Mobile App User Acquisition

You can have the best app in the world, but without a solid app user acquisition strategy, you will struggle to succeed in the hyper-competitive mobile app industry. People need to be able to discover your app, and just getting listed in the Apple or Google app store isn’t enough.

The first step in building a successful mobile app business is user acquisition, or UA. UA can be accomplished through a variety of ways — paid or organically — but the goal is to attract new users and get more installs at a low cost. Essentially, it’s about building an audience through strategic marketing efforts.

Beyond actually acquiring new users, an important focus for any UA campaign is creating a positive ROI — which means that you want the revenue your new users generate to be greater than your app user acquisition costs.

Why is a User Acquisition strategy for apps important?

The importance of mobile app user acquisition seems obvious: Apps can only be successful if they have users. But quality matters as much as quantity because you want users who will actually keep your app and continue to use it. So, a user acquisition strategy for mobile apps should focus on getting the right users for your app, aiming for that goal of being “ROI positive.” The ultimate goal is to grow your app and propel it to the top of the charts.

UA is also important when you consider how much competition there is in just about every app category. Since your user acquisition ads may be the first interaction potential users may have, it’s your opportunity to make a splash and really stand out.

It would be great if user acquisition goals could be met by relying on organic and word-of-mouth campaigns alone, but that’s not typically the case. Even if the buzz around your app drives a massive spike in installations at launch, that isn’t likely to carry your business forever. To keep the revenue flowing and your app store rankings high, ongoing UA campaigns are the best solution.

Overcoming tech changes

With the release of iOS 14 in 2020 and iOS 14.5 in 2021, an important user acquisition KPI — Cost Per Install — became majorly affected. The updates focused on consumer data protection, allowing users to limit or outright opt out of data tracking on their devices. With this came a necessary change for app marketers, as tracking individual installs from users’ device data was no longer a guaranteed UA strategy. Advertisers and app marketers now depend on SKAdNetwork, an API developed by Apple in 2018 that allows advertisers and app marketers to track direct installs without compromising a user’s privacy. Therefore, direct install attribution data is now measured and ensured — usually by an MMP on behalf of an advertiser — through SKadNetwork.

How do user acquisition campaigns work?

Usually, a user acquisition campaign involves a strategic combination of paid advertising across digital and mobile channels, organic traffic generated via search and social, and app store optimization.

Paid media campaigns for UA are typically run through different mobile ad networks. Developers and studios can then serve ads within apps from other companies. Social media advertising, with its huge audience and easy targeting options, has been very popular for acquisition campaigns in recent years. Developers can also take advantage of their own apps to cross-promote.

Analytics and ongoing optimization are also important to measure and maximize the success of a UA campaign. After all, advertising is an investment in the growth of your app business, so you’ll want to make sure you’re seeing the returns you’re expecting. A successful user acquisition strategy looks at a number of KPIs, including the apps in which ads appear, the cost of acquiring new users, and the life-time value (LTV), along with the average revenue per daily active user (ARPDAU) of the users they acquire.

Having an attribution model that works for you is equally important. In addition to hitting your KPIs and knowing your campaigns are effective, it’s helpful to know which channels and which creatives are driving the most installs. That way, you can invest more in the channels that work best.

Tips for User Acquisition Campaign Success

Know your audience

Do you know who your users are? For a successful UA campaign, you’ll need to really understand the people who will be interested in your app. Are they predominantly men or women? Are they within a particular age range? Do they live in a certain part of the world, near cities? Do they like sports or cars, or sports cars? These are important details you’ll need to know to target your campaigns effectively. The more you know about your audience, the more effectively you can target your campaigns — which means you’ll be optimizing your budget, too.

If you’re not positive about your audience demographics, it’s smart to earmark a small portion of your budget to test before launching the entire campaign. Don’t just “trust your gut.” Challenge it, and be sure your mobile app user acquisition platform of choice is capable of sourcing that data.

Test your UA campaigns and learn what really works

Testing is an important component of any marketing campaign, and UA is no exception. Testing is critical to optimizing your UA strategy, enabling you to make informed, data-driven decisions about your campaigns and your business.

We recommend regularly A/B testing your marketing campaigns so you know what’s working and what isn’t. It is the best way to gain insights into what’s resonating, where, and why. It’s also the only way to really understand which elements of your campaign are in need of optimization.

The easiest way to get started is to first have a hypothesis; for example, which ad do you instinctively think is performing best? Create a test to find out if you’re correct.

Next, divide your test audience into two segments, and then change one variable: it could be a single word in the text, the background image, or even the time of day that you’re running the ad. It could be different audiences, like men versus women or Gen Y versus Gen Z.

Finally, set a timeframe for your test, maybe a week or two, and let it run.

When the time is up, analyze the results carefully. How much of an impact did your test have on the conversion rate? Did one creative or segment dramatically outperform another? You’d be amazed at how much difference the color of a button or the expression on a model’s face can make when it comes to conversions. You may learn some interesting things about your audience, too. Many assumptions have been proven wrong as the result of well-run A/B tests.

Mind your KPIs

Key performance indicators (KPIs) are the metrics you monitor to track your goals and ensure you’re getting the most out of your budget. If you’re new to UA, you may not know which metrics are important enough to track, so here three important ones to consider:

Customer acquisition cost (CAC): CAC, or user acquisition cost for apps, is a business metric used to understand how much it costs to acquire a customer. CAC is the total sales and marketing costs to gain a new customer over a specified time. Understanding this cost helps businesses make budgeting decisions when attracting new customers.

