Bringing Them Back for More…

My last few Android posts have focused on increasing your Google Play ranking.  Given Google’s recent changes in ad policy and content/reward gating, today I’d like to talk about what’s next… app engagement.

Here’s my rationale…

Currently (until next month), a low-engagement app is not a monetization problem on the Android platform.  There are a variety of ad networks that allow you to, essentially, make the entire device your app context by displaying some form of notification ads.  Which are, at their core, just external ads.

Notification ads mean your user doesn’t need to engage with your app to engage with your ads.  And, whether you agree with the model, or not, it’s a very effective way for things like utility apps to monetize through ads.  These are apps that could never monetize with banners because they just don’t get the eyeballs.

For example, on one of our lines of utility apps, we currently show just over 3,500,000 notification ads a day.  That’s pretty good.  But because the apps are utility apps, they aren’t designed to be used or opened regularly.  So, even though we also have banners in those apps, they only generate about 200,000 banner impressions daily.

That’s a huge difference.  And it’s compounded when you add the difference in engagement (tap-through) between banners and notifications.

So this line of apps is a perfect example of a market that will be devastated by the new Google changes.  In limiting advertising to the in-app context, they’ve essentially killed the current monetization engine and the associated motivation for developing these apps.

Since we can no longer use our preferred notification networks like TapContext or Leadbolt, what do we do now?

First, let me start by saying that I don’t know the whole answer to that question.  Or even close.  This is new for me, just like it’s new for most developers.  So part of this is experimentation based on reasonable hypotheses.

Over the next few weeks I’ll share what I discover and what I learn.  Some of it will work.  Much of it won’t.

I’m excited to see the kind of creativity this spawns in the Android ecosystem.  It will also be interesting to see how Google enforces some of the murkier provisions in their new developer policies.

I can say that I’ve had a peek behind the curtains at one of the large ad networks, and I’m intrigued.

But regardless of what the ads look like in the future, here’s something I know… Google wants developers to be rewarded for user engagement.  Being present on the device is no longer good enough.

So if the 3 rules of Google search are relevance, relevance, and relevance, I think it’s not far off to say the 3 rules of Android’s future will be engagement, engagement, and engagement.

And if you want to still make money distributing free apps, you’d better be able to keep bringing your users back for more.

The first thing I’m trying is to simply ask my users to come back.  The new rules clearly allow my app to pop first-person notifications to my users.  So let’s start there.

I don’t know which schedule will be most effective, but I’ll start by popping a notification when my user hasn’t used my app in more than 24 hours.  I’ll have some fun with it.  And try some different phrasing.  But the bottom line is that I’ll just invite the user to come back and use the app.

Beyond that, I’m working to create something along the lines of an in-app notification auto-responder.  If you’re from the IM world, that will make at least a little bit of sense.  Essentially, I want to create a directed, ongoing dialog with my users through a series of timed notifications.

Think of it like a tutorial or help system through short notifications.  One day it will tell them about feature A.  The next day it will show them tip B.  And so on.  It will walk them through the entire app 1 notification at a time.

This needs to be balanced with not bugging them so much that they remove the app.  But at some point I have to be aggressive enough to make sure they keep coming back and engaging with my app.

And what happens once I’ve got them back?

Well, I show them what I said I’d show them.  And then they’ll be funneled through an in-app interstitial.  I’m very interested in seeing how well this will work because in-app interstitials also happen to be my highest paying ad types on a per-impression basis.  Especially when I combine them with a high-paying, effective interstitial network (we currently use TapContext).

But the bottom line is, it’s now up to the developer (me and, presumably, you) to find new ways to drive user engagement.  Currently I can focus a significant portion of my energy and resources on user acquisition.  In a few weeks I’ll have to put at least as much effort into user engagement.

For some apps, that’s a natural side effect of the app, itself.  Games, for example, are already mostly engagement-driven apps.

But niche apps, utility apps, many business apps, and a lot of lifestyle apps will have to get better at engagement.  A lot better.  Essentially, if you’re not a social network or a game or a core app, you’ll have to figure this engagement thing out.

In the name of increased engagement, I’m even experimenting with bringing game mechanics to my utility apps.  That’s another story, but it certainly highlights my current focus on bringing users back into my app.

