This is the first episode of App Growth Talks, a series of interviews with ASO, User Acquisition, Mobile Analytics and App Growth experts. We’re starting with an interview with Thomas Petit, a world-renowned Mobile Marketing Expert and independent App Growth Consultant.
Thomas, you are a prominent expert in mobile app growth. How did you start with app marketing?
I almost missed the train actually! Almost 10 years ago, I started seeing how the AppStore started getting traction and I got interested in this emerging and exciting new distribution platform. Back then, there were only gaming companies thriving, so I sent a few CVs and got rejected even before getting a chance to interview (“3 years of mobile marketing experience required” LOL). So I worked on some SaaS, ecommerce (and a bitcoin startup!) while toying with ASO thanks to some friends’ apps, before a visionary founder made a wild bet on me and handed me over a key role at his newly-created fitness app. That app grew from 0 to more than 20M downloads in a couple years and telling how that happened helped me get some visibility on the nascent non-gaming scene.
I’m certainly not the best expert out there, but I do like to share experiences with peers, help indies in the app communities, and keep a network of peers: being more vocal was for me a way to learn from others and, at the same time, it made me visible, which as an independent is now welcome as a by product.
What advice would you give to beginners in user acquisition, ASO and mobile growth?
Don’t take anything for granted.
Keep learning: anything you learn may expire within a year.
I’d also recommend considering learning way beyond pure user acquisition to understand the broader concepts around growth through the lens of marketing, product and data. Pure UA teams are shrinking, and the role has evolved significantly, and adding analytical and/or product and/or creatives & branding skills is becoming critical.
Which role does Apple Search Ads play today in an app success? What is its place in the overall marketing strategy?
While I look at Apple Search Ads with a particular interest, I don’t think success can be solely built through that channel. It certainly holds a particular place in the marketing mix, being the only paid placement within the app store, and the only channel providing deep keyword & store behavioural data after Google unilaterally decided to start obfuscating that part. So you have to be there, smartly: less for scale than for the unique learnings no other activity can provide, and to avoid letting this high intent traffic on your competitors’ table.
Could you name a few cases when you achieved outstanding results with the help of Apple Search Ads?
I’m not the one behind it, but I’d mention Pictarine as an incredible Apple Search Ads success story. I’ve seen their incredibly agile team manage to scale a single keyword in a single geo to 6-digits monthly, profitably (!).
Those are getting harder and rarer, due to high adoption, overall price level and some auction mechanics. Rather than aiming for such a moonshot, I believe another outstanding result is to learn from user reaction (on creatives, search terms, etc.), understand what makes them tick and exploit this outside Apple Search Ads.
What do you think of the CPA goal strategy in Apple Search Ads? Do you use it?
It’s curious to see Apple strongly recommending against using it, but still providing it…
Frankly, I was a long time skeptic too, but sometimes found success using it, by applying the “high CPT, tight CPA” tactic I believe Gabe from Incipia [Editor’s note: Gabe Kwakyi, CEO and co-founder of Incipia] was the first to mention in public. It’s definitely not a beginner mistake, nor a panacea, and not something I use across the board, but sometimes it can be quite successful in getting both scale and price. These days, it’s something I often use for discovery campaigns, but more carefully otherwise. As many things in mobile marketing, it’s all about trying, failing and learning, to keep what works best for you, which might differ from what you hear, read or see for others.
What would you recommend to mobile publishers regarding Creative Sets? Any tips?
Creative Sets are a powerful but fairly wild beast. They can really enlighten about which creatives tick to which users, but they’re also hard to handle. My recommendation would be to use it, but carefully.
Among not so documented caveats, be especially careful about language bias (default goes to all languages while creative sets are language specific), custom exports (which bundle image & text default sets, ruining the whole measurement), post-install data (not always aligned with what you can observe otherwise).
What are the best practices for scaling Apple Search Ads?
I’d recommend those asking this question to explore your own blog [Editor’s note: SplitMetrics Blog] extensively, as you’ve been very generous about providing a lot of content around this challenge. Another great resource to explore options is the ASA Stack from Phiture, which has actionable examples of what setting to change in order to scale up.
The simplified answer you might think about is raising bids, and while of course it can unlock a ton of inventory, there are many other levers you can pull to scale the channel. To mention a few: expanding geographies, adding keywords, exploring returning users targeting, splitting LAT OFF, etc.
How to scale Apple Search Ads for hyper-casual games? They often say it’s rather expensive compared to Google Ads and Facebook Ads.
While monitoring the space out of interest, I rarely, if ever, work with hypercasuals so I wouldn’t know for sure, I would imagine Apple Search Ads isn’t a top priority given its “high price, high quality, low volume” nature compared to other networks, and the very specific way of running UA in this competitive category which aims primarily at high scale, low price. I’d be very curious to hear what specialists in the field have to say about it and will follow up closely your next interviews!
What strategies would you recommend to publishers that say they have no competitors and occupy high positions in the organic results?
Who doesn’t have competitors? If you have no competition, you probably have no market!
Regardless of your position in your subcategory, I believe Apple Search Ads is a key channel to defend and complete your positions, bringing unparalleled insights on users intent, creative performance and more. Some may see it as hard to scale profitability, my recommendation would be to not discard it and jump in to be ready for what’s coming next.
