Apps & Marketing

Four Expert Strategies To Help You Gear Up For Apps’ Biggest Year Yet

18 min read

Brimming with apps and opportunity (over 6K new Android apps added daily to the Google Play app store alone) the app stores are set to pull in an incredible $120 billion in consumer spend by the end of the year, according to app store intelligence provider App Annie. That’s 5x the growth rate of the global economy, which means 2019 is destined to be the biggest year in mobile and apps yet. 

That said, not all apps will be raking in the revenue. More apps mean more competition for users and a greater-than-ever need for bold strategies to ensure app marketers reach acquisition and retention targets. Marketers are challenged, whether their goal is to win audiences in high-growth markets, such as Southeast Asia (where the latest Mobile Growth Map from Adjust, a global mobile measurement and fraud prevention solutions provider, reports users just warming to apps), or to encourage audiences in mature markets, such as the U.S., to do more and spend more in-app. 

Fortunately, a growing number of digital destinations (such as Mobile Dev MemoThe Mobile Growth Stack and The Business of Apps) offer marketers actionable insights to help them improve how they promote their apps in the year ahead. But it’s also a must to network with (and learn from) accomplished marketers who openly share best practices and positive campaign results. With an agenda that boasts “no sponsors, no sales pitches, and no hype,” Mobile Spree, organized by Adjust is the one to attend (or follow) for top trends and pro tips. I have distilled the talks from this year’s Mobile Spree, which took place in San Francisco earlier this month, into four key pieces of advice you can adopt to make your app (and your app company) succeed.

#1 Fight your “funnel” vision.

In one of the most intriguing talks (with one of the most provocative titles) Rebecca Nackson, a veteran performance marketer turned seasoned marketing consultant and founder of Notable, a boutique growth agency headquartered in New York, pinpointed the biggest challenge and opportunity on the horizon. “The pendulum is shifting from growth marketing to retention marketing,” Nackson told me in an interview before her session. Marketers obsessed with user acquisition and filling the top of the funnel are faced with the task of connecting the data to make sense of the complete user journey through the entire funnel. Fighting “funnel vision” must become a top priority for teams, and it will require a fresh mindset and capabilities to “put the ‘personal’ back in personalization,” she explains. 

In practice, marketers will need to overcome the “artificial distinction between the user acquisition team and the retention team,” she says. Instead, they should focus efforts on building teams that cover the customer cycle. This means bringing together growth marketers, retention marketers and engineers to ensure insights feed back into product to delight customers again and again. But it also means taking a new approach to data that builds on attribution analytics to fuel engagement. “It’s about harnessing the information attribution solutions provide—how they came into your app in the first place—to determine the best rules of engagement to decide the kinds of messages you need to be sending further along in the customer journey.”

To make her point Nackson recalls her work with a streaming app client that had identified a user segment if called the ‘Late Night Crusher.’ True to the name, these were users that would respond to late-night campaigns powered by messaging and notifications that tapped into their app activities well into the wee hours. To target these users meant overriding the wisdom, and the CRM tools, that dictate ‘quiet windows’ when companies can’t engage or re-engage with users. “If you’re leveraging your attribution data in your CRM, then you can do marketing campaigns that are much more intelligent and ultimately increase the lifetime value of the users you acquire,” she says. “And, with a clear idea of where your high-value and highly engaged users are coming from, you can acquire more of them.”

#2 Know and measure what you pay for. 

Approaches powered by sophisticated algorithms and fueled by data equip marketers to track, measure and validate important campaign KPIs to a high degree of accuracy. But an over-reliance on often misleading click- and view-based measurements to gauge campaign impact may be leading marketers to “over-attribute” paid efforts and pay for users they already own. It’s why Matthew Sadofsky, Chief Growth Officer and CMO at Studio, a startup that delivers coaching, music and competition to treadmill runners’ smartphones and smartwatches, provided his pick of three approaches to nip incrementality in the bud. But there are no silver-bullet answers, just “directional” approaches, he explained, because “there’s no model where you can just plug in a few numbers, and it just tells you where your dollars may be at risk.”

Newbies and app marketers with a limited budget are best advised to employ a baseline lift analysis, according to Sadofsky. It’s also a fit if your app isn’t linked to seasonal events and developments (for example, a football app that is bound to have low numbers during off-season months). In this scenario, marketers pinpoint a time period when marketing is flat or non-existent (so maybe summer for the football app), and measure the organic baseline, Sadofsky explains. After that it’s a matter of measuring how that baseline changes over time, going up and down depending on factors such as ad networks and partners. “If you onboard a new affiliate partner or new DSP, and you see organics drop significantly afterward,” he says, “then it’s a signal to dive into the traffic data and see if it’s incremental or just misattributing.”

Interestingly, Sadofsky also shared his own “similarity method,” a model he helped develop that assumes high-intent, organic users behave differently than users acquired via paid marketing. Based on an analysis of these indicators and outcomes, the model looks for the correlations that show a cohort very likely came into the app on their own terms, not triggered by advertising. Determining high intent can be a tall order, but finding a match is a strong indication that campaigns are cannibalizing organic growth. There are many models to choose from and one hard truth, Sadofsky says. “The issue of incrementality—and the requirement to establish the *real* added benefit of paid campaigns—is a hot topic, particularly as marketers expand the channels and partners they use to reach audiences and deepen their engagement.”

