50 Mobile App Development Tips For Acquisition, Retention, and Everything in Between
It’s more important than ever to stand out from the crowd. To be talked about. To be remarkable. The question is: How do you develop a mobile app that is so valuable that people use it every month? Every week? Or better yet – every day? Over the last few years, I’ve built 13 mobile apps—4 of which have hit the Top 100 in the Entertainment, Lifestyle and Business categories. Along the way, I’ve taken copious notes on what makes great apps stand out from the crowd and secure those coveted top spots. This is my list of 50 tips to help developers, mobile product managers and marketers develop mobile apps that have potential to launch into the stratosphere.
06/22/2021 Editors note: Updated links. To see our latest posts go here.
As of July 2015, there are over 1.5 million apps in the App Store and 1.6 million apps in the Google Play Store.
It’s more important than ever to stand out from the crowd. To be talked about. To be remarkable. The question is: How do you develop a mobile app that is so valuable that people use it every month? Every week? Or better yet – every day?
Over the last few years, I’ve built 13 mobile apps — 4 of which have hit the Top 100 in the Entertainment, Lifestyle and Business categories — and have worked with leading apps in industries such as technology, transportation, travel, e-commerce, retail and more.
Along the way, I’ve taken copious notes on what makes great apps stand out from the crowd and secure those coveted top spots. I consolidated this into a list of tips to help developers, mobile product managers and marketers develop mobile apps that can launch into the stratosphere.
The tips are organized by phases of app development. You can click on a link to jump to a specific section:
App Onboarding Flow & A/B Test Ideas
User Acquisition Strategy
Tips on acquiring new app users.
1. Build a product that solves a problem: Really amazing apps solve a glaring problem. Do you hate standing on the corner on a freezing cold night in an attempt to try to wave down a taxi cab? Use Lyft. Do you want to learn a language but don’t want to commute 45 minutes to sit in a classroom? Use Duolingo. Solve a problem. And do it in an awesome way. This will drive word of mouth referrals. Speaking of referrals…
2. Build a referral program: Incentivize your early users to refer your app to their friends. Uber did a fantastic job by offering ride credits for people that referred the app to others:
3. Build a wait list: People want what they can’t have. A wait list helps you capture demand and build a database of emails early. When you announce your app is generally available, you’ll have a long list (hopefully thousands) of people ready to download it. You can easily build a website landing page through platforms like Wix.com, Unbounce, or Squarespace and use this to capture email.
Robinhood, a zero-commission stock trading app is a great example of using a waitlist effectively. Nate Rodland, COO of Robinhood, said referrals alone accounted for over half of their million-person waitlist!
“We built a waitlist in order to gather a list of potential customers and beta users ahead of our app launch. Combining our waitlist with a referral system was crucial – we took the people who were most excited about Robinhood, and gave them an easy way to spread that excitement to their friends.”
-Nate Rodland, COO, Robinhood
4. Leverage a freemium model: Make your app available for free with a freemium model. It’s possible you’ll get more downloads in a free version of your app. You could then offer the option of purchasing virtual currency for premium features.
Coffee Meets Bagel, one of the top dating apps, does this well. They allow people to use core features (viewing the profile of one potential match per day) for free. But, they also offer premium features (like viewing mutual friends and choosing a match from a pool of 10 people) that users can purchase.
5. Make your paid app free for a limited time: Not a fan of the freemium model? No worries! Make your paid app free for a short promotional period and promote it to various publication outlets like LifeHacker, Gizmodo, Forbes Tech and The Guardian. You can tweet the promotion to their twitter accounts or submit it directly to them on their website.
6. Write and promote content about the problem your app solves: Produce content that adds value to your customers: whether it’s blog posts, eBooks, videos or webinars. Target topics and keywords that are related to your app so you reach the right audience. If your content helps people overcome challenges, you’ll be perceived as a thought leader and expert in the space. Promote the content on your blog and social media profiles to drive network effects. This video for a new app, Knock Knock is a great example of framing the problem the app solves.