We’ll see how it goes.  And how much of a hit ad revenue takes once the notifications go dark.  In the meantime, I know where my focus will be…

Engagement.  Engagement.  And engagement.

The 800 lb. Gorilla Strikes Again…

If you’re an Android developer today, welcome to the Android version of the Google Slap.

Today Google kicked an awful lot of independent Android devs right where it counts.  In the wallet.

They revealed an updated Google Play Developer Program Policies document that bans notification ads, and requires virtual currencies to come under the purview of Google’s direct monetization policy.  Which means you have to use in-app purchases for virtual goods or currencies.

Much of the Android development community is up in arms over this.  And with good reason.  Google is killing off a massive (and profitable) ecosystem with this update.

I love this post by BmlProds in the Making Money With Android forum…

And that’s the definition of power…with a few written words in a damn text, companies will struggle, jobs will end, and thousands of developers will suffer.BmlProds

There are a lot of developers feeling that way right now.

Me?  I’m not sure what to think at the moment.

On the one hand, the content of the announcement isn’t a surprise, even if the timing is.  I’ve been in the Android arena long enough to know that they had to do this.  It’s the freaking wild west on Android.  Which is both good and bad news.  It fosters a lot of creativity… but often at the expense of user experience.

So, overall, I both applaud and agree with the announcement.  I’m just not sure what it means for the immediate future.

I’ll think about it over the weekend and see where I fall.

At a minimum it presents an awesome opportunity for some enterprising business.  Hopefully that’s me.

Regardless, don’t ever underestimate Google’s capacity to make hard decisions that upset a significant portion of their constituency with impunity.  They’ve shown a willingness to do it time, and again.

It’s good to be the king.

Android App Rank Boost Tip #3

In my last post I mentioned our app launch process.  And, while I won’t be giving away all the details (I’ve got to keep some competitive advantage, right?), I’m going to share some of the launch rank boost tips we’ve discovered.

It’s important to understand that your launch rank is a very important metric.

Done right, it can really set the stage for a phenomenal product rollout and significantly improved long-term app ranking.

Done wrong, you might be tricked into thinking the first 30 days of your app’s general availability aren’t all that different from the rest.

And that would be a mistake.

Here’s why…

You want (need?) all the help you can get with your app rank and distribution.  And there just aren’t all that many times when Google will come out and volunteer to help your cause.  But your app launch is one of those times.  And, frankly, you’d be a fool not to let them.

Google has a lot of “Top” lists in Google Play.  Top Free, Top Paid, Best Selling Games, etc.  If you’ve ever been on one of these lists, you know the ridiculous turbo-boost it can give your app.  Ridiculous.

And the value of getting on one of those lists is actually compounded by several factors.  For example, all those lists are syndicated on other sites all over the web.  You get massive link mojo coming back to your app’s listing.

And the higher you climb one of those lists, the higher you’ll climb all of the lists (I might come back and explain this more in a future post).  So getting on your first list is disproportionately powerful.

And you’ll know as soon as you show up on a top list.  Because your install chart will hockey-stick.  And it’s awesome.

So how do you get some of that goodness for your little app?  Well, the unfortunate answer is that mostly you don’t.  Most of those top lists are simply untouchable by the average developer.  It’s lightning in a bottle.  And it’s simple math.

This morning, according to AppBrain, there are 807,648 apps in the Google Play market.  Let’s say there are roughly 40 different top lists you can show up on in the market.  And let’s say the reasonable search depth of each list is 50 apps.  And, for the sake of simplicity, let’s say that every app listed is unique (which isn’t even close to true… which is a secret I’ll leave you to figure out for yourself).

The back of the napkin says there are, at most, 2,000 promoted app spots available in Play at any given time.  And, realistically, it ends up being nowhere near that high.  Which gives you less than 1/4 of 1 percent (0.25%) – at best – chance of being on a top list.

Depressing, right?

Here’s the good news…

There are 2 of those lists that are amazingly easy to get on.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that I could get an app on either of these two lists virtually at will.

One of the “easy” lists is the trending apps.  The bad news is, it’s also very fickle.  Easy to get on, easy to get off.  Knowing that could help shape your marketing efforts in the future (hint).  But it’s not what I’m going to talk about today.

Today I’m going to talk about the other easy list… Top New.  Specifically, Top New Free… since that’s where my apps typically go.

