The Top 6 Ways to Grow Your App

If there is anything hindering app growth currently, it’s not chat bots and it’s not voice bots: It’s how complicated and misunderstood app growth, product and marketing is.

Tech pundits scream: “The app-ocalypse is near! The end of applications is here. Long live chat bots. The app boom is over.” Who will win the race to become the WeChat of the West?

Yes, the consumer internet space is shoulder-to-shoulder. Yes, the “grow now, monetize later” pitch is a less palatable to investors that it was maybe five years ago. And yes, as mobile guru Benedict Evans reminds us, real estate on the home screen is coveted and crowded, and chat bots, app streaming and progressive web apps have big implications.

But the doomsday claims are overkill.

If there is anything hindering app growth currently, it’s not chat bots and it’s not voice bots: It’s how complicated and misunderstood app growth, product and marketing is.

In the vein of tech’s open-source nature, we’ve interviewed the “app hall of fame” and asked them a range of questions designed to give you the toolkit necessary to grow your app business. Here are our top six learnings:

The biggest drop-off occurs at the first screen. Figure out activation and you’re ahead of the pack: According to Localytics, 23 percent of users abandon an app after one use. The No. 1 reason why apps don’t grow is problems with activation. Kamo Asatryan, app growth consultant and author of This Is How You Design Your App for Maximum Growth, told us: “Most apps have issues because people install them, open them up once and then don’t really understand what to do next.” Apps generally end up as obsolete icons a few swipes off the homepage. Three things you can do to make your onboarding experience and value proposition simple, understandable and accessible are: Remove friction; personalize the experience; and don’t overwhelm users with too many options in the user interface.

Iterate fast or fail: Time to product market fit is the most important metric a mobile app can optimize for in its early days. As Andrew Chen, who runs supply growth at Uber, explains: “Startups are either growing or dying.” If you have a finite amount of venture-capital-funded cash in the bank and a monthly burn, and you aren’t making money, not having a sense of urgency is a primal sin. There are a lot of cost-effective, practical ways to speed up your development cycle and iterate faster. At Santa Monica, Calif.-based mobile startup Science, former MySpace CEO Mike Jones has a full-time development team in India: “We dev on a 24-hour cycle now. When Santa Monica wraps up at night here, India gets started.”

Without retention, scale is meaningless. Companies must always have growth and scale goals: No amount of growth can replace solid retention. Tinder founder and chief marketing officer Justin Mateen put it best: “It’s kind of like trying to fill up your pool. You’re trying to get it to the top. It doesn’t matter how fast the water is coming in if a very, very small percentage of it is being retained.”

You thus need two simultaneous key performance indicators: engagement, cost per user acquisition or lifetime value. For social, this might be having a ratio of daily active users to monthly active users of more than 40 percent. For a shopping app, it might be a cost per acquisition 20 percent below your margins on every purchase. For gaming, it might be payback of 10 percent in a 30 day period. The second goal is scale: How many total users are on your app. You should always make it a goal to figure out retention, CPA or LTV before going for scale.

Give your product built-in virality: Inherent virality means tapping into existing networks to build your own. Whether sending mobile payment requests or car fare splits or sharing photos via SMS, or sharing a Spotify playlist on Facebook, inherent virality has plenty of precedent in established, successful apps. Nuzzel, the social news app, is the perfect example of this. Founder and CEO Jonathan Abrams explained to us that users can now curate email newsletters to friends and followers outside of the app. One caveat: Don’t rely too much on one network for your growth.

Don’t only rely on conventional marketing channels. Get creative and do whatever it takes to grow: A story that Mateen told us says it all: “One day, I had one of our college reps walk into the class with 300 students. He basically just walked in and shouted: ‘I’m looking for my Tinder match.’ His Tinder match turned out to be the professor. The whole class died of laughter.” Cory Levy at After School used similar tactics to spread his app. In fact, he hired a paid actor to pretend to be in high school, evangelize the product and flyer the walls with After School paraphernalia. These stunts market themselves and spread through word of mouth in small, dense networks quickly. This is especially important in social networks, where the users of the app are the sole value of the app. The controversy these stunts spark also gets covered in the press, further publicizing the apps.

Jesse Michels is program manager for data crowdsourcing projects in natural language understanding and machine intelligence and Sunil Rayan is leader of mobile app ads at Google.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.