7. Answer questions on Quora: Target questions that center around pain points your app solves to help build awareness around your target audience. If you offer a really valuable answer, the Quora team could recommend your article to the major media outlets. I wrote a post on Quora and it ended up being picked up by Forbes, Inc., The Huffington Post and Business Insider. Cumulatively it generated over 7,700 shares, 33,000 views and cost absolutely nothing. Zilch. #freemarketing
8. Attend and host local marketing events: In our world that’s so driven by swipes and texts, remember how impactful in-person events can be in building buzz. Hosting an event could help you build a community of champions that could become the foundation of your app’s success. Use Meetup to find an event or promote your own.
9. Consider the paid acquisition route: If your organic marketing and in-app growth levers aren’t growing your users effectively, explore the paid acquisition route on channels like Twitter, Facebook, Apple iAd, Chartboost, Google Admob and more.
Keep three questions in mind when using paid acquisition:
- Is the cost of acquiring this user justified by the lifetime value of that user?
- Have you stack ranked your acquisition channels based on ROI?
- Do you know which paid acquisition route is actually leading to the app install?
Use mobile attribution tools like Apsalar, Adjust, and Branch to find those answers.
10. Reach out to the press: Press is a great way to drive short term awareness and will often lead to a spike to downloads. Reach out to publications like TechCrunch, VentureBeat, CNN, Forbes, Fast Company, Entrepreneur, Business Insider, Inc. Don’t worry, you don’t need to be in PR to pitch the press. Look up editors from each of those publications on LinkedIn, craft a short message on how your app is a game changer (use app metrics where you can), give them access to your app as well as screenshots so that they can get a sense for how it works.
11. Create strategic partnerships: Look for mutually beneficial partnerships that can expand your app’s reach to more people. For example, if you’re developing a workout app for biking enthusiasts, you could reach out to local bike shops (or even a national brand) and offer an exclusive special premium feature in the app for their shoppers in exchange for their help with promotion.
12. Cross promote in your other apps: If you have more than one app in the store and they’re in similar categories (for example, gaming), you can add in a call to action to promote your other apps.
13. Experiment with how you ask users for reviews: Ratings and reviews are one of the most visible components of an app’s listing and do influence a person to tap through or download. Reviews are social proof. If all these other people like it, then it’s probably good. So what can you do to get more app reviews? Experiment with how you ask users for reviews: when you ask, how you ask and who you ask. Here’s a blog post with examples and test ideas.
These are tips for App Store Optimization (ASO) and ways you can make your app more discoverable in the app store.
14. Understand how powerful ASO can be: According to Sensor Tower, over 60% of apps are discovered through App Store search. Since there are over 2 million apps in the major app stores out there today, it’s great that there are many App Store Optimization strategies you can implement to get you your fair share of visibility.
App Store Optimization is the process of improving the visibility of an app in the app store. The idea is to drive more people to your app page so that they download your app.
Here are great tips from the app marketing intelligence tool called Sensor Tower to get you started with ASO. Their tools can also help you with each of the tips below!
15. Pick relevant keywords: The first thing to consider when optimizing your app’s visibility is keywords. You should choose keywords (words or phrases) that are relevant and truly representative of your app. For example, if your app provides dog walkers locally on demand, the keyword “dog” by itself may not be that valuable because it doesn’t indicate download intent for that specific use case. The phrase “dog walker” however, could be a much better indicator of intent. After all, when someone finds your app, you want a conversion to occur (meaning you want them to download it). If a person comes across your app listing by unrelated search terms/phrases, they probably aren’t your target audience, and probably won’t download your app.
16. Consider keyword competitiveness and traffic: Consider how competitive those keywords are. Look at the total number of keywords you’re competing with. If there’s too much competition, aim for another keyword. Here’s a glimpse of LinkedIn’s app keyword traffic from Sensor Tower. At Sensortower.com you can enter any app and see which keywords are driving traffic to their app.
17. Consider keyword placement: As Sensor Tower notes, “there is a clear correlation between having a keyword in the name of an app and ranking for that keyword. 74.3% of apps that rank #1 for high traffic keywords have the target keyword in their name.” But do be careful because you app may be rejected for spamming if you use the keyword too many times.
18. Determine keyword weight: The keywords included in app titles (for both iOS and Android apps) are by far the most heavily weighted in the algorithm. If you want to improve your rank for a specific keyword, putting it in the title is your best bet. For Android apps, keyword density matters not just in the description, but in the title as well.