Cost per acquisition (CPA): CPA or cost per action is an advertisement measurement and pricing model, primarily used in mobile user acquisition campaigns and other performance marketing. These campaigns allow advertisers to choose a user’s action within the mobile app to measure and only pay for users who take that action. Actions can include registrations, reaching the next level, milestones, and many more. With those actions defined, advertisers pay when the user sees the in-app ad, installs the app, and completes the predefined action.

Lifetime Value (LTV): LTV may be the most important KPI to track. It’s a metric that predicts the profit you’re likely to gain from an average user over the time period they have your app on their mobile device, and something you put up against the average user acquisition cost for apps.

LTV isn’t for brand new apps, since it can’t be calculated until you’ve reached critical mass with your user base. However, once you’re able to figure out your user LTV, you’ll know who your most valuable users are, so you’ll be able to target prospective users more effectively. You’ll also be able to budget better and measure a lot of other things that empower you to optimize your UA campaigns more effectively.

Return on Ad Spend (ROAS): Your ROAS represents the amount of money (or return) you get for every dollar you invest in advertising. To figure out what a campaign’s ROAS is, divide the gross revenue from that campaign by its total cost. To achieve a high ROAS, you’ll want to spend as little as you can on advertising while reaping the best possible results. This is a key metric to consider as you optimize your campaigns: cost down, returns up!

App Store Optimization: We’ll dig deeper into this, but since the stores are so critical to app discovery, making sure your app stands out should be a UA priority. This area of marketing requires its own set of KPIs, which include your app’s store rankings and the rankings of your most important keywords within the store. Two others to monitor include:

  • Number of views to install: How many times a user views or interacts with your brand before installing (a good measurement of ad and brand performance).
  • Attribution for install source: The originating source(s) that referred the user to your app, leading to the install.

Create delightful, engaging ads

No matter what kind of app you’re promoting, the right creative is key. Don’t just select the ads you like best — try a few different designs and formats (budget permitting), A/B test them rigorously, and then relentlessly optimize to find the ideal frequency, localization, and more.

In the gaming world, playable ads have proven to be a very effective tool for user acquisition, particularly in the hyper-casual genre. These ads let users test out gameplay before committing to download. Video ads also perform well across app categories. And if your budget doesn’t allow for one of these rich media formats, static ads still work — even in-app banners can work well to drive new installs.

ASO — worth the effort

With over five million apps available for download, the trickiest part of user acquisition is getting found. When users search for apps in your category, you want them to find yours first. App Store Optimization (ASO) is the key to being discovered. Like search engine optimization (SEO), ASO also relies on keywords and descriptions, but it’s a little different. Optimization expert Neil Patel recommends you focus on the following factors in your optimization efforts:

  • App name and title
  • Keywords
  • Description
  • Subtitle
  • Total number of downloads
  • Ratings and reviews

You’ll have more control over some of these than others, but here are a few best practices to consider as you begin your ASO efforts.

Pick a short, descriptive name and title for your app.

  • You want something that clearly shows users what your app does and the problem it solves, all at first glance. Some great examples include, “Strava: Run, Ride, Swim.” “Calm: Sleep and Meditation.” “Twitch: Live Game Streaming.” These titles and descriptions are concise, keyword-laden, and very clear.

Choose relevant keywords.

  • Do your homework and figure out which keywords are most relevant to your app — but also which of those keywords have less competition. The less competition, the more easily and cost-effectively you can achieve a higher ranking. Again, think like your users: which terms would they use to find an app like yours? Any time you invest in research will pay off.

Have a great icon.

  • Your icon should be, well, iconic! Think about some of the instantly-recognizable ones you know, like Snap, Spotify, or Evernote. What will your app’s emblem be?

Write a concise, accurate description.

  • The description for your app in the store is critically important. Apart from using your keywords wisely, write a brief, but solid description of your apps benefits and features. Use active, exciting words, focusing on what the user will get out of your app and the problem it solves for them. Add bullets to make it easier to read, too.

Pick the store category that makes the most sense.

  • Don’t be idealistic and don’t pick a less popular category because you’ll have less competition. It’s smarter to select the right category for your app. You want the users who need your apps to find it, so put yourself in their shoes and think about where they’d start their search.

Include screenshots and videos.

  • Show off your meticulously designed app and show users how easily and conveniently it can solve their problems. Be sure to upload the right size images and at the required resolution. Since the stores give you 8-10 images to work with, use them as a storyboard to guide your users through the app.

User Acquisition is an ongoing process

User acquisition doesn’t start when you launch your app and then end a month later. It’s an ongoing process to keep gaining new users and keep your revenue flowing. There are lots of moving parts, lots of strategies and channels to consider, and lots of datasets to manage. The most successful UA strategies will include a lot of testing to discover and validate your target audience, and more testing to ensure you’re investing in the right channels — and then still more testing to confirm your creatives and calls to action are working.

Having a solid platform to support your efforts is also helpful, and AppLovin offers exactly what you need. Our software solutions help you discover new users, maximize your monetization, improve ROI, and expand your business.

We also encourage you to look into our smart UA solution, AppDiscovery.

AppDiscovery is AppLovin’s UA tool, allowing tailored user acquisition campaigns optimized with machine learning. It’s malleable enough to create KPI focuses specific to your app.

AppDiscovery users receive end-to-end campaign management through an AppLovin growth manager. They will help you create, test, and launch campaigns to grow and scale your audience. You’ll optimize UA through different advanced automation campaign types like:

Learn more about AppDiscovery here.

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