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How to get millions of app installs

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First, dismantle your silos.

Ironically, Steffens’ number one acquisition strategy doesn’t involve users at all: Keep information flowing between all teams at your startup at all times. This is vital. “One of the best things a startup can do is make sure that the person who understands distribution and app store optimization is constantly educating the engineering team,” she says.

Every time she meets with Google or Apple about Acompli’s position on their platforms, she takes meticulous notes and emails them out to the entire company. At all-hands meetings, she regularly shows off successful marketing campaigns so everyone knows what users like and what they don’t. “Our whole team understands what app store optimization is, what the right keywords are, what has worked for us and what hasn’t. No matter what their role, they’re invested in understanding these strategies themselves.”

I never believed the press could bring installs, but she says yes it does.

To land consumers, control your message.

At last count, consumers are faced with 2.5 million apps to choose from between Apple’s App Store and Google Play. Given this deluge of content, what are the most influential things a consumer app company can do to gain traction right out of the shoot? Steffens has very fixed ideas about this — some common sense and some not — and it all requires hard work.

Get the word out. The top three things you need to make your app part of the zeitgeist are press, partnerships and smart points of sale.

Press: It turns out that good press really is all it’s cracked up to be. Traditional media hits on publications ranging from TechCrunch to the Wall Street Journal and everything in between will drive the most traffic to your app. Period. But Steffens cautions startups against falling for a one-size-fits all media strategy. Depending on your company and product, blasting your launch to every journalist in the valley won’t get the job done.


You have to take the time to make a list of the reporters who are most likely to cover your company — maybe they’ve written about similar products in the past, trends you fit into, subjects you’re tangentially related to. Regardless, you need to cherry pick the right names and then pitch them in a personalized way. Make it clear you’re familiar with their work, and then position your news as something you know they would be interested in. Suddenly, it sounds like you’re trying to help them do their job. It takes extra work, but this is the type of approach that pays off.

Other things in the article call into question her advice; specifically she talks about what worked for Color.

I also do not believe that marketing is a key early hire...

The key thing is to never wait for someone else to tell your story, Steffens says. You can shape your narrative by proactively pitching a clear message to media, and reinforcing it with your presence on social networks. “As early as possible, hire a marketing lead who understands community building and viral marketing plays,” Steffens says. This gives all the traffic you generate through traditional media a place to go. “Once you get the viral loop going, keep it strong. Direct customer engagement is one of the most powerful resources a new company can cultivate.”

This means growing individual relationships with customers and users through Twitter, on Facebook, and even through email. Once someone lands on your site or downloads your app, you want to make them feel like there is constant opportunity to engage, whether that’s following you on a social network, or receiving regular newsletters, or even just push notifications. It keeps you and your app top of mind long after stories about your launch have run. 

...but someone has to answer all those tweets, Facebook's, and emails -- it can get overwhelming to keep up with it all!

I'm pretty sure using Color as the example derails the point here:

Partnerships: While traditional media relations may move the needle for your company all at once, strategic partnerships are the best way to fast-track and continually build distribution. And when it comes to signing distribution deals with mobile giants, Steffens is something of a legend. As the vice president for business development at Color, she signed with Verizon to preload an exclusive version of the app on all of their Android phones. With this in her pocket, she approached Saturday Night Live with an idea: “Verizon threw in $2 million in advertising with NBC and SNL said, ‘Okay, we’ll use the product.’” That spring, the cast and crew all broadcast behind-the-scenes clips from the season’s final week using the Verizon-exclusive Color app — reaching millions of viewers in the process.

First of all, partnerships take a long time to make happen.

Second, this stunt did not appear to help Color.

It calls into question all of her advice.

This also calls her into question:

Established media juggernauts reach massive customer bases almost instantly. “At Path, we did a deal with Wordpress, and suddenly we had more people posting from Wordpress into Path than anything else,” says Steffens. “Our product offered something that their users wanted, and we were able to pull them in because of it.” Incidentally, the best way to solidify a deal like this is to show how valuable the other company’s product is by demonstrating everything it did to help your product succeed. It gives you a chance to highlight their power and influence, and who doesn’t want to have evidence of that?

How many users could Wordpress have brought if I've never seen Wordpress in my Path?