Here’s what you need to know, in a nutshell, about the Top New lists…

  • You get 30 days.  Period.  That means it’s critical to plan your launch and time it right.  Wasting days is a no, no.  Use your time wisely and efficiently.
  • You’ll almost certainly need to “seed” your traffic for 2 or 3 days in the beginning.  This can be paid traffic (not incentivized… here’s why) or “house” traffic coming from other apps.
  • If you do it right, once you’re on the list you’ll typically stay on the list – and move up the list – for the duration of your “new” status.  That’s why you can’t afford to waste time getting on the list.  If you can get on the list in 2 days, you’ll spend the next 28 moving up the list and driving more installs and visibility.
  • List leaders *always* graduate!  This is probably the most exciting part of this category.  You’re not going to knock Minecraft, or Plants vs. Zombies, or Where’s My Water off the top of the games lists.  But with the right app and the right strategy, you can dominate the Top New categories.
  • It doesn’t take a lot of installs to hit the list.  The fact is, most new apps get zero traction.  And few publishers know how to properly launch an app.  So a really low bar is set to get there.  Knowing just a little can gain you a lot.

Here are my ultra-simple tips for getting on – and climbing – the Top New Free category…

  1. Ditch the revenue.  Remember, you only have 30 days to climb this list and get all the side-benefits of being on it.  That’s rank, organic visibility, syndicated links to your listing, etc.  So, when you launch your app, don’t be greedyGet rid of all advertising and monetization.  Consider it an investment in your future app rank.  Your goal at launch is to drive your 30-day ranking.  That’s it.  Don’t be distracted by future goals (which would be revenue).  A solid launch will pay you back many times over.
  2. Eliminate the friction.  As I mentioned in my app rank boost tip #2, sticky installs are critically important at launch.  If you don’t need a EULA presentation (since you eliminated ads), remove it.  If you can avoid it (at least at launch), don’t require the user to create accounts, jump through hoops, or do anything not related to them engaging with your product.  These early users are disproportionately influential to your app’s rank and future.  Give them the red carpet treatment.
  3. Spread the word.  Make it stupid-easy for your users to share your app and brag about it.  For a quick fix, use the built-in Android sharing mechanisms.  Don’t interrupt any processes in your app, but be aggressive in promoting your sharing feature.  If you can, reward your users for sharing.  Praise them for sharing.  And, importantly, *ASK* them to share.  Try and do it at opportune times that are not disruptive, but are likely to elicit the response you want… i.e. after a game level completion, or after a successful task completion.
  4. Boost your rating.  Much like sharing, it’s critical that you boost your rating now.  It serves at least 2 purposes.  First, better ratings means better rankings.  And more ratings means better rankings.  So you already have 2 big wins.  However, this also sets you up nicely for the future.  At some point you’re going to turn all those ads back on.  Or introduce direct monetization.  And people are going to complain about it.  Your app launch is when you want to create an avalanche of 4- and 5-star ratings for your app.  This is another reason why you roll out the red carpet for launch users.  You want to bank as much positive feedback as possible.  I have apps that I launched like this that would be virtually impossible to knock below a 4.7 rating.  The crush of early 5-star ratings is that powerful.  Like sharing, you *must ASK for ratings*.  I’ll share my process in another post.  But it’s easy to figure out.  Also – just a tip – don’t ever ask for a review on the first run.  Users will rate you poorly even if they like the app.
  5. Respond.  Google Play lets you respond to reviews.  Do it.  For one, I’m convinced that it scores bonus points with Google (although I have no empirical evidence to back that up).  Two, it *significantly* boosts trust with current and future users.  And three, in keeping with the red carpet theme, it shows your users the love they crave (and deserve).  And they’ll respond.  I’ve turned around dozens of 1- and 2-star rating just by acknowledging a user’s frustration (I didn’t even fix it).  They want to be heard.  Hear them.  And whatever you do, don’t ever imply the user is stupid, or wrong, or unreasonable… even though users are often stupid, and wrong, and unreasonable.  Be accountable.  Be honest.  Be real.  You users will appreciate and respond positively.

That’s about it.  Of course, I’m assuming you have an app that provides some value and is of reasonable quality.  But follow those steps, seed your initial app distribution (usually you don’t need more than 3 days), and welcome to the Top New Free.

