Mobile

The keys to app store distribution that you need to know — but probably don’t

Sapphire crystal iPhone screen
Image Credit: Nikola Cirkovic

This sponsored post is produced by Chris Hulls, the cofounder and CEO of Life360.

It’s one of the biggest questions most developers have when launching a new app: “If I build it, will they come”?  Even if your product is amazing, if you don’t get an initial critical mass of users, you will fail. Ironically, this is one of the easiest problems to overcome, but it is where most entrepreneurs fail. This doesn’t have to happen. With just a bit of basic app store knowledge, you can avoid the common mistakes most mobile startups make and hack your way to enough users so that your success will depend on the quality of your product — not the marketing tricks I’ll show you here.

Step 1: Know yourself

The No. 1 reason app makers fail at launch is from picking the wrong strategy. No one-size-fits-all gameplan exists, and just because something worked for Flappy Bird does not mean it will work for your game. People fall into this trap because they don’t understand the app ecosystem, which actually is pretty straightforward. In the context of distribution, we have three main categories of apps whether free or paid: Utilities, Games & Entertainment, and Social. Each category has very different acquisition mechanics, and knowing these differences is critical. The table below illustrates the key differences in each (note that social games like Words With Friends fall into the Social category). Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 10.30.20 AM

Step 2: Understand app discovery

To make sense of this, think about how people find apps: Utilities If someone needs something that solves a known problem, like a flashlight app or a family locator, they will search. So utility makers need to optimize around the right keywords, since this is how people will find them. And who is best at search? Google, of course, and that is why it makes it easier to launch on Android. Games & Entertainment If someone is looking for a game to make their bus ride more bearable, like Flappy Bird or some other time-waster, they don’t really know what they want, so they will likely browse until they find something that looks cool. I can confidently say that Flappy Bird didn’t get its players from people searching for “flying bird game” — it got them from finding a way to rank highly on a list and building an app good enough to stay there. The iTunes App Store centers heavily on lists, which means most apps are discovered by browsing. And this is why iOS is better for apps in this category. Social If someone is looking for an app that all of their friends are using, they actually don’t do any looking at all. They get an invitation. And it better be a free invitation, since even 99 cents is too much to pay for something they don’t have any desire for yet. Since trendy young people start trends, and trendy young people have iPhones, it makes Apple the launch platform of choice.

Step 3: Learn from others

None of this is rocket science — you might even say it is all obvious — but most app makers ignore the ramifications. Here are some tangible examples from startups I have advised in the past. A well-funded utility startup complained to me that they got on TechCrunch and in the New York Times, and they got a huge spike of traffic — but it petered out the same day. I asked them what else they did to bolster their launch, and they said they had built an in-app referral button but it wasn’t working very well. Of course it didn’t work. Prior to establishing a brand, utilities get their users from search, and relying on a PR spike paired with a viral loop is exceptionally unlikely to succeed. Why? If you don’t have a strong natural social component, your K-factor (number of invites x conversion rate) will be less than one, and the loop won’t self-perpetuate. Think about it: How many of your friends have you invited to try out that cool flashlight app you have? A four-person bootstrapped startup built an amazingly polished social app. They asked for my help because they were frustrated that they weren’t growing — even though their beta users loved the service and they ranked very highly for their main keywords. After digging deeper, it was clear there was very little organic demand for their product, so their success with search was essentially useless, and the team had spent very little time optimizing their invite and acceptance flows. There was no way to send invites to multiple people at the same time, and the acceptance flow for new users had over 10 fields! Over the next two months, the team focused their attention on improving their K-factor and increased their download rate by over 100 times.

Lessons learned

  • The No. 1 reason people fail at early user acquisition: Picking the wrong strategy.
  • The basic mechanics of the app stores are easy to learn. There is no excuse not to know them.
  • Utility = search. Entertainment = browse. Social = viral.
  • Don’t waste time on low-impact acquisition features (example: building a viral loop for an utility).

Chris Hulls, the cofounder and CEO of Life360, a family networking application that has grown to over 30 million families without any paid marketing. He has also widely been credited with coining the term App Store Optimization.


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