How to Market Your Startup for Maximum Discoverability

June 7, 2016 - 14 minutes read

iOS app store

If you figured acquiring loyal users for your app would be cheap, brace yourself for a reality check. As of December 2016, user acquisition costs for iPhone app developers have soared to over four dollars — twice as much as the previous year.

The situation isn’t much rosier for San Francisco Android app developers, with the Google Play store seeing a similar increase in competition and cost in recent years.

mobile app user aquisition

When your startup is one of 1,000 apps added to the Apple App Store every day, standing out from the crowd is easier said than done. Luckily, there are a variety of tools, strategies, and investments available to help mobile app developers solve the problem of app discoverability. Cost per install ad networks have matured rapidly alongside advanced analytics platforms, giving a huge leg up to startups willing to invest the resources.

We sat down with CEO Marc Fischer and the rest of the team here at Dogtown Media to take a look at the strategies we’ve found most effective for driving user acquisition. All the strategies we’ll cover in this post have been used to launch successful apps for over a hundred of our clients in the past two years alone.

Top app discovery sources for mobile users in 2016

In an ideal world, users discover your app when they search a keyword in the app store and your app shows in the top results. If only it were that easy.

The fact is that getting enough traction to reach the front page of your target search results (let alone featured app pages) can take months to achieve, even with a sizeable marketing budget.

We’ve found that the biggest driver for app discovery in the critical launch period is old fashioned word-of-mouth. Assuming the app is high-quality enough to earn loyal users once downloaded, the premise of all paid marketing efforts is to gain a critical mass of “evangelist” users who will willingly share the app. It’s only at that point that startups stand a chance of earning “premium” placement in the Apple App Store or Google Play, guaranteeing long-term download numbers with (relatively) minimal investment per user.

With that in mind, here are the top categories startups should be focussed on when they draft their marketing plans:

  • Cost per install ad networks: Companies like FaceBook and ChartBoost are extremely effective at targeting potential evangelist users, for startups willing to pay the high cost-per-install fees.
  • In-app advertising: Mobile Ad networks like InMobi are highly effective by virtue of targeting users who are already on their phones.
  • Social media marketing: Social media is a blessing and a curse to mobile app startups. Modern users expect to be able to access your brand on the ecosystem of their choice, be that Twitter mentions or SnapChat goofiness. Social media for startups is all about building brand and meeting the evangelists halfway.
  • Social influencer marketing: Not every startup can get Justin Bieber to give the nod of approval, but the media landscape is full of influencers with built-in networks looking to them for endorsements. Social influencer marketing can be even more expensive than traditional promotion, but it has the bonus that the audience has built-in respect for the advertiser, driving more earnest engagement and positive reviews.
  • PR mentions: News sources like TechCrunch and best-of product lists like Product Hunt are easier to reach than you might think, especially for app launches and special events. Don’t wait until you need something, though — start building relationships and participating in the communities of the top PR sources early to build name recognition and reputability.
  • App store optimization: The holy grail of user acquisition. App store optimization is a complex subject in its own right that we’ll be writing about at our developer blog soon.

Top 3 free app discoverability tools

App Store Optimization:

While it’s not really possible to “cheat” the Apple App Store or Google Play algorithms, it is possible to increase your odds of rising in the first place with some common-sense SEO best practices.

Include your primary keyword in your app title and description so that users and robots know what your app does right away. Your official mobile app description is rarely a place to be fun and quirky, no matter your startup’s brand identity.

It’s also important to make sure the keyword(s) you’re pursuing are actually high-volume enough to support your mobile app in the long run. Rather than assume what users “might” search based on what you’d do, use tools like to research what’s actually being searched by real users.

Invite Friends Function:

Incorporating the ability for users to invite their friends to download an app directly via SMS, email, or social media should be a no-brainer, particularly if each new user represents long or short-term revenue gains via subscriptions or advertising. On the high end, mobile apps like Uber offer users $20 credit for every friend that downloads the app. On the low end, startups like Digit offer $5. In both cases, the assumption is that each new user offers more potential revenue than the small monetary cost of paying the original user.