Do big brands like, for example, Disney, TikTok or WhatsApp need to spend for Apple Search Ads?
I mostly work with challenger apps rather than leaders, so I’m not sure how such established brands see Apple Search Ads, but I see a parallel with the early times on ASO, where smaller and medium apps could gain traction thanks to the laggard behaviour of a bigger organization. Search is peculiar in this regard, as the inventory is among direct competitors, unlike display & social feeds where you compete with any other apps. I do believe no matter what the size and popularity, there are tons to gain from being part of the game, whether to protect positions or as a learning channel.
What would you say to brands who are afraid to use Apple Search Ads because of the possible cannibalization of their organic traffic? I know that this is a real pain point for many publishers.
I’ll quote Steve Jobs on this: “If you don’t cannibalize yourself, someone else will”. I’m not denying some cannibalization effect, especially if you hold high positions, but there’s definitely also incrementality to get, or loss to leave on the table.
By choosing conservatively to stay away from it [Apple Search Ads], you leave a very strategic place to your direct competitors, who get a chance to steal high value traffic from you. Search is different in this regard from social & display: you’re creating competitive opportunities for others in your market. From a strategic standpoint, I believe it’s a mistake, especially for those who can easily afford a small proportion of their budget to avoid this situation.
And that’s without even considering two more things.
Firstly, there is cannibalization, but there’s also uplift to get from Apple Search Ads.
In a recent case I worked on, we built a complex media mix model to understand uplifts from different channels, and Apple was by far the channel which had the biggest impact on organic, 50% higher than Facebook Ads and over 3x versus Google Ads! And that’s from an account with a fairly high share of brand…
Secondly, beyond the results themselves, the unique insights you can get: given the opacity of organic search data, running ads provides some clarity you can’t get any other way. That’s especially true when you get activity spikes: think PR, influencer, social, OOH [out-of-home advertising]. For the datapoints alone, that trade off is worth it in my opinion.
How do you assess Apple Search Ads brand ad incrementality?
Incrementality versus cannibalization has finally become a hot topic, especially on Apple Search Ads but not only. It’s always a challenge with new user acquisition as you can’t isolate control cohorts… I believe the only way to try and quantify these effects is by interrupting your usual ads pace to run both fully paused and stress test periods, the later with likely unprofitable bids, in order to assess which level is ideal for your app. Such testing doesn’t always provide as much clean data as I wish, and are rendered much harder when you run harder-to-track activities such as influencer marketing or TV, but that’s how I recommend to understand the full effect of Apple Search Ads. To avoid harming growth goals and confirm with several data points, I’d recommend to rotate such tests across locations.
Which approach are you taking on LAT ON now? You’ve been an advocate of extrapolation, then switched to testing with LAT ON/OFF. Which one proved to be the most data-driven and helpful in terms of scaling in Apple Search Ads?
Measuring only what arrives through MMP or the self-attributed API is definitely a partial picture of the whole effect of Apple Search Ads. But extrapolating LAT is a tricky one. Those users may not behave the same, and my experience shows this method (where you would assume the impact is what you see plus the LAT ON ratio) isn’t fully reliable either, and in some cases overstates the truth. Complex problems are rarely solved with easy solutions, I would recommend a mix, by separating LAT OFF cohorts, running some extrapolations, running pause tests, as well as monitoring closely your “Organic LAT ON” cohort in parallel, both on the quantitative (install volume) and qualitative (in app retention & conversion) sides.
For those interested to hear more on that, tried to dive deep on this topic in a recent interview in the very recommendable podcast Shamanth Rao is running on The Mobile User Acquisition Show.
Speaking of Limit Ad Tracking, I wonder what’s your opinion about Apple keeping to limit access to data and thus creating a closed ecosystem. That could potentially increase its competition with Google and Facebook. Don’t you think so?
I wouldn’t relate directly providing users an option to limit ad tracking with maintaining the ecosystem closed: Apple isn’t doing it to build the walls higher around its moats like its competitors, but to follow its stance on privacy which I believe is good for everyone in the long term.
Of course the marketer in me wants granular and deep data, but I’m also a citizen with concerns over Google business model fundamental conflict with consumers & competing businesses interests. We’ve gone way too far in data harvesting and exploitation without regulation. At the end of the day, I believe giving people a real option to limit ad tracking is good.
If you think the actual LAT issue on Apple Search Ads is a problem, you’re in for a big surprise soon. There’s a long due earthquake happening later this year, as Apple is about to go much deeper in this direction, with a mandatory consent on iOS14 that will affect many players way beyond Apple Search Ads. The exact consequences remain to be seen, but the impact of this change will affect the whole industry. Definitely something to monitor, and personally I’m welcoming such a change even though it will bring limitations to mobile measurement as we’ve known it so far.
As of how this will affect Apple Search Ads, it’s also to be determined, but I believe measurement will be aligned to other channels, resolving the difference in approach we need today.
What’s your take on the future of this channel? How will it evolve further?
I see it growing way further what we currently know it as. My bet is that Apple will build on top of it, for the long term, and at a much larger scale.
I revealed in a workshop in April new beta placements in News and Stocks apps, I think there are many more of those to come which will convert “Apple Search Ads” into “Apple Ads”, one of the very few networks able to dispute the tightly controlled duopoly.