#3 Power your marketing with rich customer segmentation.

Winning requires customer segmentation strategies designed from the ground up to gain trust, not just market share. This was the challenge and the triumph for Fabien-Pierre Nicolas, VP of U.S. Marketing at SmartNews, Inc. The company, the first news startup to achieve unicorn status since 2015, counts 20 million monthly active users in the U.S. and Japan. It’s an audience growing at the rate of 500% annually in the U.S., powered by a segmentation strategy that delivers the right mix of news curated for each individual reader. During his talk, Nicolas recounted the steps his company took to develop and deploy an approach to engage audiences with news they appreciated without reinforcing the filter bubble. (This state of intellectual isolation, caused by algorithms that over-personalize the user experience, exposes users to news and information that strengthens their own beliefs, rather than broadening them.)

This requires an audience segmentation approach that is fiercely customer-centric. In the case of SmartNews, formulating questions to help categorize the app’s existing users allowed Nicolas’ team to identify key customer segments and the metrics attached to each. The outcome was a grid that exposed six segments, mapped according to the level of trust they have in a news discovery app and their intent to download one. His team reduced this to three customer segments likely to convert (high trust and high intent, for example), and marketing efforts focused on harnessing segmentation to drive interest and activity across the funnel. “It’s about using segmentation to help focus the content and campaigns for your audience,” Nicolas observes. Understanding users are passionately interested in politics was the insight that prompted SmartNews to produce a 15-second ad that ran during the recent democratic debate. In addition to the spot driving a significant number of downloads, Nicolas recalls, the “ability to plan campaigns against customer segmentation” is an effort that continues to pay dividends. 

Marketing aligned with customer segmentation is clearly a winning combination. But marketers will also have to develop capabilities to direct campaigns at communities–groups of users defined by interests (not demographics or proximity) and bound together by a sense of trust. This is the view of Will Cady, Head Of Brand Strategy at Reddit, Inc.a massive network of more than 100,000 digital, interest-based communities. Today, he says, marketing is either focused on groups of people that have demographic similarities or segments defined by activities on social networks.  Both miss the opportunity to engage people in a coherent community whose members have opted-in to improve their lives, widen their horizons, learn, share and relate to one another, he says. This is the vibe at Reddit, and tapping into these trusted conversations requires brands to develop campaigns and capabilities that “segment audiences by cultures and passion points, not just behaviors.” 

It’s new territory for brands and marketers—particularly those who embrace a spray-and-pray approach to advertising. According to Cady, marketing to community and culture is a practice built on three pillars: language (jargon and slang), tools (rituals, roles and how members moderate discussion and interaction) and experience (what moves them and the trends that matter). His advice to brands and marketers: “Your best bet is to show you understand [their] language or provide a tool or experience that is exciting.” Following this advice allowed McDonald’s to bond with fans of Rick and Morty, the American animated series with a dedicated subreddit of 1.4 million devoted fans. McDonald’s earned priceless cred by messaging these redditors when it re-released its Szechuan Sauce in the U.S. in response to a shout out by the Rick Sanchez character on the show.  The campaign, which took an integrated approach leveraging both paid and organic engagement, was pure brilliance and pushes marketers to rewrite the playbook on customer segmentation to include culture fit.

#4 Product is the new marketing.

Effective marketing can net high-value customers, but it’s a quality app experience that will keep them coming back. This realization is changing how product and marketing teams work together, sharing data and insights to remove friction from every step of the customer journey. Emily Nassif, Senior Marketing Specialist at Zillow, a leading real estate marketplace, shared how combining team talents has built trust in “Zillow 2.0,” a strategic shift for the company that focuses on the customer first. As Zillow moves from “an information marketplace to a transactional marketplace,” it creates products, services, and communications focused on clearing friction points for the customer, Nassif explains. With Zillow, customers can do more than search for the perfect house or apartment. The company recently launched a Home Loans division that allows customers shopping for mortgages to receive financing directly from the company. It marks a new phase of growth and innovation that requires campaigns and creatives that encourage customers to explore the breadth of what Zillow now offers—and gains their trust in the process. 

This is why marketing follows the funnel in lock-step with everything the product enables and inspires customers to do, Nassif says. It starts with the logo, a house icon that shows swift movement. “It shows empowerment—-the feeling customers have when they move to the end of the home-buying process that we make possible.” Badges denote top agents that customers can trust to be great resources for advice and assistance, and paid marketing runs dynamic ads that ensure customers don’t click on listings that aren’t relevant or aren’t for sale anymore, she explains. Against this backdrop, finding the right ad creative is an iterative process where product plays an active and important role. “Setting yourself up for success means giving yourself space to test and iterate into a strong new concept.” It’s a process Nassif says moves in waves. “Teams work together to keep iterating on what [creative] wins, and then they work together to find out what the next winner will be.” It’s an approach that is “vital” for marketers that have new product offerings, she concludes, but it’s also a great way to refresh evergreen concepts and keep customers loyal as the product and marketing evolve.

The experts cited here are committed to pushing the boundaries of how marketers view and pursue their goals and the assumptions that underpin how they will achieve them. This innovator’s mindset may reveal fresh solutions to the coming year’s challenges, as you rethink your own approach to user acquisition, retention, customer segmentation, cross-team collaboration, and more.