In the early days of apps, life used to be so simple. You built it, released it into the app store(s), spread the word about it and waited for the downloads to roll in. That was in the days when apps were novelty items and people were still amazed at the utility and functionality that could be coded into something they could keep on their homescreen and use whenever they wanted.
Fast forward a few years – nine to be exact – and things look somewhat different. While mobile phone OS fragmentation has eased somewhat, leaving iOS and Android as virtually the last men standing, the fact remains that there are more than 2m apps in Apple’s App Store, and another 2m+ in the Google Play store.
And while clearly there’s a massive amount of duplication, as developers build and release for both platforms, even with 2m other apps competing for attention, it’s hard to stand out. Factor in the thousands of new apps released into the app stores every single day, and it’s clear that getting your app discovered and downloaded is becoming harder with each passing day.
Even if you get that far, the numbers around app churn are truly scary for brands. According to research from Urban Airship, based on a study of 63m app users, only five per cent of people who download an app will still be using it 90 days after they open it for the first time. So all that time, energy and, let’s face it, money spent driving downloads of your app, is wasted.
So given the competitive nature of the app landscape, how do you cut through, get your app downloaded by the right sort of people, and then encourage them to open it once and keep going back to it, once installed?
For Simon Spaull, MD, EMEA, at AppLovin, the process starts with the app itself. “People spend millions on TV ads and then come to us with a crappy app where the user journey is awful,” he says. “People like Amazon have nailed this, minimising as many processes as they can, but it is amazing how many people come to us with dreadful apps.”
Josh Todd, CMO at Localytics, tells a similar story. He says: “People need to ask themselves, ‘What is the purpose of the app? What unique value does it provide?’ Creating an app for the sake of creating an app is a recipe for failure.”
Assuming the app is fit for purpose, the next job, of course, is to get it on consumers’ handsets. In recent years, Facebook has taken billions in marketing dollars from brands and app developers looking to do just that. While his company spends no money with the social giant, AppLovin’s Spaull says he understands the platform’s appeal.
“People go to Facebook first, and we will push them that way, because the data is strong and it converts very well; there’s no hiding from that fact,” he says. “Then once you start seeing success on Facebook, we can get you to the next level. You’ll get maybe 50 per cent of your coverage on Facebook, but there are people on apps outside of Facebook and we are happy to play in that space.”
When the talk turns to mobile ad spend and Facebook, Google is usually not far behind, and according to Mick Rigby, CEO of Yodel Mobile, search is becoming increasingly important to drive app downloads.
“App indexing is becoming essential for app discovery via search through Chrome and Safari,” he says. “App packs are the tiles that come up on mobile search when you type in a request. If you type in a search on your mobile for something like ‘Cheap hotels app’ or ‘Luxury hotels app’, if you scroll down past the usual paid results at the top of the page, you get three tiles, each promoting a different app matching that description. And if you click the ‘More Apps’ arrow below the tiles, you get a full screen of app tiles. If you know what you are doing, you can steal a march on the big brands and spenders. You can get into the top three or six and completely outplay the big names at a fraction of the investment – by being smart. Lots of marketers are missing out on the opportunity of app discovery through search on mobile handsets.”
Simon Baptist, director of business development, EMEA, at Tune, puts it even more forcefully. “To win mobile users you have to win in search first,” he says. “To crack the top 150 apps in the Google Play store, app marketers need to use 15–25 different search terms to grab enough users. For the iOS store it’s more like 25+ terms to crack the top 150 apps in a given category. Savvy app marketers and makers use app store optimisation software to do keyword analysis to figure out what people are searching for and then optimise accordingly.”
But app discoverability is not all about reaching random consumers online. If you’re an established brand with established lines of communication with your customer, then clearly it makes sense to use them.
“Owned media is one of the biggest opportunities for brands that are more established,” says Localytics’ Todd. “We know more than half of emails are opened on mobile and a lot of companies have an email newsletter, so this is a great place to promote your app to your more engaged users. Companies like Staples and CBS have done a great job in this respect over the past couple of years, but a lot of others are still ignoring the opportunity.”
