App Store Marketing in the Wake of COVID-19: Uncertainty is Our Nemesis, Data is our Savior

Photo by Martin Sanchez

“Hi Sam, COVID-19 is the perfect time to purchase our [enter any product/service in the world] because of…”

How many of you received emails like that? Probably all of you. Probably more times than you care to count. While not everyone reaching out has a good solution for your problems, if there’s one thing they can teach us is that it’s time to think carefully about an
actual COVID-19 strategy. And ‘business as usual’ won’t work either. 

Those who do continue as if business is usual are heading towards a known fate. It’s the same fate of those emails you get; delete or ignore. Neither is the result you want.

The pandemic is growing at exponential rates throughout the world and there are two strong beliefs across the market:

  1. The pandemic will pass. Humanity will survive. We’ll get healthy and we’ll hug our parents again. We’re just not sure when but we will. 
  2. There will be an economic toll and period of recession. The depth and severity though remains to be seen. 

Times are tough. This is real and we need to do the best we can with the cards we were dealt. 

In the realm of app store marketing, we’ve always been faced with uncertainty and a lack of clear data, none more so than now. At a time like this, when all of us — ourselves, our clients and our potential consumers — are going through massive changes, we need to act with empathy and sensitivity, to acknowledge these changes or risk becoming irrelevant or worse, letting ‘asshole’ be the first word that comes to mind when your brand is mentioned in a game of word association. (I hope I don’t sound like one!) To minimize uncertainty and to understand our consumers, we need to make the right decisions based on more than just our gut instinct. We need to be able to back up our decisions with data. And if it’s not being provided to us, we have to find it ourselves. 

So what can we do? We can look, learn, strategize, and do. 

The importance of having a strategic monitoring routine

Without carefully and continuously monitoring your business performance it’s impossible to understand which areas of your business are getting impacted and how. 

You’ll know that COVID-19 hit you by merely looking at your top-line executive dashboards. But your ability to make meaningful changes in a timely manner relies on your ability to understand the shifts in your breakdown metrics. The shifts here will show you where you need to focus. A regular and thorough monitoring routine will help you see changes before they affect your bottom line and allow you to learn and adapt to the changing times. 

For example, if your paid UA goes on a decline, you should be paying close attention to monitoring your organic downloads through the console data. Understanding this data is now more key than ever: If you begin to lean more on organic acquisition, you need to see the data eye to eye with Apple and Google.

The risk of decreasing UA spend

A significant observation is that certain app publishers have drastically cut their user acquisition spend in light of the growing uncertainty. 

This is understandable as the LTV of new users is even more uncertain than before. A recession could impact users’ disposable income which will affect their spending in the future. They might never bring in enough revenue to justify the ad spend and that just means a negative ROAS which no one wants. The funds could be better (and less riskily) spent in the future when things are more surefooted. It could also quite possibly just be the effects of companies feeling the pinch and cutting costs wherever is easiest. Marketing departments, as we know full well, are often the first victims of those pincers. 

But the damage of decreasing user acquisition spend isn’t limited just to the drop in paid installs. The interwoven relationship between paid and organic in the app stores means that decreasing UA spend could result in a knock-on effect whereby organic installs decrease beyond what would be initially estimated. This will further manifest into a decrease in ranking both on the charts and for keywords as well as decreased brand awareness translated as a decrease in branded search volumes.

It’s time to take a cold, hard look at your app’s main value proposition

The amount of businesses that have seen their best converting messaging suddenly reverse course is unprecedented. Certain industries, such as travel and hospitality, have had to look at not just their messaging but at their business itself to see how they can pivot to changing times. 

Credit: Mobiledevmemo

Some of these businesses can’t pivot. Airbnb’s main value proposition is connecting travelers to local hosts that want to rent their house. They don’t own the assets so they can’t repurpose them and travel has completely stopped. They responded by basically stopping all growth and marketing efforts worldwide with an appeal to hosts to open for people who need space to quarantine or be near hospitals

Other businesses, such as airlines, can. American Airlines lost passengers and replaced them with cargo, the first cargo-only flights since 1984. 

The reason for these changes is clear. What the market perceives as valuable has changed dramatically and businesses can either adapt their offering to make it relevant and valuable or at least highlight the parts of the current offering that makes it valuable now. 

Mobile games for instance, can develop (or if they’ve already developed it, highlight) social gaming experiences as a cure for social distancing. Before COVID-19, it could be that the great storyline of the game drove users to install but now it could just be the fact they are looking to consume entertainment with their friends and families. 

Apps in the food vertical such as DoorDash, can quickly adapt their messaging to highlight the most valuable part about their app; the fact that you can still find open restaurants to order food from. Taking it one step further, they also highlight a value proposition that was meaningless before: contactless delivery. They understood the market’s changing needs and adapted quickly.

DoorDash app screenshots (April 2020)

If a business can’t find a value proposition that the current market perceives as valuable, any and all growth efforts will be futile. As marketers, it’s always been our role to research, collect and analyze market feedback to understand what users desire the most. It’s time to go back to our core competency and do our jobs, and do our jobs right, by finding an angle that relates to market needs. 

Using data to understand changing users’ preferences 

See Sam, now is the perfect time to buy a StoreMaven ASO product! 

Just kidding 🙂

App Store Optimization isn’t your only savior, the data you collect is. Understanding what the strongest positioning is for your app at this time is vital. Research and data collection are the key to discovering that, however you choose to conduct it.

 That being said, at times of crisis one of the most common mistakes is making decisions too early and without enough data to support them. That could lead to disastrous results (like being perceived as irrelevant or even an asshole brand (again, I hope I’m not an asshole for saying ‘asshole brands’). 

So what mobile marketers can do at a time like this?

1. Look deeply at the market, user preferences have changed and so have competitors

Before you start testing new ideas for positioning your app or game differently, you need to perform some in-depth research. How have the lives of your audience changed? Are they still active in your market or did they abandon it altogether? How are your competitors responding? Have any of them pivoted or changed their messaging strategy? 

2. Come up with ideas for better positioning of your app and its value

Your research should result in several great ideas for adjusting your product and positioning to this new market. Let’s take for example Grab. Grab is an everything-app, providing services from money transfers to food delivery to ridesharing. They also provide package and document delivery. You might just find an entirely new audience in the process.

Grab app screenshots (April 2020)

One idea Grab could test is to position their app as a gateway to the external world in times of lockdown, providing a safe way to deliver packages and important documents without physical contact and consider de-prioritizing their other services (like ride-hailing).

3. Gather data to gauge market response to the new value propositions

After you’ve lined up your new value propositions, it’s time to test them across the user journey, from your ad creatives to your app store page. Running experiments — such as app store page tests — around these messages could quickly produce insights into the conversion ability of the different messages at this time allows you to take action confidently in the real stores. 

This too shall pass

COVID-19 will pass and so will the recession it might bring with it. History has shown us that. In order to survive this period, and even thrive in it, mobile businesses, like all other businesses, need to think about their market — what has changed about it? — and see how to adapt their value propositions (and even the product itself) accordingly and test them in the real world.

After this ends, there will be winners and losers. There will be those that will be quickly perceived by the market as irrelevant, or worse, by stopping growth and marketing investment. They’ll find themselves without the necessary systems in place to generate growth after things go back to normal. On the other hand, agile mobile companies will thrive.

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