Example: I create an app called “SF Tunes – Local Radio Music.” I am guaranteed to rank for all five of these words. However, the more space a keyword takes up in the title, the higher that rank will be. Let’s say I want to increase my rank for “music” – I could consider removing “local” or “radio.”
19. Target multi-word or long tail keywords: “A common mistake that app publishers make is to only target single-word keywords,” Sensor Tower writes. “Then they wonder why the Difficulty Scores are so high and their app’s rankings are so low. Multi-word keywords are usually searched for less often, but will also be less competitive.”
You’ll automatically rank for combinations of your single-word keywords but target phrases, or “long tail keywords” because they can be much easier to rank for. Targeting the long tail is a great place for new developers/new apps to start.
20. Have an eye-catching Icon: The icon makes a huge first impression. Have you tested different variations? You can do this by testing out various designs on mobile advertising networks, like Admob, Google Adwords, and Facebook, and then measuring how potential app users react to different versions there before rolling it out in the app store. Another quick tip: you generally want to avoid putting the name of your app into your icon. More tips to increase downloads apart from keyword strategy.
Studies show that if your users have a bad first experience, 65% of them will delete your app. Experiences are made up of more than slick UX design, intuitive usability and modular code. The infrastructure and performance are key players in your app’s success. Here are tips to make sure your app runs fast and smooth.
21. Monitor your app consistently: Factors outside your control affect your app. Cloud services, device upgrades, or even other apps can influence how your app behaves. And an update to the OS can dramatically increase crash rates in your app. Monitoring your app’s performance through all variables will keep you from having to be reactive when issues occur. A performance management solution like Crittercism or Crashlytics gives you visibility into your apps while they’re in production, so developers can be proactive and resolve issues as soon as they’re detected. But it also continues to give you insight on all the above mentioned (latency, crashes, transactions) and more, while your app is in the wild. In addition to those tools, you can also leverage phased roll outs with Optimizely to mitigate risk.
22. Choose a proven cloud provider: Crashes aren’t everything. Network performance can also affect the user experience. Everyone hates the spinning wheel that indicates network slowness, but it’s hard to simulate these conditions during dev and test. According to Crittercism’s data, 68% of apps use 5 or more cloud services – and 17% use 20 or more! If even one cloud service is slow, if impacts your app. So choose a solid cloud provider like Parse!
23. Pay attention to performance in the real world: Your work isn’t finished when you launch – in fact, it’s just beginning. It’s not enough to monitor your latest app version. Retail apps, for example, often have high conversion rates on the oldest versions of their apps, so you need to make sure that those users are supported well. Nothing is like releasing your app into the wild where hundreds of millions of variables can impact its performance.
Analyze User Behavior
Do you have deep insights into your users? To really drive user growth, improve retention and increase monetization, you’ve got to have deep insights into user behavior. Analytics will help you achieve that.
24. Understand the 3 levels of complexity for app analytics: There are 3 levels of metrics that app makers should look at. When you’re getting started, you should make sure you’re tracking level 1 goals but as your organization grows and gets more sophisticated, you should look to expand to more complex levels of analysis to form a holistic view of your app’s performance.
Level 1: Counters (DAUs, MAUs, Revenue)
Level 2: Where are my problems (Funnels, Retention, Segmentation, Events)
Level 3: What drives growth: Behavior-Based Cohorting / Data Science
25. Measure your Level 1 analytics: Metrics typically measured here include MAUs (Monthly Active Uniques), DAUs (Daily Active Uniques), page views and revenue. These metrics are absolutely important and give you a baseline of your app’s success with regards to engagement, retention, and monetization.
These metrics are a great start, but how engaged are your users?
26. Measure your Level 2 analytics: The metrics you’ll measure in Level 2 help you track events to give you a high-level picture of user behavior (ex. how many actions users take per day, what actions are most common, what actions are users not taking). This allows you to locate any problems occurring in the app. From there, you can create different segments of users based on behavior (i.e. active users vs. inactive) or demographic (i.e location, age). and glean a deeper understanding of how different types of users interact with your app.
27. Measure your Level 3 analytics: Level 3 is where you uncover your secret sauce on what drives growth. Which behaviors correlate to lifetime value?