For newly-launched startups with lower budgets, consider running a similar campaign using free premium membership or coupons for in-app purchases to drive user sharing.

FaceBook App Invites

FaceBook offers promotional opportunities to mobile app developers on three fronts: cost-per-install ads, social media marketing, and the little-known App Invites functionality. Users may want to share your app, but it needs to be simple and quick or they’ll dissapear along with the potential value of their private social networks.

To quote FaceBook’s developer docs, “App Invites are a content-rich, personal way for people to invite their Facebook friends to a mobile app.” Markup samples are included for Android and iOS.

Back to the drawing board: app design for discoverability

At the end of the day, no amount of marketing efforts will result in dedicated, profitable users if the app itself isn’t beautiful to look at and intuitive to navigate.

Standards are higher than ever before for app design; all a user has to do if they don’t like the “look” of your app is uninstall it and pick from any number of competitors. Research shows that apps with sleek UI/UX design see a higher viral coefficient, better reviews, and higher rates of user engagement than their competitors. In fact, it’s the driving force behind the high success rates of agency-built mobile apps as compared to those patched together by individual mobile app developers or non-technical appreneurs with teams of freelancers.

UX and UI design are also critically important because they define your user’s first impression of the app, which then defines the quality of reviews that make up your all-important star rating in the app store.

Before they even tap anything, users are making snap judgments. (And honestly, if it takes more than a second to boot up, they likely won’t even engage with it at all.) If an app is slow or broken, they’ll leave a bad review, delete the app, or never come back.

Good mobile app development teams create apps that immediately give their users access to the content they came for.

Big picture strategy for boosting app discoverability

The biggest challenge facing marketing for mobile app developers is that marketing is so intertwined with every other aspect of the startup. Having a good marketing plan is almost the same as having a good business plan — the research starts at the very beginning, with every step of the way informed by metrics and data.

Here’s the checklist that we use when setting up marketing plans with our clients here at Dogtown Media:

1. Research:

  • Marketplace: Determine whether or not there’s a strong market for you app before beginning development.
  • Competition: If they add a popular feature, it needs to be in your app. But better.
  • Vendors: Contact potential vendors and ask them tough questions.
  • Mentorship: Don’t bank on good luck. Find a mentor who’s succeeded — and failed — in your arena before. Their input is worth more than any cutting-edge growth hacking theory.

2. Strategy:

  • Benchmarks: Set aggressive objectives. Chasing 50k downloads in month one and getting 40k is better than coasting on a 20k goal and achieving half that.
  • Partnerships: Find the brands and influencers who can help you early. Nurture those relationships during development so they’ll be ready to help on launch day.
  • Assets: Have your social media, ad copy, screenshots, design samples, teaser videos, etc. ready on day 1, not day 101.
  • Budget: Stick to a strict budget with your platforms of choice. It’s better to pick a few and go deep than spread thin over the whole market with minimal monetary or emotional investment.
  • Optimize: Make sure your app is optimized prior to development. Tweaking features and concept after a low-yield launch could cost your startup millions.

3. Execute:

  • Pivot: Make changes to your strategy based on facts, not emotions. Measure user input and make changes based on what the market wants, not what you want. Listen to your users feedback and engage in conversations with them often. (User stories only go so far.)
  • Analytics: There’s not much point to paying for exposure if you can’t track which sources are pulling their weight. Measure everything your company does and make decisions based on facts, not feelings.

Marketing mobile apps is difficult, but rewarding

As of Christmas 2015, mobile app developers had pulled a total revenue of $25 billion, with each successive year breaking records for mobile app earnings.

Apple app store

The huge rewards to be had in mobile development have drawn hordes of potential startup success stories to the market, but only a select few break through to achieve financial success.

Partnering with a dedicated mobile app development company and planning your app for marketability from day one makes the difference between the success and failure for startups in the current mobile landscape. For those who deliver beautiful apps with airtight marketing plans, 2016 promises to be the biggest year yet for mobile innovation.

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