Oh… and one last note.  When you remove all your ads and monetization, and any other friction from your launch app, *DO NOT* remove the required permissions.  Adding permissions is death to your app’s momentum.  Avoid it at all costs.  Fortunately, Google has made this a little better with recent Play updates… but plan ahead for any future monetization points when you launch.

Android App Rank Boost Tip #2

Let me tell you a story of the launch of 2 apps.  And let’s see if you can guess the Google Play ranking outcome…

This is the true story of 2 functionally similar apps launched on the same day from the same developer account.  The initial test we were running was simple… if we promote the first app (let’s call it App A), but not the second app (App B), how much traffic can App B draft from the wider App A distribution.  We ended up learning a very different lesson, however.

I’ve learned a lot about Android app launches in the almost 2 years I’ve been doing apps.  So there’s a particular launch sequence we do to maximize our visibility and discoverability within Google Play.  The end result is that, typically, if we don’t hit page 1 of Google’s Top New Free list within a few days, we’ve done something wrong.

So that was one of our benchmarks for App A.  A page 1 Top New Free listing.  Because of the particular test we were running, we had no such expectations for App B.

So here’s how things went down…

Late in the day on May 24 we launched both App A and App B.  We also started an aggressive ad campaign for App A.  We ran ran the campaign for almost 3 days.  Here are the week 1 installs for App A:

  App A
  Daily Installs Cumulative Installs
Day 1 911 911
Day 2 28,045 28,956
Day 3 20,315 49,271
Day 4 10,446 59,717
Day 5 1103 60,820
Day 6 933 61,753
Day 7 944 62,697

A nice 7-day install total of 62,697, with almost all of them occurring during our 3-day push.

How did App B fair while drafting off the App A promotion?  Not bad.  Here are the organic install numbers for App B.  Granted, they’re nowhere near the App A installs… but a pretty good take, regardless.

  App B
  Daily Installs Cumulative Installs
Day 1 23 23
Day 2 326 349
Day 3 808 1,157
Day 4 1,609 2,766
Day 5 2,804 5,570
Day 6 2,530 8,100
Day 7 1,693 9,793

Not a bad haul.  9,793 installs with zero promotion and totally organic and/or incidental to our promoted App A.

Not surprisingly, App A hit the Top New Free category.  As a nice little bonus, so did App B.

We had apps on both page 1 and page 8 of Google’s Top New Free.  So far, not much of a surprise.

Are you ready for the plot twist in my little story?  Guess which app was on page 1, and which was on page 8…

Now, maybe you saw this coming because of how I set up the story.  But to say we were shocked when App B climbed to page 1 would be an understatement.  Especially when it so heavily outranked the far more “popular” App A.  We had to double-check to make sure we didn’t run paid traffic to the wrong app.

It made no sense at all that App A could have 6x the installs of App B and rank so poorly in comparison.  Especially with an identical launch date and identical market and demographics.  And it wasn’t just that it ranked lower than App B that was so surprising… it was the massive rank delta, given the actual behind-the-scenes install rates that we knew.

So what’s the rest of the story?  Pretty easy, actually.  And, knowing Google, pretty obvious in hindsight.

Google lives and dies by relevant search results.  It’s a religion to them.  Even on Android.

And App B appeared to Google to be far more relevant than App A.  Here’s why…

Not only did we run paid traffic to App A.  We were impatient and wanted maximum installs.  So we ran incentivized paid traffic to App A.

If you’ve never run incentivized traffic before, it’s a pretty simple concept.  Somebody, somewhere, is playing a game right now.  And they just ran out of tokens, or gold, or lives, or whatever.  Conveniently, that app publisher will give them more tokens, gold, lives, or whatever if the user installs App A (which would be my app).  It’s an incredibly effective way to get installs for an app (and for a publisher to monetize, which is another story for another day).


Those users didn’t really want my app.  They wanted tokens, gold, lives, and whatever.  So they install App A, get their reward, and uninstall App A.

The catch is, Google’s watching this whole behavioral cycle.  And here’s what they see…

User comes to Google Play and discovers App A.  Google assumes that the user believes App A is a good app and, therefore, installs App A.  User immediately uninstalls App A.  Rinse and repeat (60,000+ times, in our case).