And didn't Path notoriously have a tough time getting more app installs despite lots of press?

She talks about putting a few engineers on a feature.

What kind of startup is she working in?

Also keep your eyes peeled for hacks you can use for different types of partnerships, Steffens says. For example, consider zero rating to supercharge your relationships with mobile operators. As these operators look for new benefits to entice their customers, they want to offer more and more pre-loaded apps that are exempt from data caps and charges. “This isn’t hard to set up — it might take a few engineers a few days,” she says. “But if you go to an operator with the infrastructure to make this happen for them, they’re much more likely to preload you on their phones, and that can increase your user base exponentially.”

“Find the partners who like your product so much that they will find the funds to promote it for you.” 

Companies like Sony and Samsung have the resources to maximize your marketing reach if they see clear benefits to working with you. But to work with them, you can’t wait for your app to be ready for prime time. You have to start thinking about distribution partnerships while you’re still actively developing the product. You want to be early and flexible enough so you can make changes if one of these giants requests them.

“You can’t just put your product on the App Store or Google Play and hope to get featured anymore — that’s not enough,” Steffens says. “Getting featured may get you 10,000 downloads a day. But think, how many of those days do you need to string together to keep you going. Partnerships are the real long-term sustenance.”

It's really hard to get Apple to pay attention to you.

Steffens recommends asking the App Store team at Apple for a design review. This demonstrates good faith, high interest, and flexibility — all attributes Apple looks for when approving apps for their platform. But don’t just stop at your initial launch — keep sharing what you’re doing with every new release. And, perhaps most importantly, don’t focus exclusively on your app and the success it’s enjoying.

“What is the benefit of your product for Apple? Tell them how you’ve been designing for bigger screens, or leveraging the new features of iOS 8. Tell them how you’re taking advantage of the things they have a stake in showcasing,” she says. This is how you nail a coveted featured spot in the store.

Google Play’s process is more straightforward. You submit your app to the editorial team and ask for a review to be featured. What follows resembles a simple bug review, Steffens says. The team at Google will give you notes on anything that’s broken or features that don’t work with Android. “If you fix those things, they’ll feature you almost every time,” she says.

There's a fine line between encouraging good reviews, and cheating.

Keep a close eye on reviews. Once your product is out in the wild, consumers become both your most powerful allies and enemies. Their word travels fast, so you want to keep it positive. “If you’re a consumer app, you’ll want to keep your reviews above a 4.5 star average in both app stores,” Steffens says. “If they drop below 3.5, there’s something wrong with what you’re doing and you need to find out what it is fast.”

So how do you actually “keep” your reviews high? A lot of this has to do with proactively sourcing them rather than waiting for your users to express themselves. “You want to encourage them to review you at the exact moment you most want to hear from them,” she says. In addition to prompting users to leave a review while they’re using the app, there are a number of tools startups can use to make sure they're hitting users up when they’re happiest.

“There’s a relatively new company we’ve been using called Helpshift,” Steffens says. “It offers customer support inside the app to streamline the mobile customer experience, and as soon as their problem is solved, Helpshift directs users back to the App Store to leave a review. It’s great. It increases our ratings all the time.”

Leak 1: How many users do I lose from the time they download the app on Day 1? 

There are actually two crucial metrics to mine from the first day someone has your app. You want to pay attention to the number of people who downloaded your app without ever signing up, and the number who open it once and never again. “Just this morning, I opened an app on my phone and I didn’t know how to use it. I hit a couple of different buttons, but I couldn’t figure out how to accomplish the thing it was supposed to do,” Steffens shares. “Right then and there I just put it down, literally, and I will never pick it back up.”

“Assume you have 90 seconds with a new user before they decide to use your app or delete it.” 

If your product is at all confusing or intimidating, chances are the average user will turn it off and trash it shortly thereafter.

I did like the Snapchat story.

Leak 2: How many users are still using my product at six weeks, and do they have what they want?

“A lot of people think that 20% retention at 6 weeks is amazing, but good apps should be above 40%.” 

By six weeks, you need to think about whether your app has diminishing utility. Is it possible for it to lose its novelty? What does your average user require to keep using your product? You need to do a bit of psychologizing here, but having data to back you up can help pinpoint why people are leaving.

