double the price, only 30 users will keep paying, and we’ll only make $60. The last price is therefore ineffective.
- Changing the business model— it may be that users aren’t willing to pay for what you’re selling, but they would be willing to pay for what you’re giving them for free. This is where analytics comes into play. It’ll help you see exactly what your users want.
- Changing formulations — this point also relates to analyzing funnels, but we’re discussing it separately because it may be necessary to add a psychological twist. For example, in our app Image Transfer there only used to be two points on the purchasing screen: “Buy the full version for $2.99” and “Use the product with restrictions.” The conversion rate was very low. After we added “Additional features”, such as “Remove the photo limit for $1.99,” “Remove the video limit for $1.99,” and “Remove ALL limits for $2.99,” removing all the limits for $2.99 seemed like a much better deal. However, there are always a few users who remove the video limit, then remove the photo limit separately, so they end up paying us $4 instead of $3. There have even been two users who then went ahead and bought the paid version of the product.
- Localization — English may be the international language, but not everyone speaks it, and this can lead to low conversion rates. If you see that you have a lot of downloads in, say, France, and at the same time you have few conversion, it might be worth thinking about localizing your app into French.
Here’s another example of changing formulations: in our email subscription form we replaced the word “subscribe” with “register,” and the number of email addresses tripled, from 3% to 9%.
When all is said and done, in this case, you need to work exclusively with conversions, since reducing the number of users, is impossible and needless — they’ve already downloaded your product.
Reducing the cost of attracting users
It isn’t enough to just pick the advertising network with the cheapest users since different traffic sources have different conversion rates. So a user might cost you 10 cents on one network, but the average revenue from this group is 5 cents, thus efficiency is 50%. Whereas on another network a user costs a dollar, but they bring in an average $1.20 in revenue, so the efficiency is 120%.
How to bring about a reduction in the cost of attracting users?
- Create your own promotional channels. Do what you should have done on the Base Layer: push notifications, advertising your new product in your previous products, email mailouts — all of this reduces the cost of user acquisition, since this traffic can be considered essentially free, or at least already paid for. You can also convert users with new products who didn’t pay you in the previous one. You can also create satellites, small products whose primary purpose is to generate traffic.
- Increase your advertising budget. Increasing your advertising budget really will increase your number of downloads, and increasing your number of downloads will bring you higher in the search results by keywords and even get you into the overall top-lists. By making it into top-lists and increasing your position in the search results, you increase your number of organic, i.e. free downloads, thus reducing the cost. Let’s say you pay an advertising network $10,000 for 10,000 users, i.e. the cost per user is $1, but, thanks to the caused organic traffic, you end up with a total of 15,000 downloads. The cost per user is actually $0.60.
- Choose an optimal attraction channel. This is simple enough — just reject attraction channels with low efficiency. This is a lot like ROI.
- Partner with other developers. If your colleagues have also taken care of their Base Layer, they’ll agree to provide advertising in their products. Sometimes this can significantly reduce attraction costs.
- Gradually increase your advertising budget. This is also known as the “crescendo” approach. Since the App Store uses your weighted average number of downloads during a given period, the most effective advertising campaigns aim for incremental increases: 3K downloads on the first day, then 5K on the next, the 10K on the third day, and so on, rather than trying to get 15K all in one day. This gives you a chance to make into the top-lists and save money by getting organic traffic.
- Journalists. If you still end up seeing eye to eye with the press, this is a great way to reduce the cost of users, since journalists provide you with free leads.
The model described here obviously isn’t a magic bullet. An awful lot depends on the product itself, the time of its release, its relevance, the vacuum it fills, etc., but it’s absolutely essential to know all of this if you want to build a business on your product.
It’s important to realize that for premium products, i.e. paid products, the advertising model in its purest form doesn’t work. It will always cost more to attract users then they’re going to pay for a paid product. At the same time, you always have the option to recoup your expenses thanks to organic downloads. You can even use the freemium model with paid products. Right now we consider the most effective model to be the subscription-based approach, i.e. users pay you for the time they spend using your product. This business model allows you to afford a much higher user attraction cost because the revenue from your users will be much higher in the long run.
Even if the advertising model doesn’t work for your products, the previous layers of promotion still will. We use both the premium and freemium models with almost all of our products. For example, our Photo and Video Transfer is a paid app without any limits, and Image Transfer is the exact same app, but free, albeit with in-app purchases. Right now the revenue from both models is more or less the same.
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