This notion of the more engaged user is one that has come to the fore in the past year or so as the app marketing business has matured. Previously, the only KPI anyone really worried about was the number of downloads, but given those scary app churn figures mentioned earlier, there has been a gradual realisation among the app marketing community that you get what you pay for.
“Sure we can drive installs for $1, but that will only get you crappy audiences,” says AppLovin’s Spaull. “If you’re prepared to pay $5 or $10, you’ll be bidding for higher-quality inventory and, ultimately, you’ll attract a better customer and make more money in the long run.”
This is the approach taken by Francesco Loschiavo, digital marketing and CRM manager at NBC Universal’s Hayu reality TV on-demand service. Hayu works closely with Yodel on its app marketing and Loschiavo concedes that in the early days “we started out being concerned about volume but now it is all about quality.”
To find higher-quality users, Hayu uses AppsFlyer tech in the app. ‘Events’ are flagged in the app, such as when someone makes it past three months as a paid subscriber, or completes a given number of programme views. The app then sends a signal back to Hayu’s media partners to say that the channel this user came from to the app is delivering better-quality users, so spend should be optimised for that channel. In addition, on Facebook Hayu will identify, for example, The Kardashians superfans who have watched more than 50 episodes and spent a certain amount, and who have a high number of app logins. It then layers its customer data against Facebook interest data to build a strong lookalike profile to find more potential customers of the same quality.
So you’ve lovingly crafted your app, you’ve optimised your app store presence, you’ve fine-tuned your media spend so that your ads are appearing in the right places to attract high-quality users and, happy days, the downloads start rolling in. The next thing the savvy app marketer needs to think about is the onboarding process, when the user opens the app for the first time and you, as the app developer or the brand briefing the app developer, have to decide how far to push things on that first engagement. If the app is on an iOS phone, it will ask the user’s permission to send push notifications on first open, though Leanplum, which specialises in post-install engagement, has a piece of tech that can circumvent this.
There are lots of permissions an app can ask for, in addition to push notifications. The most obvious ones are permission to access your location, the phone’s camera and its address book. “There are two types of onboarding: initial and progressive,” says Yodel’s Rigby. “Initial onboarding is getting the user to understand the app and if there are any essential elements you need them to opt in to, get them straight away. So if it’s a dating app with a ‘People Near Me’ feature, you need to get them to opt in to location from the off. Progressive onboarding is stuff they can come back to at later stages. There’s no one right way to do this because every app is different and requires different data, but as long as you understand this, you can build a strategy.”
But of all the permissions an app can seek, push notifications are undoubtedly the most important, offering the app owner the opportunity to re-engage users who have downloaded the app but haven’t opened it up for a while. So what does best practice look like here?
“You have to show them a little bit of value then earn the right to ask for those permissions in context,” says Localytics’ Todd. “RetailMeNot did a great job with this. When you got inside the app, the first thing the user had to do was to select which brands they wanted to receive discount coupons from, so when the app asked permission to send push notifications, it was in the context of getting deals from the brands they had selected.”
According to Leanplum, the average opt-in rate for push notifications is 43 per cent, but the retention rate for users opted in to push is 20 per cent higher than for those who are not. “For an app like Pokémon Go, that number means you would have an additional 1.2m players by day 15,” says Joyce Solano, Leanplum’s VP of corporate marketing. “What an arsenal that is in terms of retaining users and being able to monetise them.”
The other $64,000 question where push is concerned, is frequency. As the app owner, it’s tempting to reach out to your users every week or maybe even every day to get them re-engaging with the app and, hopefully, spending money with you. But common sense dictates that if you turn up the dial too high, users will see you as spammy, tune out, and probably uninstall. So what is the golden number of push notifications an app owner should be looking to send?
You’ll struggle to find anyone to give you a definitive answer, on the basis that every app is different. News organisations probably can get away with a daily push, or even more, but a retailer might start to look a bit desperate if they adopted the same approach.
Emily Buckman, global strategic consultant at Urban Airship says: “Frequency is more about relevance than cadence. Our studies clearly show that among hundreds of apps analysed, more frequent engagement through messaging will drive better retention rates, so long as you have something relevant to say that is aligned to the customer journey and experience. But the messaging must be relevant, personalised and contextual. If not, if you’re just sending a message with a flash sale every day, it will have the opposite effect to what you’re trying to achieve.”
