Many people consider user acquisition (UA) and app store optimization (ASO) as two separate strategies, disciplines, and teams. And most of the time this is also apparent in the way companies are structured—they’re distinct teams with independent goals.
What if we told you this is incorrect?
What we’ve found after working with leading developers to improve their app store visibility and conversion is that those who achieve sustainable success understand the intertwined relationship between paid UA and ASO. These two areas share the same goal of driving higher conversion of quality users while lowering the cost per install (CPI), so why should they be viewed and measured independently?
In order to maximize the impact of your mobile marketing efforts and meet your established KPIs, it’s imperative that you abandon this common assumption and leverage both of them together to your advantage. By digging into the nuanced relationship between UA and ASO, we’ll show you how you can use both to drive long-term, organic growth.
User Acquisition (UA) has a Strong Correlation with Organic Performance
The first step to effectively leverage UA with ASO is to understand how paid UA can impact your overall organic performance. Organic traffic on your app store page includes audiences coming from keyword search and those coming from browse (e.g., browsing top charts, categories, navigation tabs, etc.). With around 60% of your installs coming from organics, it’s critical to see how this valuable source of traffic can be affected by your UA strategy.
Based on our research, we’ve found that the correlation between UA spend and organic install volume, on a scale of -1 to 1, is around 0.69. That’s a strong positive correlation. In other words, when you increase UA spend and drive more paid installs, you also see an increase in organic installs.
This is because:
- Your overall install volume dictates your app or game’s category ranking, which impacts browse performance. The higher you rank, the more installs you tend to receive from browse.
- Paid UA also has a certain correlation with search performance (but less strong and defined). We often see that you’ll rank higher for certain keywords, giving your app or game more of an opportunity to be discovered through search.
Please note that this correlation can fluctuate based on factors such as different qualities of traffic sources, apps versus games, and the relative ranking of each on the top charts.
So, how can you tip this correlation in your favor?
Let’s look at point A a bit deeper. The overall volume of daily installs you drive from paid UA traffic sources (i.e, referral installs) determines your app’s placement in the category charts. In turn, your ranking impacts the user’s ability to browse the app stores and find your app, which is a crucial step in gaining additional organic app installs. However, the number of installs needed to reach a certain ranking will vary by app/game and by situation. It depends on industry conditions, relative competition, and which referral sources (e.g., Facebook, Google, network sources, etc.) you use.
For every “cost” (i.e., referral installs), there’s a gain (i.e., browse installs), so the key is to find the “sweet spot” of how much to spend on UA to improve both paid/organic performance and ranking without overspending and failing to move the needle. This requires you to have a deep understanding of your competitive landscape (e.g., where direct competitors rank compared to you, etc.) and to actively monitor the factors that are involved:
- Your UA spend
- Your referral traffic blend
- Your organic category ranking
- Overall, referral, browse and search installs
The optimization of your creatives, a significant aspect of ASO, also plays a crucial role here because it enables you to drive more installs per impression and get more value out of what you’re spending.
One caveat is that the amount of organic installs you receive from ranking higher doesn’t increase in a linear way. You can’t assume that the more you spend, the more you’ll move up the rankings and see the same percentage increase of installs with each rank you climb. In fact, we’ve found that the higher you rank, the more difficult it is to climb higher up the charts. This is because the relationship between rank and installs is exponential, and you have to constantly analyze the impact of your combined UA and ASO efforts to strike the right balance between UA spend and organic uplift.
Another result of this correlation is that your effective cost per install (CPI) decreases. For example, if you spend $1000 on Facebook ads and receive 100 installs, you’d assume your CPI is $10. However, given the correlation between UA and organic growth, your effective CPI should be calculated as total spend divided by the total installs (paid and organic combined). Your real, effective CPI is actually less since you’re also driving additional organic installs on top of your paid installs. Similar to rankings, though, the relationship between increased UA spend and organic installs is not linear.
Now that you understand the relationship between UA and organic, specifically browse, performance, let’s go back to Point B and dig deeper into the impact of paid UA on search traffic.
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Apple Search Ads and Their Relationship with App Keyword Optimization
In 2016, Apple introduced Apple Search Ads that enabled developers to improve discoverability by targeting potential users using factors like keywords, location, gender, and whether or not they’ve installed the app or game before. Using this tool is an effective way to increase your install volume and control your reach for specific keywords.
But, it can also be a double-edged sword. On one hand, you’re driving more installs from a specific keyword. On the other hand, you run the risk of cannibalizing your organic performance by getting paid installs from users who had high intent to search and install your app or game on their own.
