App Growth Talks: Steve P. Young

Steve P. Young

This is the fifth episode of App Growth Talks, a series of interviews with ASO, user acquisition and app growth experts. Today’s special guest is Steve P. Young, a prominent expert on app store optimization, user acquisition and mobile marketing. Steve is a Founder and CEO at App Masters, an app marketing agency.
Editor’s Note: In the podcast I called Steve a CEO and co-founder of App Masters, while he is actually a founder of course. I apologize to Steve and our listeners for that.

Listen to “App Growth Talks: Steve P. Young” on Spreaker.

Steve, I read that you were an entrepreneur when you were still at school and then almost accidentally started to develop a mobile game. Only later you started your own podcast. But anyway, you chose to stay with apps. What attracted you to the mobile app world?

It all started because at the time when apps first came out when my son was about 18 months old, we would pay for apps, download a bunch of apps, and we noticed that users actually were learning a lot from the apps – just like we did via a lot of educational apps.

And I was like, “I wanna do this too.” And so I started to figure out how to code and make my own apps. The reason why I started the podcast was that my apps were starting to generate some money but nothing to live off, it was just a little vacation money. Everybody was moving towards the app space roughly in the beginning of the 2010s when I first started my podcast, so it’s been almost 10 years now.

Like you said, Lina, I sold cassette tapes at school, I always knew that part of me wanted to be an entrepreneur but I didn’t know what this journey would look like. But I loved podcasts, apps were continuing to grow, I had an app business. So I thought, “Why don’t I just do a podcast on mobile apps?” Because at the time, in 2013, there were so many business podcasts, and I didn’t want to start just a general business podcast. But I loved what people talked about apps, and got an idea of an app podcast – and just ran with that.

Amazing story, thanks for sharing. Steve, if you were an entry-level mobile marketing specialist, what would you do now? Where would you start?

When I started in the app marketing space, I actually did not want to talk about ASO because I thought it was oversaturated. All these people were already talking about app store optimization, and I thought there was enough great content [on ASO] out there. It was just until I started doing it and then finding my own unique way of doing ASO that really expanded my reach, and people talked about it. 

So first think through what most people are talking about and who you want to target. For example, for my audience, we all are usually entrepreneurs or people doing on the side. There is a segment of the audience working for bigger companies, a lot of my audience are people that are doing apps or just starting out with that. So ASO just makes the most sense for me. 

If you are just starting now, think who is your target market. 

If they are gonna be bigger game developers or big studios, and that’s what you want to go to, then user acquisition for paid channels is probably the better fit and that you should focus on. But if you want to work with startups or make your own app, then think through some ASO and free marketing strategies, and think how you can better associate with yourself.

And I think the best thing for every entry-level mobile marketing specialist is how I got started. In 2013, I just started to do an interview show, talk to experts and learn from them.

If you stick with a podcast or interviewing your heroes, one – you learn a lot, and two – you become associated with these experts. That’s an external benefit of it: people start thinking that you know a lot.

Thank you Steve. I think this is a very wise approach that you’ve chosen. I know that you’re working with a lot of mobile game and app publishers, so I wanted to ask: how does mobile game promotion differ from app promotion?

It’s a great question Lina. I think that with mobile games, from the big guys I’ve talked to, they tend to take it very, very slowly. Soft-launching in bigger countries, getting the LTVs right, and usually they have a really big budget that they are going to spend on. 

So it would be a good idea to go to some of the publishers because they know and understand this stuff. And I often hear from game developers, “I’ve launched a new game, I got no downloads, can you help me?” And I’m like, “Well, your game sucks!” Pitch a publisher, see what they say, because sometimes your game is probably not that good.

Mobile game promotion usually requires a lot of soft-launch and pre-launch strategies to get the retention and your LTVs right. And they’re really driving a lot on the paid acquisition. Whereas an app promotion for non-games would rely more on ASO, niche and they often choose to tweak along the way. Launch as a free app, then add in-app purchases, later move on to subscriptions and so on.

And you see a lot of success stories going on around there ,with people who figured out what their niche is and then used ASO to drive the downloads, and after that figured out what their monetization is. They found a kind of pillar and built upon that. 

Whereas with games, you need to do a lot of that in the pre-launch phase. I would say ASO is more important for non-games, whereas games, like a puzzle or a crossword – what is their ASO besides their branding? Nobody is searching for a frog or chicken crossing the road. So ASO is becoming less important, in my opinion when it comes to game keyword optimization. 

For game optimization, I think that it’s all about the app store presence. Using tools like SplitMetrics for testing out icons, screenshots – those are going to be way more important from the ASO perspective for games rather than the keywords optimization.

Please share a few app store optimization tips for mobile games.

I would suggest optimizing the game icons and screenshots. As for app preview for non-games,I saw both improvements and decreases in conversion. For mobile games, I think app store video actually would be helpful. Another thing: try to optimize the short description on your app store product page. Figure out why users should be willing to download your game and go after it.

And one thing that  we are testing, and I have concrete results to say yes or no, on the positive front: 

We are replying to a lot of reviews and those replies turn to have certain keywords that we might be targeting from an ASO perspective.

It was the strategy that I used to work with in 2015 when we would put keywords into reviews and would see tremendous results in terms of keyword rankings but, obviously, it was 2015, 5 years ago, and Google and Apple have got a little smarter. So what we are trying to do is see if we can reply to those reviews because we have some keywords that we want to put in there. We are still running some tests, we want to be very careful doing it but we are starting to sprinkle in a few different keywords in our replies.