The other thing that can help where push is concerned is a bit of variety, something beyond plain text. iOS 10 - in addition to enabling app users to leave a rating for the app from within the app, rather than being redirected away to the App Store – also enables app owners to send rich push notifications, including GIFs and videos. It also enables a brand to personalise the app icon on the user’s phone, so that a Starwood hotel user who hits Platinum status in the company’s loyalty program, for example, could see that reflected in their app icon.
In the same vein, app marketers are seeing great success with that other unlikely marketing success story of the past 12 months, the emoji. “Our customers see great results when they use multimedia and non-text-based communication to re-engage users,” says Tune’s Baptist. “Emojis and GIFs are two great examples of fun tools that app makers can use to engage with mobile customers. Data suggest that sending mobile users personalised, emoji-based notifications can boost open rates by as much as 80 per cent. Why? Pictures are valuable, lasting and fun. That’s exactly what you want mobile users to think of your app.”
At The Economist, audience development director Tom McCave says push notifications have increased in importance in recent years. McCave is responsible for The Economist’s ‘World In ’ series, published annually. He says: “People are engaging with apps in different ways than they did three or four years ago. There are fewer people looking for the apps they want to open by browsing their phone; it is much more prompted. We put out a notification when the new edition is published but that would only be once a year, so we go further. ‘The World In’ predicts how the year ahead will unfold, so when some of these predictions come true, we can re-engage with those users through push. It gives us a way to have a continued conversation throughout the year. This is one thing push is really good for.”
At Hayu, Loschiavo says the brand is taking a tiered approach to push. “We do a lot of A/B testing to see what works, and carefully manage that we aren’t overusing the frequency of the channel,” he says. “If it’s a C-level show, not a big premiere, we might just do an email. But if it’s a new series of the Kardashians, we will roll it out across all channels and stagger the messaging through the day, so you might get an email in the morning, an in-app notification during the day and a push notification in the evening just before the show goes out. We also use push notifications for early engagement, as an educational tool, when someone has installed the app but not subscribed yet.”
So what next for app marketing? Tune’s Baptist would like to see brands take analytics more seriously. In this respect, he says, they can learn a lot from the gaming companies, who lead the way in mobile user acquisition and engagement because they use deep-funnel behaviour analytics to drive action; they rely on rapid testing and adjustment as a core strategy; and they are quick to jump on new opportunities and cultural trends.
“Analytics can make a real difference,” says Baptist. “Mobile games are free to play and are designed to drive players through a carefully scripted series of tutorials and events, with the objective of creating affinity for the game. At the end of this journey, or funnel, are micro-transactions like buying coins to level up faster. Gaming companies have designed their mobile product specifically to move players efficiently through this funnel to a point of purchase.
“They measure the customer journey with pinpoint accuracy along the way. By focusing on deep-funnel analytics, i.e. what behaviour a player takes just before and just after a point of purchase, gaming companies can constantly configure their game to maximise this action. It’s this level of attention and data that informs both marketing strategy and product strategy, which leads to a constant evolution of rapid updates to make the game better.”
Urban Airship’s Buckman believes brands are improving their messaging capabilities. “Businesses, especially larger ones, are finally starting to shift the culture towards being more mobile-first and data-driven, implementing DMPs and data warehouses to send the right communications at the right time, so messages are becoming more contextual and relevant thanks to better data and analytics,” she says.
Meanwhile, Hayu’s Loschiavo says he is already looking towards what comes after apps. “These are interesting times,” he says. “I read recently that people only use seven apps on a daily basis and it’s mostly between two companies, Facebook and Google, with maybe a bit of Snapchat and one or two others in there. This is the evolution of how your brand is going to talk to your customer. It might not be in the app store or in other apps that you do your marketing. It might be natively in Facebook or in chatbots and messenger bots. We are looking at this and we’re seeing how chat is becoming a global leader in terms of where people are spending time on their phone, so it’s going to be really interesting to see how this all plays out.”
This article first appeared in the June 2017 print edition of Mobile Marketing. You can read the whole issue here.