How to Grow Your Mobile App Organically – An Interview with Steve P. Young, growth hacker and ASO expert


Steve P. Young, the host of AppMasters podcast and the founder of Pixel Happy, an app promotion agency whose strategies have secured press coverage on Techcrunch, Venture Beat, The Next Web, iMore, TUAW, AppAdvice, and BGR.

SplitMetrics asked Steve about how to craft a perfect app store page to drive more organic downloads.

SplitMetrics: What are the key factors involved in app store optimization?
Steve P. Young: App store optimization is optimizing your app store presence whether it be on Google Play or App Store for the download. Making sure you have the right keywords in the app name, description and your keyword field, having a really engaging icon. Then lastly if you are telling the right story within your screenshots.
One of the biggest mistakes is not focusing on the presence. App developers get all the keywords right but their icon and screenshots are very ugly. If you really want to optimize the entire presence start with having an engaging icon. And run an A/B test to understand which icon generates the most clicks and then the screenshots.

I wrote a blog post about how you really brain the copywriting format. There is a formula in copywriting called A.I.D.A. which is Attention, Interest, Desire and Action. It tells about how you bring the copywriting formula into screenshots so that first screenshot gets your attention, second gets your interest, third screenshot creates desire to want to download the app, and then the last screenshot wants you to take an action. I go through different examples of how different companies have done a really good job with each and every element.

You mentioned that an icon should be engaging. How do you make an icon engaging?
It is all about how you present something that’s really engaging. A lot of time we are human so we resonate with faces. A few of podcasters have done A/B tests where they had faces like the main highlight. I would say that faces are one easy way to do that. I tried to do that with a lot of educational apps I used to create.
The second thing is make it different. Don’t make it seem like everybody that does a to-do list app is going to have a checkmark. Making if different but so that it is clear what the app does but it is also a little bit unique and draws people in. Use different colours, do a quick search to see what other people are using as their icon. How you can stand out for that. You can go to iTunes, I use iTunes – that way I can see all the icons. Maybe do a quick search for your app name that you are targeting. Then see what app names and colours are used. What you can do to make you stand out in this whole canvas of icons. You can start to see some trends. Maybe there’s a lot of blue that you are starting to see and maybe you want to go under orange to contrast.

What are the major factors that marketers should focus on when they start optimizing?
Make sure you pay attention to the keywords. I use OneLook. You get a reverse dictionary: you type in anything you want and find all the keywords related to whatever keywords I am targeting. Maybe it’s productivity, so I type in “productivity” and OneLook gives me a bunch of words related to that term. I then put that into Sensor Tower or any of your favourite ASO tool to see what the traffic score is, what the competition is. It helps me determine if these keywords are worth figuring out. A lot of people use Google Adwords. I find on OneLook the keywords that have pretty decent scores and low competition.

When do you start marketing your app?
As early as possible. I’ve created a prototype of an app, and a video of an app to show what it does all on my own. I sent it to a reporter and pitched him saying that I want his brutal feedback: “Can you tell me exactly what you think of this idea on a scale 1 to 10.” That’s when you see if your idea is a little bit different. If nobody is responding to you, you may have a great idea nobody cares about. I linked the reporter to my video, told that there is a prototype in existence. And got some really good feedback. As early as possible, following that strategy allows you to keep reporter engaged as you start developing and get closer to release. “Remember that idea I told you about. You said it was great. Do you actually want to cover it?” I would say if you have a prototype start sharing to get some feedback as early as possible.

How do you track performance of App Store Optimization?
Use the SplitMetrics A/B testing tool. Figure out what is working in terms of clicks, screenshots. Then use a tool like Sensor Tower to see how well your rank has gone, if you have seen more organic growth with your downloads. I did optimization for one of my apps previously and got 233% increase just by changing the app name and the keywords. I did nothing to the screenshots, nothing to the icon. Play around and track if you see some increases, if the keyword rank is improving. It is a lot about tracking the number of downloads based on every single change.

How do you get started with optimization?
If you‘re just starting out, start with the keywords and app name, for Google Play description and keyword field for iOS. Just focus on those to see what you can do and then test everything else if your app is already live. If your app is in development use a tool like SplitMetrics to figure out if this screenshot is worth using, if this icon is better than other icons. The really good to great companies do a lot of testing before, they do a lot of soft-launches, they do a lot of testing that we as a consumer don’t even see but they are continually testing. Utilize all resources that you have out there.