Could you please share a couple of app growth hacks that could be new to even experienced mobile growth experts?

My favorite growth hack that I still do to this day, a very old strategy but still works wonders is what I used to call a “paid free campaign” but people got confused, so now I call it a free promotional campaign. It is a campaign that works for both games and non-games, subscription-based apps. 

Essentially what you have to do is to be able to give away something within the app that is paid normally –  for free. 

In short, what we’ve found out is that if you have a game on iOS and an in-app purchase “remove ads” in your game, make this option free for a couple of days. 

That could drive thousands of downloads, and it also drives organic user growth, and also – more in-app purchases. And we’ve noticed: if you run this campaign for one app, your entire portfolio rises because more people are checking out your other apps. 

One of our clients ran these campaigns: first they had barely 25 downloads per day and wanted to optimize their app. With the help of ASO they got roughly 75 downloads per day and then ran this campaign continuously on their portfolio of apps and have grown to 4 million downloads. That’s been a couple of years running this, but they haven’t spent any money on paid user acquisition.

Wow, that’s a very impressive case! What KPIs do you use to measure the effectiveness of mobile marketing performance? Which indicators are often overlooked?

Retention. Everybody talks about growth and downloads and everything like that – and I think it is retention. This is super-important, and what we try to do is to really focus on the onboarding experience, how you are bringing users back, what they are doing within your app. A lot of times when people come to me and say, “Look, I need more downloads” – I’m like, “Well your app probably sucks”.

And we have had success stories. Back in the days we have driven tens of thousands downloads on a very limited budget. But the app had to shut down because there was no retention, no monetization.

I prefer to have just a hundred downloads per day and get 20-30 people signing up as a subscription rather than thousands downloads per day with ten people signing up. 

Also track how many people are signing up, cause it’s very much about conversion. We’ve also done testing in terms of showing the right pricing page, A/B testing, a lot of different things, so, I’d say depending on a type of app, look at retention and conversion, especially for subscription-based apps. These are the key metrics, so see what tweaks you can make to improve your conversion rate.

What do you think of Apple Search Ads? Is this channel a part of your app marketing strategy?

Yes, definitely. People come to me and ask, “I’ve just launched an app, how can I get users?” One of my favorite ways of doing that is through Apple Search Ads. Spend a couple of hundred dollars, get a few hundred users, see what they are doing within the app, how they are converting and think how you can tweak your app. 

One of my clients increased conversions by dropping his onboarding experience from seven screens to four screens. These are like tests. 

I love Apple Search Ads as a way to get your early users to see what their conversion rate number is, what the retention numbers are. Start with Apple Search Ads Basic, spend a few hundred dollars, ask Apple to find keywords that work for you.

I know that you guys [SearchAdsHQ] have a lot of tutorials on Apple Search Ads Advanced, but in the beginning, you can just start out with Basic.

Could you please share some Apple Search Ads best practices & tips?

Spend a little bit of money on a Discovery Campaign. Enable the Search Match option, set your cost per acquisition goal and let Apple find keywords for you.

Take good-converting keywords out of the discovery campaign, add them to the negative list and also put them to the Exact Match campaign. Discovery campaigns help you to figure out various keywords that you might be missing. If some keywords are super-expensive, I also put them as negative.

What are your thoughts on the post-IDFA world?

I am not an expert on the attribution stuff. But what I have to say is that the app stores are constantly changing, and I love it. I love when things change, that’s why I love apps, because with mobile games and apps, the things are constantly changing.

We just have to adapt. Sometimes we just overexaggerate the impact of something because we don’t know what exactly is going to happen.

I think we are not going to be affected as much as we think.

In your article for Entrepreneur you advise to target competitors’ keywords. And what would you recommend to apps that would like to protect their brand names from competitors?

Article mentioned: 5 Simple, Low-Budget Growth Hacks to Increase App Downloads

There is not much you can do to protect your branding. If people are using your brand name you may reach out to Apple and say that this is your trademark. But other than that there is not much you can do to protect yourself from other companies using your brand names. 

And if you’re looking to target your competitors, you can try to find competitor search terms with really high traffic and lower competition. I also always try to find complementary apps that have bigger brand names, and we saw good results sticking to this tactic with one of our clients in terms of increasing the number of downloads. The traffic was really through the roof.

What would you recommend to apps that are going to expand to new regions?

Localize. As simple as that. If you don’t want to localize, use Apple Search Ads. Put it to a different country and see what Apple recommends as keywords for that particular region. Then go to Google Translate to see what these keywords mean. That’s a great way to start localizing your keywords. 

What’s your toolkit for successful app store optimization and user acquisition? Please name the top three tools you can’t do without.

One for ASO is AppFollow. Two App Radar. Thomas [Kriebernegg] and I working together on a collaboration. I Use AppFollow for actual keyword research and I also use App Radar, it’s a great way to get the data on the keyword traffic. Three AppAdvice is a great tool that could provide you with really massive results.

You ve just mentioned Thomas, he is actually my next guest in our App Growth Talks. To finish up, what’s your take on the current app store trends? And what trends in the App Store and Google Play Store should we expect for late 2020, early 2021?

I am not a Nostradamus but subscription-based apps are going to be the key. A lot of simple app ideas – I think that’s where the trend is headed. It’s already there now but I am sure we will continue to see that.

Thank you so much, Steve, for sharing your thoughts!