And eventually Google thinks App A has terrible relevance, even though a ton of people are installing it.  In fact, Google seems to actively discourage its further discovery by placing it unnaturally low in the rankings.

Here’s the real picture of what happened to App A and App B…

  App A App B
  Daily Installs Daily Uninstalls Active Installs Daily Installs Daily Uninstalls Active Installs
Day 1 911 496 367 23 8 13
Day 2 28,045 19,198 8,436 326 137 174
Day 3 20,315 16,639 11,849 808 300 648
Day 4 10,446 9,284 12,955 1,609 542 1,622
Day 5 1,103 1,959 12,133 2,804 1,027 3,270
Day 6 933 1,272 11,817 2,530 1,121 4,573
Day 7 944 1,124 11,655 1,693 940 5,260

* I know the numbers don’t add up each day.  I’m not sure how they end up that way.  But these come straight from my developer portal.

So what follows is my interpretation of the results.  It should be noted that we actually confirmed our results with 2 more apps and experienced the same pattern.

Total installs (cumulative installs from the first charts) is a pure vanity metric.  Active installs is what matters to Google.  More specifically, your active install ratio.

Clearly Google values 9,793 installs that are 54% relevant (based on the overall active ratio) more than (much more, apparently) 62,697 installs that are only 19% relevant.

Here’s the good news… even as a smaller publisher you can beat bigger publishers who have broader distribution.  The key is relevance.  Not all installs are equal in Google’s eyes.  Fast uninstalls are not just discounted, but appear to be penalized.  Sticky installs = good user experience to Google = more relevance = higher ranking in Google Play.

You don’t need to blow the doors off your installs to rank well.  In my experience, it’s at least as important that your installs stick.  And I would lean towards more much more important.

Google only has so much data to determine whether you are giving your users a quality experience.  And your active install ratio is a huge leading indicator for Google, right or wrong.  Use it wisely.

Here are my takeaways from this…

  1. It’s disproportionately important to hyper-target your key demographic if you run paid campaigns at launch (when your app has no prior history with Google).
  2. Beware of incentivized traffic.  It can be great.  But it probably won’t be.  This has been proved time and again by our internal conversion rates, as well.
  3. Limit your app features to what you do well.  Especially at launch.  Just like hyper-targeting your advertising at launch, it’s disproportionately critical that you give your users exactly what they’re looking for and do what you say you can do.  You don’t want (and probably can’t afford) wishy-washy users, or users that came looking for a secondary feature of your app that isn’t the “wow” feature.  Simply put, when you launch, you need sticky users.
  4. Quality apps can beat big distribution.  Conversely, bad targeting or crappy apps can undermine big distribution and an otherwise well-planned launch.  Volume isn’t everything.

By the way, we ran that ad campaign for less than 3 days, in total.  Now, here we are 7 weeks later and App A still ranks 38 spots lower than App B for our primary keyword.  That’s a huge ranking price to pay for getting untargeted users at launch.  HUGE!

Android App Rank Boost Tip #1

Quick post today with a very simple tip to boost your Android app ranking in the Google Play store.  I have a handful of these tips up my sleeve, and it surprises me how few app publishers seem to know them.  I’ll post them here every so often and see what kind of tips & tricks I might get back in return (hint).

The first trick is very simple… always translate your market listing for international countries where you want to rank higher.

It can be as simple as using Google translate to do the hard work for you.  The interesting thing is, that’s basically what Google does automatically behind the scenes.  But if you do it for them, you’ll get a ranking boost in the target language/country.  Google treats your translation (even if it’s the exact same) as more relevant than their automatic translation.

I’ve seen our own apps jump from the 2nd page to the number 1 position virtually overnight just by using this simple tip.

And very few developers seem to do this in a sustained manner.  It surprises me that for all my competitors try and copy my features and code, they rarely do these little things that matter as much as any piece of code in actually helping your potential users find your app.

If you haven’t done it already, take a few minutes right now and translate your Google Play listing using Google Translate.  Make sure and record your app ranking in the target country before you add the translation and a few days later.  You should notice a nice little bump.

You’re welcome.

Source: One of my developers discovered this accidentally while messing around with one of his apps in the Google Play market.  Kudos to Chris for experimenting and sharing.