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Mobile App Marketing Explained

What is Mobile App Marketing?

Mobile app marketing is about interacting with your users through their entire lifecycle -- from when they first hear about your app, to when they become a loyal and regular user. To do this effectively, you have to figure out who will use your app, where to find those people, what to say to them, and what they want from you.

The typical way to think of mobile app usage is as a sequence of stages, or “funnel”. There are many funnel stages, but here’s a simplified view.

  • Acquisition is the first step in a user’s interaction with your app. How do you get them to download and install your app in the first place?
  • Activation is next. The exact meaning of “user activation” differs from app to app, but in general, activation refers to a user’s first actions, such as adding their email address or making an initial purchase.
  • Retention means turning your app into a regular destination for your user.

The funnel concept is useful as a model, though in reality users often go back and forth between stages, so you may also hear this referred to as the “mobile engagement loop”.

Each stage requires different strategies and tactics, and each is required for a successful mobile app marketing strategy.

Mobile App Acquisition

The first part of building a successful app is, of course, getting people to use it. From a messaging perspective, you have to convince a prospective user that your app can solve a problem they have. Some of the most common channels for sending these messages include:

    • Social. One of the most popular app acquisition channels. Unless you already have a large audience, paid social advertising, in particular, is likely to be the most effective channel. An even more effective channel, once your app has traction, is getting users of your app to recruit their friends as users.
  • Real-world incentives. Offering a product giveaway, sweepstakes entry, or some other tangible reward in exchange for an app install is a common strategy. One pitfall of using real-world incentives is that users who sign up this way may end up immediately removing your app as soon as they’ve received their reward.
  • Search advertising. Google Play and Apple’s App Store both offer in-store advertising that app managers can purchase to drive downloads. Ads appear when users search for specific app keywords -- for example, ads for mobile payment apps might appear when a user searches “send cash.” Search advertising can also be purchased through platforms like Google AdWords, so that someone searching Google from their phone for “buying a home” sees an ad for your real estate app. The link then goes directly to your app store page.
  • App cross-promotion. If you have more than one app, a good way to acquire users is to use one app to promote another. For example, if your company produces a restaurant database, you can put ads in it that refer to your travel app, since users who are interested in one might be interested in the other.
  • App store listing. App stores require text and picture descriptions of every app. Writing your listing thoughtfully is critical to convincing users to download it. The text in your listing influences, among other factors, whether users will see it as they look for apps in your category.

In determining an acquisition strategy, it’s important to keep track of your cost per acquisition, or CPA. Some channels -- like your app store listing, or a webpage, or organic social posts -- don’t cost anything, but are time-consuming. Others -- like paid ads -- can be expensive, but are easier to optimize and scale. Determining the right balance of acquisition activities is critical for the long-term success of your app.

Comparing the CPA to the lifetime value of your customers will tell you whether an acquisition strategy is worth the money and time you’re putting into it. And the lifetime value calculation depends heavily on whether you can activate, and then retain, the users you’re acquired.

Mobile App User Activation

Once you’ve gotten a user to install your app, you have to get them to use it. Most users abandon apps shortly after download, so it’s important to have an effective messaging strategy that reminds users how to use your app, and why.

Effective use of these strategies depends, of course, on your user actually seeing the message you’re sending. There are three major app channels you can use; picking the right one can dramatically increase the likelihood of that happening.

Mobile App Channels

  • Everyone’s received a push notification. If you get a user to install your app, you can send one at any time; your user doesn’t even have to be in the app to see it. Push notifications are easy to brand, and you can even specify actions for the user to take with a single tap.
  • In-app messages are similar to push notifications, but they’re delivered to your users while they’re active in your app. You can put real-time updates in them, and, unlike push notifications, they don’t require opt-in in order to be received.
  • The message center is a passive channel inside your app; it offers a user a way to see past notifications if they’re interested. It’s a great way to deliver messages that don’t require immediate action and that might be most useful when a user is already in your app.

Each of these channels is appropriate for different ways of activating your users.

User Activation Strategies

  • A welcome message is a push notification that is sent soon after the initial install, typically within 24 hours. A proven approach is to thank the user for installing your app, and then reinforce the app’s value proposition, or introduce them to a key feature. For example, if a user installs a home automation app, you can send a push message thanking them with a link to start the process of setting up their home in your app.
  • Successful app marketers take it one step further, and put together a proper onboarding flow. A good onboarding flow is a tour of the product, showing where key features are and explaining when and how to use them. Thoughtful onboarding increases engagement and builds trust, which in turn makes it easier to ask your user for permission to send notifications and other messages.
  • It’s extremely helpful for further marketing efforts to get app users to register using their phone number or email address. This will help with cross-channel marketing efforts, and will also give you another channel to engage or re-engage with your user.
  • Depending on your app, it may be appropriate to offer a conversion incentive upfront. For example, if your app allows users to shop for clothes, offer them a quickly expiring coupon to get them in the habit of shopping through your online channel.

Once you’ve activated your user, you’ll need to think about keeping them as a user for the long haul.

Mobile App Retention

Keeping your users engaged is a long-term proposition; retention is especially important because it’s a key factor in calculating the lifetime value of a customer, and therefore whether your efforts have been profitable or not.

Imagine the difference between:

  • 1,000 new users, of which 10% stay, for an average of one month, and
  • 500 new users, of which 30% stay, for an average of two months.

In the first example, your 1,000 new users dwindle to 100, then after one month, half have left. That’s 50 net users.

In the second, your 500 new users become 150, and after one month, only a quarter have left. That’s 110 net users, more than double the number in the first example, though you acquired half as many.

User Retention Strategies

    • Send users discounts or coupons for items that they’re interested in. These are most effective for retail, travel and local apps. Use your knowledge of what the user has expressed interest in before — perhaps even what’s in their cart — to get them back into the app.
  • Special content. For a sports app, can you provide an exclusive guide to building the perfect bracket, available only through the app?
  • Feature messages. Let users know about an update or enhancement you’ve made recently, and help them use it. For example, if you just added the ability to share playlists from your music app on Facebook, let users know.
  • Better personalization. Once your users have used your app for a while, you’ve probably learned a lot about them. Can you use that knowledge to increase the utility of your app? For example, if you just relaunched your recommendation engine, send users a push notification inviting them to see their new picks.
  • Updates on friends and family who have joined. One way that LinkedIn and Facebook got so popular is that they let users search for people they know on the service. And they keep them coming back by sending updates. Tell your users how many of their friends have joined since they left.

How to Communicate with Your User

No matter what channel you use, your user’s attention is a precious resource, and you have to make sure that what you’re sending is valuable to them. Every time you send a message, be sure to answer these questions:

  • What’s the purpose of your message? Is it valuable to your user?
  • What action do you want the user to take when they receive it? This will help you communicate your intent more effectively, and better measure its effectiveness.
  • What context does your message matter in? Mobile messaging is all about context: time, location, user preferences.
  • Will your user care? If you’re Twitter, it might be OK to send 20 push notifications a day. If you’re Candy Crush, maybe you shouldn’t even send one push notification a week, because your user is a casual gamer who doesn’t care about new features.

Getting Started

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