Fix 2: Keeping customers for six weeks and beyond means listening intently to what they want from your product and implementing it as fast as possible. “Snapchat has done a great job at this,” Steffens says. “They started out with a simple idea: the disappearing photo, but they didn’t stop pay attention when they saw incredible early traction.”

One of the reasons people fled Snapchat after several weeks is they realized people could take screenshots. The ephemeral service wasn’t so ephemeral after all. Snapchat noticed this drop-off, did the necessary surveying, and figured out why they were losing out. Before most users had a chance to formally complain, they rolled out a feature that would notify users when their photos were screenshotted, offering an extra measure of comfort.

“They did that, but then they also heard from customers who actually wanted to keep their photos a little longer, so they launched their Snapchat Stories feature to do exactly that — you’re continually drawn back in because they’re always changing the product. Not in crazy ways, not in ways that make it hard to use, just by adding features that are adjacent to what they already do.”

Analyzing usage data and customer feedback side by side is what will take your product from a good idea to an established part of your users’ daily routine, Steffens says. Using Snapchat as a guide here isn’t a bad idea. You want steady, incremental changes that introduce novelty while not straying from the core that people know and love.

I think this is the best advice in the article:

What about the silver bullet?

There’s a lot of talk about growth hacking these days, with hundreds of websites and articles dedicated to tips and tricks that supposedly bring in droves of users. Steffens’ verdict? Don’t buy into it.

“None of that works in the long-term,” she says. “There are no one-size-fits-all tricks in a world of products that are diversifying this fast. If one strategy does become popular, it’ll shift in no time.”

She points to a tactic that many social networking sites were employing at one time: Asking new users if they wanted to automatically invite all their webmail contacts to use the service. Soon users got hip to how obnoxious and intrusive this was and everyone had to move away from it. At the end of the day, the most effective “hacks” for consumer and enterprise apps alike are simply good sales and marketing practices, and not losing sight of the basics:

Focus on customer support. When it comes to differentiating yourself from the competition and steadily increasing your user base, there’s nothing more important than attentive, kind, surprisingly responsive customer support. And it’s not a new story. “I was just talking about EarthLink today at lunch and reminiscing about the days of dial-up,” Steffens says. “I remember everyone wanted EarthLink there for a while simply because they had the best customer support — you could call them up and there was always a real person there to help you. The desire for this hasn’t changed.”

For enterprise companies in particular, impeccable customer support is a must. If any little thing malfunctions or breaks down you need to get it back up and running as fast as humanly possible. “If a customer has gone to all he trouble of inputting all their notes and data and fully integrating your app with their other tools, chances are they aren’t going to desert you for the competition — the only reason they will is if they feel like they aren’t getting quality support.”

Compound incremental gains for serious traction. It may not be glamorous, but it works. Optimizing your homepage for signups, continually testing copy and layout, experimenting with video vs. photos vs. animation, and even testing button colors. All of this needs to happen continuously so that you can be sure you’re doing everything you can to capture as much of the market as possible. It is worth the time and trouble. Any of these changes can increase users’ engagement with your product and your brand, Steffens says. “If you can increase conversion by just one, two or three percent with every little tweak, those gains will start to stack up.”

Find your magic number. There may not be a silver bullet, but for every app and product, there is a magic number — Steffens has seen it. For Acompli, that number is two — two email accounts. “As soon as our users create a second email account on our app we hardly ever lose them,” she says. At that point, it’s clear the user has started to understand the product’s value. Armed with this knowledge, the Acompli team can adjust their messaging to push more users to open a second account. Reaching out over email with more robust tips for using the app professionally is just one example that can help them hit their magic number.

By defining a magic number, a company can define who its most successful users are, and then take action to get more people to that point. If you want your users to send two emails in their first week on your app, for example, focus on that in your onboarding communications, or drop alerts directly into the app that will encourage them in this direction. You want to give users the best opportunity to find value in what you’ve created.

This is what it all comes back to for Steffens — the fact that successful user acquisition is solely dependent on building a great product. You have to make something that users want, and then do whatever it takes to help them see it for what it’s worth.

Basically, build something people want.

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