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May 7th, 2015

The App Discovery Dilemma: Where Do App Downloads Really Come From?

App discovery is one of the biggest problems for developers with more than three million apps on the major app stores.

Noise is the default status of the apps economy in 2015.

Three million apps are tracked between iOS, Android, Windows Phone, BlackBerry and the Amazon Appstore, according to statistics firm Statista. If you expand that number to versions of apps across individual countries, the number balloons to 30 million or more according to data from Applause.

It is no wonder then that developers are having trouble getting people to discover and engage with their apps.

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A survey of 8,470 respondents from Google and Ipsos says that the average smartphone user has 36 apps installed on their phone. If you are more like me, then you have closer to 110. Only 26% of installed smartphone apps are used daily.

So much noise. The barrier to entry for success in the apps stores has never been higher.

If you were an app developer from 2008 to 2012 and came out with a stellar, well-designed idea, there was a good chance you would get noticed. The media would cover your app, people would talk about it, word of mouth would spread and you could make a decent living or try to build a company around the app. The last few years have seen a disintegration of discoverability for apps, even well-designed and innovative ones.

See also: Current Complications In App Discovery (Series)

To a certain extent, what helped the apps economy explode is exactly what has made it so difficult to compete. “There’s an app for that,” became the standard war call. It was like the raising of a war banner, rallying every chief executive, marketing and information officer to its cause.


Now there are three million apps. And you are screwed if you don’t have a holistic, comprehensive game plan to succeed from the very beginning. Publishers that pay attention to detail and put in the effort to succeed will have a chance. Those that do not … well, success doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

Where Do App Downloads Come From?

According to the Google/Ipsos survey, there is no one sure fire way for users to discover an app.


Let’s break down the acquisition channels for app downloads from the survey results.

Social: When the results say that 52% of awareness for apps comes from “friends, family and colleagues,” it does not just mean word-of-mouth on the street. Yes, creating buzz about an app that real people talk about in the physical world is incredibly important. But it is usually the last step of the process, an organic outcome of networks effects after the publisher has already gained a measure of success.

Another term for “friends, family and colleagues” is social media. Facebook is really one of the biggest drivers of app awareness and downloads and the social giant has worked hard to become the de facto middleman in the apps economy. Twitter is also a leader when it comes to pushing app installs, especially with its MoPub integration and developer tools released late in 2014.

The social vertical in ad discovery comes down to app install ads. This is where an ad will run in an app or website for the purpose of downloading another app. Facebook is the king at this, especially with the robust Parse integration it has one the backend. As of April 2014, Facebook mobile app ads had pushed 350 installs. Twitter and MoPub are also effective, if probably an order of magnitude smaller than Facebook.

For more on the app ad install wars, read this excellent piece by TechCrunch writer Josh Constine.

Top Lists & App Stores: In our “Current Complications In App Discovery” series on ARC, we have talked a lot about the tyranny of top lists in the app stores. To have a true break out hit, apps must hit the top lists in the app stores. Considering that the lists rank only the top 200 or so apps, this is a severe limited factor for app discovery.

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Google and Apple’s response to the despotism of lists has been to add a nominal amount of human curation and … yes, more lists (by category, region, subcategory etc.) When the survey says that 40% of awareness is driven by browsing the app stores, it is talking about lists.

Search Engines: Since this is a report from Google, search essentially gets its own section. One out of four apps are found via search. Google notes that certain app categories are more prevalent in search behavior, such as those looking for technology solutions, travel, retail and regional apps.


How Do You Keep Your Users?

On the Web, the de facto vanity metrics is page views and unique page views. Page views are fun to look at and a proxy of success but only tell part of the story. Other metrics like return visitors, time on site and bounce rate help make a fuller picture of a websites performance.

For apps, downloads are like page views. An app can have a million downloads, but if the user only opens the app once and then forgets (or uninstalls) it, that is not a successful app.

The Google/Ipsos report notes that one in four apps are never opened after they are installed. The report notes that 38% of app users will download an app when it necessary to complete a purchase and then half of those users will delete the app once the purchase is complete.

Users abandon apps because they lose interest in them (34%), no longer need it (29%), found that the app was not really useful (24%) or found a better app (18%).

The survey notes a couple of keys to retaining and reengaging users that have downloaded an app:

  • Discount or coupon towards next purchase (30%)
  • Exclusive or bonus content (24%)
  • Family, friends and colleagues use it (21%)
  • Notifications of new features (16%)

Again, since this is a Google-sponsored report, it focuses on several industry segments that are very important to its own mobile app and advertising strategy, mainly travel, retail and local apps. On that note, 47% of survey respondents said they would use a retail app again if it offered a discount. Travel apps would be used again by 40% of respondents with local apps at 37%.

A holistic app publishing strategy focuses on every aspect of the discovery and engagement stack. Just because search engines have been historically poor in surfacing new apps, that doesn’t mean it will always be that way. Especially with Google’s deep linking in Android gaining popularity and the Applebot being created by Apple to better search in Siri and Spotlight. The goal for app publishers is to load all six cylinders of the gun before launching the app so as to be able to give themselves the best chance at success from the very beginning.