As an example, Facebook was at 50 million users at one point and was trying to figure out what user behaviors led to long term retention.
Was it the percentage of profile completed? Was it the number of photos added? Was it the number of walls visited? Was it the number of posts about bacon?
The answer: It was none of these.
Facebook famously discovered that adding 7 friends in 10 days was the leading indicator for an engaged user.
“Get any individual to seven friends in 10 days. That was it. You want a keystone? That was our keystone. There’s not much more complexity than that,” Chamath Palihapitiya said in a 2013 talk on how they put Facebook on a path to 1 billion users. “There’s an entire team now, hundreds of people that have helped ramp this product to a billion users based on that one simple rule.”
Arriving at this insight was not just a matter of checking their analytics dashboard. The Data Science and Growth teams at Facebook crunched the numbers on countless user actions. They ran analyses to determine which actions and attributes were most highly correlated with engagement while controlling for lurking variables and outliers. It was a big undertaking and a fantastic example of how applying predictive analytics to your data will help you uncover potential improvement areas that could dramatically affect the trajectory of your app.
Optimize App UI Design
These are tips focused on how to understand qualitative feedback about how people are interacting with your app to improve your mobile UX.
28. Leverage heatmaps to understand user focus areas: How are users physically interacting with your app? Where do they tap, swipe or pinch? Touch heatmaps are a key UX analytics feature. Touch heatmaps aggregate all users’ gestures (taps, swipes, pinches) and help you see where on the screen they are (or are not) focused. These are some questions heatmaps help you answer a very important question: Are users paying attention to the things you want them to pay attention to?
29. Watch recorded user sessions: You can use tools like Appsee to watch recordings of real people using your app to understand exactly how people interact with it. For example, the user recordings below show a user who cannot create an account with Facebook due to a technical problem, as indicated by the popup message. Gaining this insight, you will know why users are dropping off the registration screen.
30. Deconstruct your funnel to start building an A/B testing plan: A/B testing enables mobile app makers to improve their key metrics and KPIs by trying out new designs for everything from signup flows, gating features, messaging, review process, in app referrals, onboarding flow, guiders within the app, discovery of features, checkout funnel and CTAs.
Mobile developers and mobile product managers are increasingly adding mobile A/B testing SDK (like Optimizely’s SDK) to make their apps more engaging.
To get started with testing, here’s a mobile A/B testing tip from expert Kyle Humphries, Senior Product Manager at Everyday Health (What to Expect) recommends you “Map out all of the micro-interactions a user must complete as part of a funnel or flow in your app. Then use use that to plan out which elements to test first.”
31. A/B test all app updates to reduce risk. Any mobile app developer will tell you that releasing new features in an app or changing aspects of the underlying architecture can be risky business. This means the stakes for app updates are high and PMs should do everything possible to ensure they are high quality. If something isn’t caught, an app update could include bugs or interaction issues that damage the user experience or unexpectedly tank business metrics.
“A/B testing allows us to try things out in our app without hurting our conversion funnel,” says Raman Bhatia, Director of Mobile at Fareportal (CheapOair). “Nothing goes out without an A/B test.”
App Onboarding Flow & Mobile A/B Test Ideas
Onboarding is the process of turning a first-time user into a repeat customer during their first interaction with your app. Here are tips to improve your mobile app onboarding hook, educate, so new users feel well-equipped and excited to continue using your app.
32. In onboarding, test different login/signup options: How do people want to login or signup to use your app? Is signup necessary at all? Maybe your users prefer to login by email and password. Test prioritizing different options like this app did.
Here are more test ideas for testing social sign-on.
33. In onboarding, test previewing the in-app experience: OpenTable and Paperless Post show users previews of the in-app experience, mentioning specific features and their value. This is a smart hypothesis to test to measure whether it drives more engagement or activation. Test which screenshots you use and which features you spotlight.
34. Test the order of your user onboarding tour: Experiment with the order of your onboarding tutorial, like French Girls did. Which steps should come first? How many steps are included?
More test ideas for your user onboarding tour.
35. Test the CTA button: What’s the right size, color, location for your CTA? If it was larger, would that make people notice it more and ultimately increase conversions? Here are more test ideas for your app CTA buttons.