Cannibalization is a significant risk for keywords you’re already organically ranked high for or for branded keywords (e.g., users searching for your specific brand or app/game title). Our rule of thumb is that when you organically appear in the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd search result for certain keywords, you’re in danger of cannibalizing yourself if you buy traffic for those words.
If used wisely, though, you can increase your organic ranking and performance. To do this, we recommend buying traffic for words you’re either ranked low for or for more generic keywords. One of the leading mobile game publishers leveraged Search Ads strategically and saw consistent organic uplift each month after doing so. Compared to their baseline, they almost doubled their average organic daily installs by finding the right mix of keywords to buy. Given these tangible benefits, you should always be optimizing your Search Ads strategy against your organic performance.
But, how do you do this?
To start, you should know that the performance of both search traffic segments (i.e., paid and organic) is impacted by the same variables—keyword ranking, keyword search volume, seasonality, and the creatives that show up in Search Results. That said, in order for search ads to positively impact organic search, a strategy needs to be implemented with the objective to avoid cannibalization and avoid static growth.
Unfortunately, App Store Connect doesn’t make it simple to do this since your app analytics and install data are not segmented by keywords. They do provide you with install data by traffic source (i.e., search, browse, and referral traffic), so you can use this in combination with keyword ranking data from third-party tools to inform your Search Ad spend. For example, as you begin to rank higher for certain keywords, you should shift your budget to keywords you’re dropping in ranking for, and vice versa. The key is to consistently maintain this harmony.
The most effective way to achieve this harmony is to experiment. When you make changes to your Search Ads campaigns, look at how your organic installs are impacted. Let’s say you increased your spend for the keyword “flights”. You should expect a consistently correlated relationship between paid and organic installs, which would mean your Search Ad campaign had a positive impact on organic performance. However, if you begin to see an inversely correlated relationship (i.e., paid installs increased while organic installs sharply decreased), then you can assume this keyword is causing cannibalization.
While there’s no exact formula for success, since it varies by app/game, category, timeframe, etc., it’s still possible to find what will move the needle for your app or game. You should continuously update and optimize your Search Ad strategy for certain keywords based on how your organic and referral sources are impacted.
How UA and ASO Create a Holistic User Funnel
The third aspect of the relationship between UA and ASO relates to the benefit of creating cohesiveness throughout the user funnel, which will have a lasting impact on your overall mobile marketing efforts. Your user acquisition strategy begins when you display a specific value proposition in a campaign with the goal of driving users to click your ad.
Optimization is essential along the rest of this user funnel. And so is cohesion.
In other words, the value proposition you highlight in the ad should also be creatively displayed in your product page assets, and we recommend this for good reason. A singular message that aligned throughout the user funnel will strengthen and re-enforce the messaging for increased internalization. A global game publisher saw a significant conversion rate (CVR) uplift when using an ad that correlated with the messaging on their product page. In fact, the variation that matched the ad received 17% higher CVR than the other variations.
Here’s why this works…
Your UA campaigns drive a significant amount of traffic to your app store page, and a proper ASO strategy ensures that the assets visitors see there are designed and optimized to drive more installs per impressions. With the right testing platform, you can also get critical app store engagement data to better understand your visitors, what their interests and preferences are, their level of engagement, how they interact with different assets on your page, what messages are most effective in convincing them to install (and which aren’t), and more. This is the data required to optimize your mobile marketing efforts and to more effectively drive conversion from ad to app/game install.
However, if you only update your UA campaign messaging based on the above data and fail to optimize your product page to reflect what you show in your ads, your app store visitors are likely to drop. This is because you convinced them to click the ad with the promise of a specific value proposition, but their expectations weren’t met when they landed on your product page. Inconsistent messaging across the journey breeds confusion and leads to lower CVR. This is a prime example of why UA and ASO campaign strategies must go hand-in-hand and effectively complement each other.
As you use these behavior insights to get a deeper understanding of your product page visitors, you can better inform your app store creative design and your UA targeting to ensure you’re driving and converting high-value traffic on your page. This creates an infinite optimization loop in which quality traffic is sent to optimized product pages, and you continuously learn how to improve your conversion.
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The Long-Term Benefits of Leveraging UA with ASO
Based on over four years of testing and analyses of over 500 million app store user sessions, we’ve discovered how mobile publishers achieve consistent success and continue to rank high in the app stores. A major driver of this success is that they use UA as one of the most important levers for organic growth to supplement their ASO efforts.
As we’ve shown, it’s clear that UA and ASO play critical and complementary roles in the user funnel. Harnessing both of them together rather than treating them as independent disciplines can help you establish a competitive advantage in the highly saturated mobile app marketplace and drive improvement across both paid and organic sources. When UA and ASO strategies work together, the overall effect is greater than the sum of its parts.