When Apple and Google introduced in 2008 the App Store and Play Store, respectively, they were merely the tech giants’ marketplaces to distribute mobile software (apps) to their customers. 12 years (and nearly four million apps) later, they have transcended from simply a distribution channel into a crucial marketing channel. App store marketing, or better known as App Store Optimization (ASO), has since been a vital aspect of many digital and mobile marketing strategies.
Compared to other marketing topics, ASO tends to be specifically powerful when you look for high efficiency and low dependence on the marketing budget. Its emphasis on organic app growth activities (no expensive paid campaigns like advertising involved) promises just that.
Furthermore, its operations revolve around natural app discovery. This means influences of external factors on user install decisions are minimal. As a result, you’ll acquire higher-quality users whose decisions are their own, and thus they’re easier to retain and monetize.
However, with such an importance, and even though 2020 is expected to be the year ASO will mature, the industry still isn’t as developed as many would like it to be. There are several systematic, expert-level yet fundamental misconceptions about the topic that even some experienced professionals are still making. They limit the true potential of ASO, and the earlier you identify them, the better you can avoid them.
Below are the top three most critical among them to help you get started.
Wrong definition of ASO
Most of my career in ASO has been developed at mobile marketing agencies and consultancies. As a perk, I get to meet, help and discuss about it with many mobile marketers, product managers, app developers and business owners. One thing I constantly notice in such discussions is that they mainly care about search or keyword optimization when it comes to ASO. In their view, ASO is merely “SEO for apps,”. This reality scares me, for 3 reasons:
- Only about 30% of app installs are influenced by keyword optimization — and that’s based on statistics from two to three years ago. Now that Facebook, Google and Apple (Search) Ads are trying to dominate mobile marketing, the percentage is likely much lower.
- ASO means organic app installs, not just visibility. There’s no point gaining massive organic visibility in the app stores if you can’t convert it into more installs. You can only do that with a solid conversion rate optimization (CRO) strategy.
- Even when visibility is vital, it isn’t only about search. There’s also browse channels, which include app store featuring (App of the Day, etc.), top charts and category ranking, and similar or recommended apps. They aren’t prevalent, but they do have an impact.
You see, ASO doesn’t mean only search optimization. There’s so much more.
But how should ASO be defined?
To have a better understanding of the topic, it’s important to think long-term and see the big picture. ASO, in a nutshell, means maximizing the ability of an app’s App Store and/or Play Store presence to generate installs in organic, natural ways. In practice, it requires two types of efforts:
- Make your app’s presence convincing and relevant to mobile users or visitors in the app store. This will persuade them better, with the help of several visible app store assets, to install your app after seeing it, no matter where they come from. At the end of the day, users coming from Facebook Ad campaigns, organic search traffic or otherwise will arrive at the landing page (App Store Product Page or Play Store Listing) all the same — and decide to or not to install there.
- Make as many people see your app as possible. Once your app has a convincing and relevant presence in the app stores, it’s ready to present itself to the world. The way it works is simple: if you can both make anybody install your app after they see it and make many people see it, what you’ll have in the end is a lot of installs. This is where the traffic comes in — and you can increase (organic) traffic with app store search and app store browse optimization.
Again, ASO is so much more than just search or keyword optimization. It’s twofold, multidimensional and inclusive of both technical (e.g. dealing with search ranking algorithms) and creative (e.g. handling graphic designs) aspects of mobile app marketing. Failing to see such a holistic picture means missing out on many factors that could make or break your ASO strategies.
Wrong Mindset Towards ASO
Another major misconception about ASO has something to do with the scope of an ASO strategy. More specifically, it’s about “when” ASO should be run. However, the ways experts in the field approach and execute this “when” vary greatly. For many, the question is “until when” — that is, “how long” — “can we keep optimizing ASO strategies?”.
This one scares me as much as the wrong definition(s) of ASO because that’s not how it works. It isn’t about how long you can optimize your ASO, it’s about how often you should do it. Here’s why:
- Most major concepts, frameworks, and tools that power ASO activities nowadays emphasize significantly on repeating ASO activities in “cycles”, “rounds”, “loops”, “occasions”, and so on. Revamps, refreshes, reiterations and restructures of ASO strategies are far more important than the finish line — because there is no such thing.
For example, when you perform keyword optimization, it’s common to think that at a certain point in time, you’ll end up with the perfect list of the most important keywords that you could rank highest possible for. That’s it — you’d now have a 100% optimized set of keywords, what else can you do?