36. Test changing messaging and help text: I’ve spoken with one company that changed the messaging in their app and dramatically changed the game. They went from “We will not spam you” to “We respect your privacy” and saw a 50% increase in conversions! Here’s a test idea we suggested for Pandora: show different upgrade CTA copy to drive more premium subscriptions.
37. Test different navigation layouts: Try testing different navigation layouts. Let’s explore WhatsApp together for testing ideas.
WhatsApp could test moving the navigation bar to the top. They could also test removing the bottom navigation bar completely and having it be a dropdown navigation menu from the upper left hand corner.
38. Test removing distractions from your CTA: If you have other elements on the screen near the CTA, try removing them so that it makes things simpler for the user experience.
39. Test progress bars in your onboarding tour: Good mobile onboarding flows should quickly teach people how to use the app. Progress bars can be a valuable way to encourage people to finish a tour because they give people a sense of achievement as they progress in usage of the app! Duolingo does an amazing job of this. Every time you answer a question correctly, an indicator marks your progress.
41. Test discovery functionality: Test how users discover new products or experiences within your app. For example, Instagram lets users tap a banner to discover new people. What if they simply started inserting suggested Instagrammers for you to follow in your feed? Would that boost user discovery?
42. Test targeting images to different audiences: First, identify your primary audience with tools like AppAnnie. Let’s say you find out that your audience is primarily made up of the 21-30-year-olds. An an example, the 7-minute workout app could test out using images of people in that age group to see if that might drive more engagement.
43. Test discounts: If you rolled out a special promotion, would that drive additional conversions and would the revenue from those additional conversions cover the cost of the discounts? Here’s an example below where the retail app Oasis could test a discount promotion on the home screen.
44. Test leveraging video in the app: Most apps today leverage images for their onboarding flow or guided tour to explain how to use the product while you in the app. What if you rolled out video? Would that increase activation?
Find many more test ideas for mobile on our blog.
These are tips for retaining users and preventing churn.
45. Create a habit forming experience in the first 3-7 days: A great first-time user experience is key to retention. “…the average app mostly loses its entire userbase within a few months, which is why of the >1.5 million apps in the Google Play store, only a few thousand sustain meaningful traffic,” Andrew Chen writes on his industry blog. He goes on to say that he sees most leverage in improving these retention curves “in how the product is described, the onboarding flow, and what triggers you set up to drive ongoing retention.”
Whether it’s a push notification at the same time everyday or every week, think about habits you can try to develop in your app users to bring them back.
46. Include social elements to create network effects: MapMyRun created a feed where you could see your friends’ recent runs and encourage them with likes and comments. It helps to make running more fun, engaging and competitive!
47. Leverage push notifications thoughtfully: Kahuna’s data shows that by using push notifications, companies can expect a 45% retention rate for 30 days; a 125% increase over consumers who either did not receive or who did not opt-in for notifications. One great way to create urgency with push is to create a time bound or time-sensitive campaign. Here’s an example below:
48. Consider timing, especially for global audiences: Sending a push notification to all your users at a specific time may not work with a global audience. For example, a push notification in the morning for a California user at 9 AM would send that same notification to someone in Spain at 6 PM. Be thoughtful in terms of segmenting your users by time zones. It can make a huge difference!
49. A/B test opt-in messages for notifications: Kahuna recently did a study with some amazing results: The average short- and long-term retention rates for users who have opted in to push notifications are more than twice as high than rates for users who have not opted in. For opted-in users, the average 30-day audience retention rate is increased by 125%, the average 60-day retention rate is increased by 150%, and the average 90-day retention rate is increased by 180%. Make sure you’ve clearly highlighted the value to the user of why they should opt in!
50. Segment your users to drive effective campaigns: For example, a dormant user you’d like to revive would receive a very different push notification from an active user. You could use an offer through push to “reactivate” them! Below is an example for a user that used Wanelo’s app quite often and had saved an item to their shopping cart before going dormant.
I hope these 50 tips help to make your app amazing!
We’d love to hear from you. Do you work on a mobile app? Do you have tips for others to improve the way they develop mobile apps?
Let us and others know what tips you have in the comments section below. We’d love to keep adding to this list!