You’ve Built an App: Now What? Part 1: User Acquisition

user acquisition

Developers are makers. They solve pains, entertain, enlighten, and enhance productivity. Building an app can be an exhilarating experience and the joys of shipping can linger for… about ten seconds. Then comes the question, “I’ve built an app, now what?”

“Building an app is incredibly hard,” said Brenden Mulligan, former LaunchKit founder, which was recently acquired by Google. “But getting people to use it is an even bigger challenge. Once an app is released you start getting so many signals of how it’s doing, and it’s important to have the right infrastructure set up to receive and learn from those signals. Things like user activity, app store reviews, churn… In addition, devs have to be thinking of the next feature, or bugs they need to fix.”

Earlier this year, Ægir Thor Steinarsson and Anne-Marthe Lorck built an app to resolve what they were seeing as a common pain point.

“I am a fairly introverted person, and I am a bit disconnected from social groups: I’m studying with people much younger than me, I live in a foreign country. I mostly felt content in my day to day life, but also that I was missing out: I would end up repeatedly cancelling stuff I did want to do, like go to a concert or even a museum, because I didn’t know who to invite,” said Steinarsson.

“We did interviews with about 40 people and found others were experiencing social isolation as well,  we asked people to give it a pain grade on a scale of 1 to 5 and we started seeing everyone giving it a high pain point (3 and above). That turned out to be the main theme rather than the exception.”

Steinarsson and Lorck created BudUp as an app to solve that: users can register an event (a concert, movie, dinner party or other activity), and specify the number of people they hope to attend with.

The app was released on the Google Play Store. Android is the main mobile platform for professional developers, according to VisionMobile’s State of the Developer Nation quarterly report, which found that Android accounted for 79% of mobile developer mindshare.

For the BudUp team, while they have plans for an iOS app, for now their focus is all about traction: to get user downloads. As they ramp up their user acquisition, Steinarsson wants to make sure he has data systems in place to know what is happening and to monitor the user experience.

Knowing what to measure and using the free tools that can help developers do that quickly is crucial, said Caroline Ragot, Co-founder of Women in Mobile and Mobile Strategist at InfoJobs, a company of Schibsted Spain.

Ragot says there are two tasks to focus on after building an app: the first is acquisition, which is really about marketing an app.

The second task for a new app is to focus on retention. Ragot says retention is about marketing and the product working together. Analytics underpins an understanding of both these tasks.

Focusing on Acquisition: App Store Optimization (ASO)

Increasing user acquisition for your app starts with app store optimization. 30% of downloads occur after someone has searched by keywords in Google Play. So getting noticed within the app marketplace can already drive up user downloads before looking at any other type of promotion.

Ragot says there are three components in app store optimization:

  • text
  • icons
  • Screenshots
  • Review and rating.

Building off the experience of websites in getting noticed, app store optimization makes an impact. Ragot suggests thinking what people will search for when looking for your app, and making sure that those keywords are included in the application title text. “Put the keyword close to your brand,” said Ragot. “When I have done that for app projects, within about two hours I have seen apps move from a ranking of 30-something to a ranking of 8.”

After ASO, the next task is to make sure your icon looks appealing. Don’t believe this is important? Ragot suggests doing a simple app search for something like ‘clock’: “You will see that there will be some you don’t want to download just by looking at them.” In the Google Play console, there is a function to allow developers to A/B test their icons. Ragot suggests testing several and seeing which icon design drives more downloads for your app.

Screenshots are also important. “It’s like the landing page for your app. When visitors arrive, they need to understand what your app is about and it should inspire them to download. It is your first touchpoint with a user,” Ragot explained.

Finally, reviews and ratings make an impact. App stores like Google Play use metrics of downloads and active users as part of their search ranking algorithm, and reviews of apps makes a significant impact on helping encourage searchers to download.