But what about seasonality? What about those time-sensitive keywords like “e-scooter”, “camping app”, and “outdoor navigation”? Or the new keywords you just suddenly find because they become trending out of nowhere? What about the changes in the competitive landscape, user behaviors and other movements in the market, among others? One keyword with a search popularity score of 40 today could drop to just 5 tomorrow for such reasons. You’ll never know, unless you still keep an eye on it.
More importantly, and as mentioned earlier, ASO isn’t just about keywords. Conversion drivers like app store screenshots or ratings and reviews, to name a few, are also best optimized in cycles and refreshed from time to time. Even when your app has a 100% CVR from all sources of traffic, you can’t be sure it’s going to stay that way. It could drop the next day because of a change in the traffic, or due to seasonality — anything could happen, so never let your guards down.
After all, mobile users are people. They’re unpredictable. You can’t expect all of your app’s new users to be the same kind of people, who want the same thing and will install it for the same reasons all the time. Things change and so should your ASO strategies. The question, once again, is how often.
Wrong Priorities in ASO
ASO is getting more and more complex, unexpected and multidimensional. This has made prioritization painfully difficult for marketers. You have to manage graphic assets and do creative optimization, while taking care of the wording and paraphrasing in metadata optimization, which is coupled with a very technical, algorithm-debunking work of keyword optimization, not to mention that not all metadata assets are indexed for keywords so you need to be even more selective.
On top of that, customer support responsibilities are sometimes also required when replying to user reviews, all while watching over product-related metrics like Android Vitals. Worst of all, the inconsistencies between the App Store and Play Store make things unnecessarily overcomplicated — not to mention the often confusing, different methods to do A/B testing. All these moving pieces in ASO are still just the tip of the iceberg. There’s more, so much more — making so many marketers confused about an important question: what should be done first?
I have worked with 30+ brands, vendors, and other stakeholders in ASO in the last two years. Some of them are my clients, while others are partners or simply friends with common marketing interests. One thing I’ve seen very often among them is they tend to crave visibility more than anything else. As a result, they usually want to make a rush to boost visibility first in ASO. When they don’t get obsessed about keywords, they are crazy about getting featured — and, to some, on many occasions, nothing else really matters.
It makes sense at first glance, with the top of the marketing funnel being dependent on visibility, and even industry-leading frameworks like the ASO stack starting off with visibility improvement first. It also makes sense from an efforts point-of-view, because improving an app’s (organic) visibility is commonly fast and not resource-intensive, among other advantages.
However, focusing first on visibility is very often counterproductive. It’s like contacting a recruiter to apply for a job you’re qualified for but with an ugly, confusing and unrelated CV. Nobody will be convinced that you can do the job well — so they won’t invite you to an interview. You need to make sure your application is relevant and convincing first, then worry about getting recruiters to see it later.
In ASO, the negative effects of setting the wrong priorities are often more severe because it isn’t just one person on the line, it’s a whole team:
- It wastes your team’s time, efforts and resources, involving designers, copywriters, translators, data analysts, among others. If your app has great visibility without an equally great conversion power, all the invested joint efforts from these stakeholders will end up serving one purpose only: Getting people to come and see the app then go and never return. Each of these “app store window shopping” users is another (permanently) lost install. That’s a horrifying opportunity cost.
- It turns your team’s efforts into a destructive force as well. Remember: Good product + Good conversion + Poor visibility is tolerated and can be fixed, but Poor product + Poor conversion + Great visibility is absolutely unforgiving. A bad product will lead to lots of negative ratings. A poor app store presence will lead to low CVR, click-through rate (CTR), installs count, and installs velocity. All of these metrics are keyword ranking factors, so their poor performance will cause your app to lose visibility in app store search as a penalty. After all, your team’s efforts in promoting the app will inevitably get it penalized.
While it’s tempting to start with the easy tasks in ASO, we’re supposed to focus on what’s important. Setting the wrong priorities tends to create a trap that makes you do more for less, sometimes even with negative outcome. It’s time to set your priorities straight to avoid it.
As a summary, ASO isn’t all about doing and testing. It’s also fundamentally about thinking and knowing. Thinking about ASO the right way, knowing when to start and restart an ASO activity, and knowing what deserves your priority is crucial. Unfortunately, systematic misconceptions in these aspects still exist among many in the field. This needs to change, and we need to start rethinking the topic of app store optimization. I’m craving to see some fresh, innovative developments soon — and I hope we all will.