It took us nearly three months, $35,000, 2,000+ beta testers, and a trip through nine cities to do what many apps try to do: create a grassroots following for an app.

My company created an app that makes events easier for groups. We started initially with all the traditional methods to get people to try out our app — pitching media about our launch, posting news as it happened through social media, identifying and selecting the right search terms to drive traffic and advertising through channels to raise awareness. We did everything the right way, or the way all the experts advised to generate traction.

We knew the app marketplace was competitive, but it was frustrating to not get any traction. Nothing was working, so we switched gears.

Our team brainstormed ideas, and we decided to double down by going on a cross-country trip targeting nine cities to raise awareness on a local level. Our app is an experiential app and our target was individuals in their twenties who went out a lot, so we went to college towns to meet up with students and show them our app. It was a lot of late nights, multi-day car rides and several months being away from home, but it turned out to be the smartest move we made in our business.

At every event, we would give out shirts, tanks, sunglasses, bottle openers, and Coozies as people heard about our app and downloaded it.

Above: At every event, we would give out shirts, tanks, sunglasses, bottle openers, and Coozies as people heard about our app and downloaded it.

The traction we weren’t able to secure through “traditional” marketing routes, we were able to get going “bar door-to-bar door” selling our app to complete strangers. Our trip brought in 2,500 new downloads (we only had 50 before we left for our trip), resulting in about 1,100 active users and 31,000 hours spent in the app in its first two months in the app store.

As you can tell from the picture (at right), we invested quite a bit in swag for the trip. That’s because we wanted to engage people in more than just a simple download. We wanted our users to spend some time with us to get a good feel about what our app does and why it was made so that they could understand our true vision. The swag was a good way to incentivize students to talk to us.

While this strategy won’t work for every app, we did have a few key findings from our trip that will help anyone promoting an app:

  • Solve a pain point for people. One of the aspects of our app is that it helps keep people safe while they are out and about. While this isn’t an issue for everyone, we found this benefit really resonated with people concerned about walking home alone. Find that benefit in your app that solves a pain point and people will be more open to listening to what you have to say.
  • Make it easy. We had our “elevator pitches” down and we were able to get to the point and show our app off in a matter of seconds. This brevity appealed to people we were talking to, because we didn’t have a laundry list of features we were listing off. We just made it cool, resourceful, and easy to use — that made all the difference.
  • Have fun. Maybe we just had a blast touring the U.S. to show off our app, but showing that you have fun while you’re doing something is scientifically proven to positively impact people. We believe our downloads increased, because people enjoyed hanging around us.
  • Create an experience. Our app was very functional, but what made us stand out was the experience we created for people. We promoted the products heavily at bars when people were already having fun and our product was a part of that experience, with the added benefit of keeping people safe after that night was over. It sounds absurd to sell an “experience” for an app, but it was those stories and the environment we were in that made all the difference.

Another benefit from the trip was the ability to get direct feedback from our users. We’ll be using the remainder of our $350,000 funding to push through changes based on what we heard from people during our trip. That includes rolling out on Android, adjusting some aspects of the app, and completing a UI/UX refresh.

It is getting more and more competitive to sell apps today, so getting creative will be key to selling in this space going forward. It may not be a cross-country tour for everyone, but it worked for us. Finding your “tour” may make the difference between your app succeeding or failing.

Phong Le is a cofounder of Hango, a mobile app to make events easier for groups. He has a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Central Florida and moved from Florida to Silicon Valley to do technical sales for a Fortune 500 company for two years before creating his San Francisco-based mobile app startup.