Organic and Paid Acquisition

“The two big acquisition buckets are organic and paid,” said Mulligan, who recently talked about how to optimize app launches with First Round. “Ideally, an app can attract users organically. To do this, there are a lot of ways to optimize a launch to be more successful in initially attracting users. You need to make sure your product name is short and your tagline is clear and concise. You need to figure out what good acquisition looks like for your product and track it from the beginning. You need to bake in marketing hooks that let users share with others how they’re using your app and invite their friends to join them. When the time is right, you need to target the relevant reporters to cover your product and post it to sites with good lead generation like Product Hunt. And the whole time, make sure your line of communication with your early community is very open so you know what’s working, what’s not, and how to change your product to boost your acquisition.”

Other acquisition ideas include Facebook ad campaigns, which Ragot cautions can be expensive, but suggests it is still a good idea to dedicate a small budget of a few thousands dollars to encourage initial traction. Ragot also suggests focusing on social media by encouraging downloaders to share that they have downloaded your app and encourage their networks to do the same.

Steinarsson and Lorck will next focus on content marketing: getting featured in blogs, in particular. They believe when starting to acquire users it is important to do things that don’t necessarily scale in order to maintain an initial personal contact with potential users. They will target several content domains and see in which ones they get traction and focus on those segments to start.

When starting with acquiring users, it can feel like everything is an opportunity cost: choosing one strategy means not investing in another. Setting up analytics to quickly identify what is working is crucial to being able to do more of what works and quickly identify where effort is wasted. Ragot, Mulligan, Steinarsson and Lorck all agree: setting up analytics for acquisition and retention is essential.

And while their strategies are universal across mobile platforms, all three have focused on how to build acquisition with an Android app, reflecting the dominant position of Android in the mobile app developer’s mindshare. According to VisionMobile’s State of the Developer Nation report, 80% of those building apps professionally target Android.

In our next part, we will look at how to retain users once they have started using your app and in part three, we examine what analytics techniques for acquisition and retention to have in place and what free tools to use.

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Developer Corner: Why successful indie developers are becoming a dying breed

I started developing iOS apps 5 years ago, which can be loosely equated to 50 years in a different, non-tech industry, where the pace of growth is much slower. As a sign of the warp speed at which things are moving within the app economy, simply consider that when I started, back in 2010, there were only 300.000 apps and those were only in the Apple App Store; right now there are over 3 million apps across all stores, which goes to show the phenomenal pace with which the app economy is skyrocketing. During this time I’ve developed over 12 apps at Anlock as an indie dev, which have seen 2 million downloads, and more than 4.000 reviews with an average rating of 4.0 across 110+ countries.


Aside from app development, I’ve also been very active in the kids’ educational developer community, starting as a member of Moms with Apps in 2011. Later, I co-founded the Know What’s Inside™ program, dedicated to helping family-friendly app developers implement best practices around privacy and complying with privacy rules. And for many years I was head of the App Friday program, which was created by family-friendly app developers who simply wanted to raise visibility around kids’ educational apps.

Due to this active involvement, I have seen many fellow indie developers come and go. At first, some of them made it big for no reason that I could fathom, but later, as the industry matured, it became increasingly harder to succeed and a very small number of indie devs actually made it. [tweetable]Success in the app industry is the product of hard work and continuous efforts[/tweetable], and most of the indie devs I know eventually tire out and throw in the towel; a couple of months ago it was my turn.

Because of this extremely fast pace with which the industry is growing, I have always been on the edge, trying to cope with the curveballs the App Store has been throwing. At the beginning, the challenge was simple – all you needed to do to succeed was put together a decent app that was centered around the revolutionary concept of users interacting with content through touch on their phone screens. Soon the challenge shifted and the focus was on having appealing graphics and marketing your app. Very quickly, marketing become predominant, if you did not have a marketing plan in place before you even started developing your app you had no chance. At the time, that meant actively using Facebook (before its IPO, when posting was free), Twitter, YouTube, cross-selling between apps, etc.

