A rigorous analysis of the reams of mobile and marketing predictions for the new year suggests 2020 will be remembered as the year mobile-first marketing finally grew up. The obsession with short-term gains and growth hacks that marked the last decade is fast being replaced by the realization that “fully-baked business models” and strategies that demonstrate financial self-control define the path to profitability and sustainability.

The end of the “cheap money era” also turns up the pressure on marketing teams to be resourceful with spend and relentless in their pursuit of fresh audiences and emerging channels. It’s an enormous challenge in a market where the Big Two (Facebook and Google) dominate, driving customer acquisition costs through the roof and blocking the path for new large-scale channels to gain critical mass. To succeed in this environment, the 2020 marketer will need to have a firm grasp of full-funnel data, the ability to manage algorithmic campaigns and the vision to create cross-functional teams that combine talent from marketing, product and engineering.

“Marketing teams that do not control monetization and strategy will simply be ineffectual,” Eric Seufert,  a media strategist, user acquisition specialist and quantitative marketer, writes on Mobile Dev Memo.  He connects the dots to make a provocative claim: 2020 will mark the death of the textbook CMO. It’s a position that belongs to “an exclusively marketing-oriented executive for mobile-first companies”—and it belongs to the past. While it is extreme to suggest CMOs will be passé starting this year, there is truth in Seufert’s observation that “without deep analytics and monetization experience, a marketing leader cannot properly scale a mobile-first business.”Today In: Innovation

The 2020 marketer is a new breed that drives teamwork and devours data to define targets, assess trade-offs, and set stretch goals. It’s here that the 2019 Mobile App Trends Report from Liftoff, a mobile marketing and retargeting platform, provides a valuable analysis of the broader developments and benchmarks essential to inform an audience-first, mobile-first strategy. The report combines app intelligence and Liftoff internal data to give marketers a holistic view of the trends and metrics influencing marketing across a variety of app categories and regions. 

Chock full of graphs and metrics, the 64-page report presents us with a lot to digest. I draw from interviews with three expert mobile marketers (one of whom is a Liftoff Mobile Hero, an accolade that underlines their performance marketing accomplishments) to provide a fresh perspective on the opportunities and challenges shaping the global app marketplace and the business agenda for the 2020 marketer. [Disclosure: I regularly interview Mobile Heroes as the host of Mobile Presence, a weekly podcast for which I am not paid. Later this month I will be a guest and moderator on Mobile App Trends: Analysis of the App Ecosystem, a Liftoff webinar for which I am not paid.] 

#1 Realign talent to achieve targets.

Shopping apps are firmly established as the essential go-to for inspiration and assistance, in store and throughout the customer journey. It’s a dynamic that drives down costs as users are more affordable to acquire and more apt to engage. But the 2020 marketer faces significant challenges scaling in a market where app downloads and revenues are showing signs of fatigue. 

The App Trends report reveals new uploads of shopping apps have stalled, and downloads have plateaued at a high level. Specifically, downloads have dropped 1.7% to reach 5.9 billion in 2019 (compared to 6 billion the previous year). Revenue is also down by nearly half, reaching $95.6 million. Significantly, shopping apps lead where it counts. At 7.7%, engagement rates for shopping apps are among the highest. Do the math, and there is plenty of money to be made—provided shopping app marketers build teams’ synergy by realigning internal resources and talents to acquire and retain high-quality users with strong purchase intentions.

Image of Cody Ryan, VP of Growth Marketing, Ibotta
Cody Ryan,
VP of Growth Marketing, IBOTTA

This is the view of Cody Ryan, VP of Growth Marketing at Ibotta, a company that lets users earn cash back on in-store and online purchases. “The biggest limit to a company’s ability to grow is the quality of its funnel,” Ryan tells me. However, advancements in marketing automation and marketing channels that harness algorithms to improve targeting and make a better match between campaigns and cohorts combine to give the 2020 marketer abilities akin to superpowers. “If you’re not loading the funnel intelligently, you’re behind the curve,” he explains. 

To stay ahead of retail rivals, Ibotta has aligned talent and technology to the customer life cycle. “We no longer think about user acquisition in the traditional sense,” Ryan explains. Instead, Ibotta “puts more emphasis on retention and has restructured to allocate more resources and headcount to growth functions dedicated to driving ongoing [app] usage.” The approach, he says,  is paying dividends, allowing Ibotta to report retention rates that far exceed the Day 30 retention benchmark of 3.5% from the App Trends report.

This year Ibotta is taking the effort to a new level. “For the first time, we have fully dedicated squads focused on each stage of the funnel,” Ryan explains. “From acquisition to activation to retention, the squads are at the core of our wider strategy to achieve cross-functional alignment on product, marketing and engineering.” His advice to the 2020 marketer: “Get organizational buy-in on down-funnel retention being a top priority and build your teams around winning in this area.” In competitive markets, apps with the highest retention will have the most scalable growth and sustainable success.

# 2 Tackle complexity with a funnel-focused structure. 

Over the past five years, user activity on finance apps has rocketed by 354%, a development that cements apps as the channel of choice for consumers to manage their finances and plan their future. This positive dynamic is echoed in the App Trends report. While the number of new apps uploaded has slowed, app downloads have soared. At 6.8 billion downloads,  finance app downloads have increased 4% from the previous year. What’s more, the cost to activate this audience is attractive. The deep-funnel conversion of purchase (using the app to transact) comes in at $38.64, 55% less than the cost to generate a conversion on a gaming app, for example. Even better: Finance app users are fast movers. The report clocks the time from download to action at only 70 minutes. By comparison, the install-to-purchase time for gaming apps is 46 hours and 35 minutes.

