Trick or Treat? The Frightening Tale of Incentivized User Acquisition


Gather ‘round for a spooky tale, as we reveal the dark side of User Acquisition strategies.

For mobile app marketers looking to grow a user-base (commonly via install campaigns), deciding how to attract high-value users is a complex matter. The first strategic decision is often deciding on the environment in which you will promote your app, with two polarizing options to consider: The incentivized environment vs. the incentive-free environment. Trick or Treat, indeed.

Halloween seems like the perfect time to pull back the proverbial mask and reveal the incentivized “Paid-To-Play” strategy for what it really is – a disguise.

Allow me to explain. In the User Acquisition model also known as “Paid-to-Play”, app marketers (advertisers) pay users to try the app or game. It is just one of many approaches in the quest to achieve long-established UA goals. The mission is clear:

  • Grow a critical mass of users and keep them coming back
  • Increase app ranking to boost your likelihood of getting discovered in the stores
  • Compel users to share their love for the app

We call it UA, but let’s remember that at its root what we are really talking about is advertising.

Paid-to-Play is used when your primary goal is driving app download volume (with little regard to quality). Paid-to-Play is like bribing a child to eat her veggies by promising her a slab of chocolate cake. You’re dangling the carrot – but if you have to lure her with sugary cake, maybe that carrot isn’t as delicious as you say it is.

This incentivized method is transactional, short-term thinking. You may attract downloads this way, but you will likely fail at the most critical part of the goal: keeping users coming back. In most cases, the child will gobble cake (take the bait), bite the carrot (download the app), and search for the next sugar fix before ever re-visiting the app (more bait, please). It’s simply not sustainable. If the goal here is to create a lifelong habit of healthy consumption (repeat app usage, loyalty, and authentic fans of your app), you blew it. The incentive undermines the offering. Incentive has its place but it doesn’t encourage the right behavior as it’s rooted in a reward as opposed to true desire for the app on display.

In a bait-free, non-incentivized environment, you are advertising your app based on its merit. Using appropriate targeting strategies (broad or advanced) will ensure that you are reaching users who are genuinely interested in your app. Target broadly based on basic demographics such as carrier, device, location, and then refine as desired. For example, use re-targeting methods to reach past “Clickers”, as they are prime candidates for conversion. Target users who have downloaded similar apps to yours. For example, if you’re a developer with a racing game app, try targeting other racing game users by referencing their passion for the sport (e.g., “Collect more racing apps with {Your App}”). Consider targeting based on additional factors such as loyalty to a brand (e.g., “The latest app from [app maker] is here!”], or on users’ interests such as Pet-Lover, Fashion, Nightlife, Sports, Travel, Music, even Food, and purchase history.

Growing users based on genuine interest in the app is a reliable method that is cost-efficient, sustainable and will pay off in more loyal, high-value users. A passionate user is more likely to tell their circle of friends, and that’s how word of mouth happens. Satisfied users are more likely to give and share favorable app ratings and reviews. I’d take quality users over quantity of users any day. Authenticity and transparency must have a bigger place in a UA strategy.

That said, to all I wish you a safe and spooky Halloween!

Dale Carr, the author of this post, is founder and CEO of Leadbolt