And then, a few months ago, I realized that the last curveball the market had thrown was beyond our small team at Anlock. Having a good idea for an app, a good UI/UX execution with excellent coding skills and a marketing plan was simply not enough any more. The app idea itself had to be exquisite and its UI/UX execution brilliant to even have the slightest chance of success. Which absolutely makes sense when you consider there are 3 million apps out there. Of course there will always be Flappy Birds that are beyond “logic” and hit a nerve with users and go viral, but that is one app in 3 million, quite literally.

As far as I was concerned, [tweetable]the app market has just reached that hyper-competitive stage[/tweetable] that was simply beyond our team at Anlock, despite our years of experience, our extensive app portfolio and our 2 million downloads. So, when the opportunity presented itself I opted out and left Anlock.

There I was with 5 years of solid iOS development faced with either having to start all over again in a hyper-competitive market or get a job as a freelance iOS developer. Having closely followed the debate about tech talent shortage the past year I decided to go freelance.

It only took me about a month to realize that are a lot of job openings out there and I actually got to pick the role I found most fascinating and challenging. I have now joined Daredevil Project that “makes mobile social games for the ‘real word’”, in charge of the iOS development of Duel that will be launched in the coming months, effectively putting an end on my indie years … for now at least!


App Stores Growth Accelerates in 2014

2014 was quite an eventful year in our industry. Apple finally gave in to the big screen but also teased us with the small screen of the upcoming Apple Watch, and even surprised developers with Swift. Google wasn’t quiet either, revealing their vision for the future of UI with Material design and tackling wearables head-on. To celebrate such a great year, we’ll be taking a look at app store growth in 2014.

In this report we’ll be exploring the growth of each of these stores in 2014, but let’s start by establishing a baseline of how big each of the stores are, in number of apps, and how they got to where they are today.


Looking at the chart above we can see all three stores really expanded their app catalog. It’s the kind of healthy growth you’d expect from an industry that’s still relatively new. The most obvious takeaway here, however, is that Google finally closed the gap and actually jumped ahead of Apple, ending the year with more than 1.43 million apps compared to 1.21 million. Amazon, although a distant third, grew its catalog by nearly 90% to 293k apps.

Google surpassed Apple for number of new apps for the first time in 2014


Looking at the number of app developers who publish apps for the different stores, we see a familiar picture. Google Play’s developer community grew tremendously in 2014, exceeding Apple for the 3rd year in a row. In fact, [tweetable]Google Play is distributing apps from nearly 400k different developers[/tweetable]. This is a much higher number than what we observed in last summer’s report on app developers, meaning the Play store saw rapid growth in the last two quarters of the year.

Google’s developer community continues to grow faster than Apple’s for the 3rd year in a row

More apps than ever!


App development is certainly on the rise and the platform doesn’t seem to matter. [tweetable]In 2014, all three app stores grew by at least 50%[/tweetable] (by the way, when we say growth we mean the percent change from the end of the previous year). What’s interesting is that although Apple continues to grow strongly, it’s really Google Play that’s growing. In 2014, the number of apps distributed through Google Play has doubled. Amazon is also enjoying impressive growth, albeit from a much smaller base.

[tweetable]Google Play more than doubled in number of apps in 2014[/tweetable]

We initially only set out to look at aggregate growth, but with so much data at hand, we just couldn’t stop. So TL;DR Let’s have a look at the top 5 categories with most growth during 2014:


We expected to see Business and Games rank very high as both are fairly mainstream, but Food & Drink, with the second largest growth, was certainly a surprise. Keep in mind, for the comparison to be apples to apples, these charts look at growth and not total size.

More than 128k new Business apps were released in the iOS App Store in 2014


On Google Play, Games are in abundance with the category more than doubling in size. Interestingly enough, although tiny in comparison, the Photography category saw abnormal growth in 2014. Selfie Stick anyone?

Developers. Developers. Developers.

This is surely amazing growth, but are those new apps being published by new developers, or is the catalyst for this massive increase in apps a result of incumbents expanding? You’re about to find out.


More developers joined Google in 2014 than Apple and Amazon combined! With developers flocking to Google Play, the store has reached a new milestone: 388k developers — more developers than Apple (with 282k developers) and Amazon (with 48k developers).

