mobile_growth_featureThe path to building a breakout mobile product comes with an entirely new set of rules. As users increasingly shift their attention from websites to mobile apps, your strategy for acquiring and engaging customers needs to change. The Web’s traditional techniques to attract and keep users through SEO and social generally don’t work as well on mobile platforms. Organic and paid channels are evolving quickly, are highly fragmented, and are often transient.

Last week, we hosted an informal gathering of consumer mobile product and marketing leaders — to compare notes on the evolving art and science of acquiring and retaining mobile users. The participants came from larger established companies like Facebook and Zynga, and emerging startups like Flurry, PlayHaven, Hotel Tonight, and Poshmark. Here are some takeaways from that discussion — recommendations to apply to your efforts to build a sustainable mobile user base.

1. Fine-tune the first impression. Every new app is competing to become one of the few “go-to” apps that a user turns to each time he picks up a phone, or at least every time he picks up a phone for a specific to-do task, like buying a gift. To make the right first impression, be sure to do two things for new customers:

First, convey your value proposition right away, in the first few seconds that a user opens your app). And second, don’t drop your new user into an “empty room.” Whether it’s showing relevant sample content based on a user’s location, or walking the user through a quick tutorial, you need to be sure the user will know when and why he should open your app again.

You can progressively ask the user for more (to customize more, to share more details about himself, to provide more feedback, etc.) down the road as he continues to open and engage with your app. But a streamlined and compelling first experience is a must to convert an app install into an app user.

2. Enforce the 10 second rule. Speed is certainly a critical factor for Web experiences, so much so that Google’s index will downgrade slow-performing sites. But on mobile, with far less screen real estate and even shorter user attention spans, building an extremely simple and fast experience is even more critical. Whatever your core experience is — whether it’s buying a ticket or sharing a photo — target a maximum of 10 seconds to complete the transaction, by limiting choices and minimizing clicks. Keep your eye on this metric — it’s one you should continually optimize.

3. Jump through open distribution windows before they close. As part of their efforts to dominate mobile, the major platform players — Apple, Google, Facebook, and others — are constantly launching new growth mechanisms for app developers (like Open Graph). When a successful new large-scale distribution opportunity emerges, it explodes and rewards the early adopters with massive growth. These windows can shut quickly (or normalize) just as quickly as they open, but a good product and user proposition can retain much of this “free” growth. App developers need to stay alert for opportunities to aggressively, but not egregiously, jump through these open windows.

4. Design for curation, not creation. With a few exceptions — taking pictures being a notable one — most mobile users won’t be creating new content through your app. Instead, they’ll be consuming, and hopefully sharing, lots of content quickly. They may also complement their mobile consumption and sharing with desktop-based content creation, if that applies to your app. Getting your users to share their curated content is the single biggest lever to boost viral spread, so be sure that your sharing hooks are fast and lightweight. The Pinterest “repin,” the Fab “heart,” and the Tumblr “reblog” are all good examples of easy curation actions that make it fast for users to share content within the context of consuming through the app.

5. Encourage the sharing of memorable moments. For most mobile apps, sharing, often on external platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, will be your biggest growth driver. But don’t overdo it. Prompting a user to share (or worse, auto-sharing) unimportant details can erode the trust you’re trying to maintain with your customer, and with the people your customer is sharing with. Put users in the driver’s seat when it comes sharing. Give them clear controls to manage what they are sharing and to whom. And focus on memorable moments — what might a user tell friends over a round of drinks? Sometimes, less is more. Over time, users who place their trust in the app will share and promote more, and more often.

6. Make peer pressure work. Social reminders within the app can encourage lapsed users to re-engage with your app. Product features that highlight new friend activity to a lapsed user, or that give active users incentives to remind a lapsed friend to re-engage — such as suggesting they challenge their lapsed friend to a game, or offering a referral credit to re-activate a user — are proven and effective techniques.

7. Do notify, don’t annoy. Notifications are either the best tool you have to encourage users to re-open your app, or the quickest path to losing a customer; there’s a fine line between “useful” and “spammy.” Start by being conservative — offer fewer, more timely notifications, and group multiple frequent events into one notification. As your user demonstrates a deeper level of engagement, offer more notification options. But stay smart about what events trigger a notification. For example, Instagram notifies you when users Like or comment on your photos (highly relevant and effective). As notifications become a more hotly contested area for attention, make sure yours don’t get shut out by irritated users.

8. Work the Web-to-mobile conversion loop. Many successful apps use the Web as a key pillar of growth, by working the Web-to-mobile conversion loop. Instagram and foursquare grew largely as a result of users sharing Web links to photo and place pages, respectively, on Twitter and Facebook. When the recipient clicked on those links (on desktop or on mobile device), he could view the content without having to install the app, although the landing page naturally also offered an explanation of the app with an option to install it. Instead of dropping prospects straight into an app store, these products created a frictionless user acquisition path and reinforced the value of user sharing from the app. Simple, content-focused landing pages, as opposed to feature-rich ones, are typically the best ways to close the conversion loop. Instagram only recently — having already established itself as a wildly successful app — allowed for liking and commenting on the Web, relying on simplicity to fuel its early growth.

9. Think audience, not installs. The old model of buying installs — regardless of quality — and then relying on a high app store ranking to drive organic growth is more and more precarious in an increasingly crowded market. A “top-10” app in most categories requires a large initial install velocity and over 100,000 daily installs simply to retain its spot. According to Flurry’s analytics, industry-wide only 6 percent of mobile installs are active users 6 months later.

All installs are not created equal. Instead of just shoveling more marketing dollars into the top of the demand funnel, focus on the users that have already become converts. Get the deepest understanding you can about their lifetime value and the specific acquisition channels that are working best for you. With proper tracking in place, you’ll begin to identify certain channels that perform much better than others in delivering high quality users — and double down on those. Experiment with channels that match your audience.

For example, incentivized downloads have traditionally generated low-quality users, but new platforms are emerging that couple smarter, targeted rewards with in-app activity that are far more effective because the reward highly correlates with the audience (e.g., a travel app that gives a discount for sporting goods equipment because travelers are more likely to be active people).

10. Prioritize re-activation over acquisition. Unlike the Web, when you acquire an install you retain a persistent slot on the user’s phone. While you’d like to get your app onto the user’s home screen right away, the user may not need your app until much later. Mobile cohorts can be hard to predict for a variety of reasons — a user might reactivate months after he first installs, when there is a reason for him to rediscover the app. Or a friend might have referred him to the app for future use.

If you have an existing mobile installed base, focus your efforts on identifying and retargeting lapsed users with your marketing dollars, rather than simply adding more users to the top of the funnel. While most mobile ads aim to drive direct and immediate app installs, there’s also clear branding value from mobile ads that remind users of the core value proposition of an app.

For example, a user may download an app like Hotel Tonight long before they’re traveling or need to book a room. Getting your message to customers at that future moment when they’re actually planning travel is far more rewarding than trying to find a new — and as yet unqualified — individual. Quality brand marketing can turn an install into a customer.

[Image courtesy daryl_mitchell]