How to craft a title that works for your audience and helps your app store ranking?
What I try to do is use keywords in my app name. Within the app name you try to have some clever ways of putting it in there. I also do key benefits. E.g. Kindle: Kindle, read e-books, magazines and so on. It is the benefit and has some keywords related to Kindle that they are trying to target. I have a personal experience with a 233% increase: it was ABC DJ and I changed it to Phonics Play and then Get Kids Hooked on Alphabet Sounds. I was trying to rank well for Hooked on Phonics. Because of that I put Phonics play in the front. And then I put Get Kids Hooked on Alphabet Sounds. It is cleverly put hooked on and phonics in the same app name. And I think I ranked number 4 at the time. Phonics play was a good keyword to go with.
It is the app name that you cleverly figure out and what’s the main benefit of the app. Don’t go phonics play, alphabet sounds, abc, etc. Reviewers are going to say that you are trying to spam the app store. If you put your main benefit like “get kids hooked on” they let that go. Like with Kindle you go to put your main benefit and try to waive keywords you are targeting.

Which app page element impacts conversion most?
I say screenshots – this is my hypothesis. People are going to search, they are going to find your app. Maybe they are going to download it right away if they’ve heard a good review. The vast majority are going to click through and say “what’s this app about”. Once they click through nobody wants to read a long paragraph. It is your screenshots, reviews: it’s the screenshots, I like it and I’m going to read reviews to see what people are saying. Icon brings people into the door, screenshots convert them to download the app.

Which elements would you prioritize to test first?
I would test the icon first. It is like a subject line. You are not going to get anyone to the door if your icon stinks. If your icon stinks, forget about your screenshots, they are never going to see them or they are going to see them but they won’t care that much. And then work your way down to screenshots. Icon first.

What do you do with description? They say that people don’t read anymore.
There has been some rumblings about the description not being indexed by iOS and obviously Google Play indexes a lot. The description is less about the people wanting to read but the percentage of people that rather read what your description is going to be about. Using copywriting methods for your description is going to help and also make it optimized for keywords. There is still going to be a percentage of those who read. iOS and Google probably are going to start indexing keywords in the description. I would still pay attention to it and try to have a good description.
If you’re running out of time maybe you have just a short description. It is not going to completely fail. There are lots of traction channels: ASO, PR, influencer marketing. You just have to pick a couple that you’re really going to focus on. And so if it’s going to be optimization then focus on the description because this is a big channel. Especially if you don’t do PR or influencer marketing and there is no way that anybody can find out about your app. I would focus on the description, have some good keywords and make it engaging and fun. I’d talk about social proof. If you’ve been featured by different publications or if you’ve got a thousand five-star rating it is like a social proof in there as well.

What are the main things that every app publisher should consider in their promotion strategy?
There’s a lot of different channels. If you just pick one or two that you’re going to focus on you’re going to be fine. As for PR, a lot of companies featured by Apple want PR coverage because they notice that they are featured for a week and then they’re off. So they leverage PR as one channel. ASO is also a channel, getting influencers to talk about your app is another one. I’ve talked to people who’ve gotten millions of downloads, like 3+ million downloads and they didn’t get any PR. They got featured by Apple and then they did influencer marketing so they have people on social media to share their app. They leverage that and get millions of downloads. My clients get tons of downloads just through the PR that we help them do.
Pick one or two different things that you think you’re going to focus on rather than spreading yourself so thin doing PR, influencer marketing. No one is really good at all of them – you’re going to suck at all of them. Unless you hire different people to do that special task you’re going to fail at everything. Focus on a few things that you want to do really well and if PR or ASO happen to be one of them, focus on those two channels.
Then on your next update you may focus on the influencer marketing but I would say that’s what I see the biggest problem is that app publishers are trying to do too much at once. You can do one or two things really well.

How do you get reviews and ratings quickly?
Make sure that this is a part of your development, a part of the UI. So as you’re figuring out like what screens should appear where – that should be a part of the talk, part of the strategy. When are we going to ask for the reviews? How we’re going to do it? What’s the best part? What’s the best time within the app to do it? Start at the development cycle. If you’ve already pass that then when you launch get your friends ready to download and review the app. Get them ready to go because you going to need that initial five to show up in the App Store. Keywords and the reviews tend to get indexed. When you have really good keywords in the reviews you start ranking pretty well for it.