More developers released apps for Google in 2014 than Apple and Amazon combined!

Let’s break this down by categories:


We can see the relationship here between app growth and new developers, with most new Apple developers publishing business apps. What’s interesting is how games started off slow and sped up around March, catching up with the steadily growing lifestyle category. It’s no surprise that Apple developers, much like their Google counterparts, are focusing on mainstream apps.


The amazing growth in games we mentioned earlier correlates directly to developers. The category saw the highest number of new developers, more than the business and entertainment categories that are tied for second place.

Most new Google developers focus on games, Google Play’s fastest growing category

There you have it, a whole year of amazing growth by the numbers.

[tweetable]2014 was certainly the year for Google Play growth[/tweetable]. Kudos to the teams who run the store and help developers! With the most apps and largest developer community, Google Play is starting the new year with a kick. Market fragmentation and varying device capabilities don’t seem to detract developers from making Android apps. But, with the upcoming Apple Watch, Swift, and a larger screen, Apple is giving developers a lot to be excited about.

Business Community

Can the app stores sustain 5.5 million developers?

In our latest report, App Economy Forecasts 2015 – 2017, we estimate the number of mobile ecosystem in 2014 at 5.5 million developers. Demand for mobile development skills has never been higher and yet revenue from app store sales cannot possibly pay their salaries. Luckily they don’t have to as developers aren’t all building apps full time and there are several other revenue sources in the app economy, some of them comparable with or even significantly larger than the app stores.

Βlueprint of the app economy preview 4

Estimating the developer population

Counting mobile developers is hard. A lot of software developers look into mobile platforms and a lot of people are curious enough about how they’d make an app for their phones that they’ll try to find out. We can’t meaningfully count all of these as mobile developers. However, we also know from our Developer Economics surveys that a huge percentage of developers creating the apps that fill the app stores are not full-time professionals. Popular programming Q&A site StackOverflow has around 35 million unique visitors and it is only an English speaking community. That probably includes a lot of students trying to get help with their coursework. Meanwhile bottom up estimates for the global professional developer population based on job classification data from multiple sources are just under 20 million. This is highly error-prone due to the way developers are classified along with other IT professionals in many places around the world. How many of those are really building mobile apps anyway? Apple has over 9 million developers registered on their developer portal. Some of those are for Mac and Safari but the majority are iOS developers. Then again, the number of developer accounts with any apps published on the App Store for iOS is only around 350,000. Google Play has fewer active publishers than iOS. The truth must lie somewhere between these extremes.

For the purposes of our estimate we decided to count developers who are actively building, or planning to build in the very near future, publishable apps for a mobile platform. Students building toy apps to learn and hobbyists who only build things for themselves aren’t taken into account. Those people could join the ranks of mobile developers in the near future but they aren’t doing anything to satisfy mobile app demand yet. 5.5 million is the number of developers required to maintain all of the published apps that have been updated in the last 12 months, plus build all of the new ones released in the same period. In our report we also forecast the number of new and updated apps going forward and the number of developers required to sustain that app growth through 2017.

Keeping the pizza and coffee flowing

Developers are in high demand and as employees in the US they will typically earn upwards of $100k per year with relatively little experience. Proven talent in Silicon Valley can easily earn 50-100% more. Salaries in Western Europe are not quite as eye-catching but not that far behind either. In countries where the cost of living is much lower, developer salaries are obviously more modest but actually often a greater multiple of the national average wage.

Why would anyone with such earning potential build and sell apps that are likely to produce a poor return on their time. There are several answers:

  • Some apps make fantastic returns and some developers believe, or at least hope, they could emulate those and use their skills to make a small fortune
  • Other developers are trying to build small but sustainable businesses on the app stores, targeting niches and working as artists and entrepreneurs
  • Some developers build their own apps as proof of their abilities in order to sell their skills for a higher rate on contract development work
  • Many developers just love to code and already earn a full time salary in their day job, they build apps as side projects or for a hobby, either for fun, a little extra income or to sharpen their skills for their next career move
  • Some developers are purely learning and having fun, usually either at the beginning of their careers and in some cases after they’ve retired.