Image of Kiki Burton, Head of Growth Marketing, Credit Karma
Kiki Burton, Head of Growth Marketing, CREDIT KARMA

Overall, the data tells a positive story. Consumers clearly accept and embrace mobile apps. However, the issue facing the 2020 marketer is how to create campaigns that drive more sessions and encourage lasting loyalty. It’s a challenge Credit Karma is winning thanks to a mobile-first strategy and an organization that cultivates in-house expertise, Kiki Burton, Head of Growth Marketing at Credit Karma, tells me in an interview. “Our marketing organization and our strategy are heavily indexed on having talent in house. This has given us the faculty to focus on engagement and re-engagement and keep pace with cutting-edge trends,” she explains. This agility, combined with a laser focus on the user life cycle, has allowed Credit Karma to acquire  “north of 100 million members” in the U.S., Canada and the U.K.

That milestone audience achievement also underlines the importance of combining performance marketing and product. To maintain the momentum, Credit Karma organizes its marketing team around the funnel, not user groups. “It all goes back to surfacing the right information at the right time and aligned with our members’ consumption patterns,” she explains. To make this vision a reality, the company has developed new internal structures called “pods” that combine performance marketers, creative talent, analytics partners and operations managers and channels their efforts toward a single goal. “Having a dedicated cross-functional group focused on major marketing initiatives gives us the velocity to make progress,” Burton explains.  “In order to have tight alignment between marketing and product teams, our growth marketers have specific domain expertise related to a particular vertical at Credit Karma, like our mortgage and personal loans verticals, for example. To complement that structure, we have a centralized marketing team in place to ensure cohesive messaging and standards across all our marketing channels and campaigns.”

Credit Karma leveraged this structure to launch a new product experience on mobile, known as Stories. Through Stories,  Credit Karma “surfaces the most relevant information to each of its members in a newsfeed-like format, which makes it easier for members to understand, digest and take action,” Burton explains. From the moment users enter the product, they are presented with personalized insights and recommendations to help them achieve financial progress. During the test period Credit Karma rolled the product out to roughly 350,000 members and immediately saw a 3.1% increase in member engagement with the Credit Karma app. The numbers speak volumes and shed valuable light on the way ahead for the 2020 marketer. Burton’s advice: “Marketing is becoming engagement lifecycle marketing. Marketers must evolve their marketing strategy to layer up to that, and this requires a comprehensive suite of tools and a marketing structure that will allow you to provide personalized recommendations that drive interaction with your app and build trust.”

#3 Push the boundaries and keep the passion.

An explosion in dating apps is driving massive revenues around the world, but it’s also fueling increased competition for users. The latest numbers in the App Trend report note Social (which includes dating apps) as a top-grossing app category. Downloads remain robust (showing an increase of 3% over the previous year) and install costs are attractive. According to the report, the cost to acquire a user who commits to a subscription (the primary monetization model for many dating apps) is a steal. At $36.39, costs deep in the funnel are down nearly 60% compared to the previous year—and engagement rates at the higher end of the scale are a bonus.

Image of Natasha Upal, VP of Marketing & Growth, Clover Inc.
Natasha Upal, VP of Marketing & Growth, CLOVER INC.

But there is a catch. While marketers have cracked the code on what it takes to drive middle-funnel activity, such as registration, they have yet to decipher how to trigger the deep-funnel activities that count, such as purchases and subscriptions. In the case of social apps, nearly 60% of users register but fail to take the plunge. It’s a dangerous disconnect that will require the 2020 marketers to be resourceful and radical at the same time, Natasha Upal, VP of Marketing & Growth at Clover Inc., an on-demand dating service, tells me in an interview. 

Upal recommends a “bolder approach to unlocking new inventory.” In practice, this means “exploring opportunities to address captive audiences on streaming services such as Spotify” or retrying channels that are shaping up to make a splash, such as Pinterest and Twitter.  Another solid channel is Tik Tok. Clover launched on the short-form, video-sharing app through a beta in 2019 and “quickly saw CPIs of 30% less,” according to Upal. But it’s not enough to diversify channels and spend to reach new audiences. Upal also urges marketers to test new DSPs (demand-side platforms) for automated ad purchases. Her tip: Do your homework to find DSPs that are app-first and mobile-first. A web focus doesn’t cut it.

However, making the right channel and partner choices is an empty victory if marketers don’t invest the effort to extract maximum value from them. “You need to be continually testing and trying,” Upal explains. “It’s exhausting, which is why you also need to have the intensity and the passion to keep the momentum going.” Regular creative reviews and brainstorms help the team reflect, learn and keep up a continuous ideation flow, she adds. “It has led to some great out-of-the-box concepts but also novel ways to create brand awareness quickly and cost-effectively. For example, working with in-field Brand Ambassadors to create online advocacy.”

Being experimental is a plus, but the 2020 marketer will also need to inspire teams to take charge. “It’s a good idea to formalize this into someone’s job description or team, so the accountability for R&D is there,” Upal explains. “It should also form an integral part of the marketing roadmap for the year with an allocated budget and specific targets.” Drawing from her own product marketing background Upal has already applied many of those principles to the company’s growth marketing approach.

Finally, she adds, keep individuals accountable but use regular touchpoints to remind that it is a team-wide responsibility to research, test and develop new tools, platforms and tactics. “Find the right balance between drumming up excitement for new ideas, services or tools—or whatever—but stay motivated by reminding your stakeholders that only one percent of what you test may actually fly,” she adds. “To quote a dating analogy, you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find your prince.”

From the vantage point of these three innovative practitioners, it’s clear that the future is now. The 2020 marketer who heeds their advice will be making strategic investments in enduring success rather than chasing short-lived, quick wins that can’t be predicted (or repeated).