How do you decide which pricing point is the most profitable for you?
I would look at it in different categories. For games you probably need to make it free unless you have the different channels already set up. Another path I have in mind that hit number one of paid games for a long time is called The Dark Room. But it was a very popular title on the web already. He just moved on to mobile. So you could charge for that because you know there’s an audience already in. There’s a strategy and I know that making this paid is going to work well. One of my past clients had a million of followers on Instagram, and had a really big platform. He made it paid, it was a three-dollar app. We hit number two under paid apps through the PR outreach. That did really well and it was a paid app. You got to think how you are going to promote this. If you have no brand, no connections then maybe free is your best bet because the category calls for it. And if you have no other way of promoting it you’re going to have to make it free. But if you got a productivity category app where a lot of people charge, you can go straight to charging for this app. I don’t think you necessarily have to go paid or free. It depends on the category and on how you’re going to market it and what kind of marketing you are going to do. That’s going to influence a lot. You can find success doing either strategy. Just have a rhyme or reason for doing it. Don’t just be free because you’re a game and everybody says you have to be free. I don’t think that would be true. If you have got a good marketing strategy you can do fairly well by making it paid.

What type of companies can benefit from ASO?
Everybody can really benefit from it. You can see the biggest brands doing it. The biggest companies have an SEO strategy. A lot of big companies don’t do it because they’re spending a ton of money on paid acquisition. But it is a low-hanging fruit and they can rank well because of the paid acquisition. This is driving downloads and reviews. They can knock out all of indie developers because they have got the downloads. They got downloads, ratings, engagement and just by having a few little keywords in their app name they’re going to knock people out of the App Store. They are going to rank really well for it. I see the trend when a lot of the bigger companies are starting to come for PR and ASO help.They found that they’ve been doing paid acquisition for the longest time and that cost is continuing to grow. So they need to leverage other marketing channels to see what they can harness, what kind of traction they can get for it. You’re going to see that these companies who have been doing only paid acquisition moved towards PR and ASO. The indies have to be careful because they are going to have to start creating better apps. They might have to do a little acquisition because they’ve been focused on App Store Optimization and a little bit of PR. I’m starting to see that trend develop as bigger companies start realizing that they can’t keep up with the cost of acquisition anymore.

What tools do you use for App Store Optimization?
Definitely check out SplitMetrics to see what your A/B testing can do. Start early in the process. Sensor Tower is the one I like to use from usability point. OneLook is another one that I use in terms of keywords. App Annie has a pretty decent ASO tool for free if you’re really on a budget and you can’t pay for Sensor Tower. You can see which keywords some of your competitors are ranking really well for. Just search for the app and look for ASO in the app page and App Annie will tell you if you are really ranking well for.

Is there something most app developers miss or don’t know about?
The one that I’m known for now is the paid-to-free strategy. So this is one quick way and we’ve done over 100 000 thousand downloads in a weekend just using this strategy. Early in the App Store, 2009-2010 making it from paid to free you got millions of downloads. I picked up this strategy at the time. So I made my paid app for free. At the moment I saw AppAdvice covering a lot of these campaigns so I just pitched them: “I’m going free tomorrow. Would you want to cover it?” They covered it and I got close to 40.000 downloads within a couple of days. I thought that this tragedy really does work. But I started thinking about what would happen if I didn’t tell AppAdvice. Because my guests at the podcast said that I just had to go from paid to free and things would just automatically pick up. “You don’t have to pitch anybody and the App Store will just get you the downloads.” I decided to see what would happen. I waited about a month and I went free again. I didn’t tell anybody, even my intimate friends. I got hundreds of downloads based on that strategy.
If you go from paid to free make sure you pitch AppAdvice, BGR, a lot of different sites. I found that AppAdvice is probably one of the bigger ones and I pitch them. Give them the exclusive on your free campaign. It is Tyler who covers it. Just pitch Tyler: “Hey Tyler. I’m going free. This is exclusive to AppAdvice.” And they will likely cover it.
If you have a free app, you can make one of your in-app purchases free. For some clients we have done this strategy where we made an in-app purchase. We’ve made it free and we’ve got covered for that.
The only thing you have to know about an in-app purchase going free is that it should be non-consumable. This is something they can only buy once. It’s not like a subscription or something that they can continually buy. So it’s either unlocks something or removes an ad.

It has been great talking to you. Thanks for a bunch of great insights.

If you want to try out mobile app marketing strategies that are working today go ahead and contact Appmasters.

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