Note that only the first two of these are depending on the apps for income. Of course not all developers are trying to make a return from apps via paid downloads or in-app purchases. Advertising is also a big source of revenue in the app economy, although most of it goes to a few giant corporations. The typical developer monetising through ads does much worse than those using in-app purchases, so that’s not the answer. However, there are other models where developers have better odds of making money. Subscriptions are the fastest growing revenue opportunity according to our forecasts, although for pure Software as a Service rather than content subscriptions that will mostly be selling to enterprises. The biggest revenue opportunity of all in app economy over the next few years is definitely not in pure software businesses. Indeed, it’s the rather old-fashioned business of selling real physical things! Find out just how big it is by purchasing our latest report.


Users Are People Too: The Key to a Successful App is Knowing Your Users

Given the staggering odds against the success of any app in the marketplace, it is surprising that so much effort is devoted to the creation of apps, many of which never see the light of day.

Today, there are over 1.2 million apps in both Apple’s App Store and Google Play, of which just 500,000 are ever downloaded. Out of the 500,000, 20 percent are only opened once in the first 6 months after download, and almost 50% are used no more than 5 times.


Growth hacking relies on incomplete data

With very few exceptions, pure word-of-mouth and organic growth without additional effort on the developer’s part is not enough for an app to surface above the noise. As a result, an entire cottage industry of “growth hackers” has emerged, one which takes traditional marketing approaches and combines them with rigorous metrics to make sure that every step of the process is measurable and actionable. For example, Quora closely monitored the behavior of their most active users. They found patterns that were used to stimulate other users to behave in the same way.

[tweetable]One of the limitations of the growth-hacking approach today is that the mobile ecosystem is still a Wild West[/tweetable], similar to where the desktop software industry was some 10-15 years ago. The most established mobile tools, such as Flurry and Google Analytics are really good at telling developers how users are using the app… which version, operating system, for how long a user engages in the app, which buttons are being pressed, etc… but do little to tell you anything about the wants and needs of the people using the apps.

While these descriptive analytics are critical, there is another piece of the puzzle for creating a successful app, which has been undiscovered by developers today: human understanding.

Human understanding is defined as the knowledge about a user’s demographics, interests, and intents. While tools like Flurry and Google Analytics are starting to provide more of these user insights, they are typically presented in aggregate form, which makes a user hard to understand on an individual level.

Understanding your users

So what can be seen as an improvement? How do you know if you are providing more value to a user or if you’re slapping on features your users don’t care about? The answer lies in understanding your users.

A good place to start in trying to understand your users is to use analytics tools. This seems obvious but only 21% of app developers use these. The most basic information that could provide significant value is to know the demographics of your users. Are they mostly male or female? What is the age distribution? What is their income distribution? Also, from what countries are your users and what languages do they speak? With this data it is possible to make broad categorizations of users. For example, data can show that your app is popular in France among middle aged women. Without being prejudiced, one can assume their English is not great. Translating your app can boost its popularity even more and increase overall satisfaction with your app among these group of users.

The subsequent step is to find out what interests your users have. Integrating social media login possibilities in your app and asking for the right permissions can provide you with all the self-declared interests of the user. Combining this with their demographic data gives you improved segmentation options, which is another step towards a true understanding of your users.

Contextual information is important to consider as well. Where are people using your app; at home, while commuting, at work or in the gym? When are they using it? Only at night? Several times a day? How does this correlate to other users and what conclusions can you make from this? Also, on which devices/operating systems are they using your app at home and which ones while travelling? Figuring this out can direct your creativity and efforts to build features that cater to the context in which your app is used.

Given the vast amount of apps that are offered, no matter how unique your app is, your app has competition. To understand your user isn’t limited by figuring out who they are and how they behave in relation to your app, it’s about the competition as well! How often and how much do your users log in to competitive apps? What are the unique features of the most used competitive apps? Knowing this provides valuable information of what users appreciate in competitive apps.

When all these questions are addressed there is a huge opportunity to grasp. Combine the segmentation information with the usage data from your app – sessions, time in app, ads clicked, screen flow, transactions, returning user, etc.- to identify your most valuable, most engaged and/or most loyal users. Who are they? How are they using your app? If you find answers to these questions, you’ll have identified the people who value your app the most, as well as how they use it and which features create value for them. Having this insight can mean the difference between the life or death of an app. However, it’s important to consider that ultimately the actions that are taken based on these insights decide the future of the app.

What to do next

When you know who are your most valuable (whether this means most loyal, engaged, contributing to revenue, etc.) users you can start targeting and catering to the needs of those users. For example, when implementing changes in the user interface, most developers use some form of A/B testing to figure out what the effects are. This acclaimed method of improving your product can be even more effective when you filter out the effects of those users that are of little value to you. For example, you can be A/B testing an ad in order to optimise clickrate, but seeing very small differences between the two groups. However, if you segment your audience you may see vastly different results; your target group of ‘valuable’ users might be much more engaged with the content than other user groups. The same technique can be implemented for building new features, expanding your offering of in-app purchasable items and personalizing content. [tweetable]By knowing your users you are able to make better and more timely decisions to improve your app[/tweetable]. Over time, your most valuable users are perfectly catered to which makes them love your app even more. This results in a higher retention rate, more engagement and a higher chance of getting recommended to their peers.

Financially, knowing your users makes sense as well. You can offer your ad space to advertisers that are targeting the segments you identified to be your most loyal and engaged users, which raises the eCPM and lowers idle time of your ad space. Additionally, marketing efforts to obtain new users yourself can also be highly targeted. Most developers greatly underestimate and are dissatisfied with the cost of acquiring new (valuable) users. With true user understanding it is possible to specify efforts and use your marketing budget efficiently and effectively, simply getting more bang for your buck. This is especially relevant for developers who are trying to make a decent living from their apps. These findings correspond with those of advisory company Gartner. They concluded that in order to make an app profitable, developers need to win customer’s loyalty and satisfaction by delivering a well designed and top-performing product.

Building your next app

Success is a concept that can mean different things to different people and different kinds of apps. Some developers don’t like to discuss marketing and the business side of developing and maintaining an app, but it’s an indispensable part of making an app successful. For the people that are in it to make a living, knowing your users is crucial. Raising your ads’ eCPM, lowering its idle time, getting a higher return on marketing investments and a higher Life Time Value (LTV) is worth taking the time to get to know your users. Your efforts will be focused to cater to your most valuable users which greatly improves effectiveness across all your activities, from building new features to marketing your app.

Having these insights doesn’t have to be limited to just one app. Building your next app based on this vital information can give you a head start. You can use it to answer questions such as: What platform should I focus on? iOS, Android, both or try other platforms with less competition? Optimize for smartphones, tablets or both? What sort of features were most appreciated by the most valuable users in your other app? Who were the users that did not show any improvements in usage after an update? What can you do to turn the least valuable users of your other app into the most valuable for your next one?

Having a successful app is every developer’s dream when they push their app live. However, given current statistics on overall user retention in the app stores, there is a lot of room for improvement. The old saying “to measure is to know” is very applicable in this matter, but it’s only half the work. Turning what you know into actionable information is when the real magic happens. Only then you are on the right track towards systematic improvements to your app and getting that elusive success you are dreaming of.

Business Platforms Tips

App Promotion: make or break your app

With well over one million total apps available on Apple and Google app stores combined, plus hundreds of thousands on the other platforms, the competition to get on consumers’ handsets is fierce. As hundreds of apps are added each and every day, app discovery remains a largely unsolved challenge which is only getting worse. With a rapidly changing landscape of app store ranking algorithms, mobile advertising products, cross-promotion networks and specialist marketing services it’s very difficult to decide how to begin app promotion which is cost-effectively. The one very clear piece of advice we can give is what you shouldn’t do – nothing.