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appstore

[Also published on Medianama]

It has been only five years since the launch of the iPhone App Store in July 2008.  Feels like fifty dog years.  In reality this is not a long time, compared to nearly twenty years since the launches of Yahoo (February 1994), Amazon (July 1995) and the IPO of Netscape (August 1995).  Over these twenty years, not only have startups innovated on product/design and business models and but also on demand generation/user acquisition strategies.  Yet only five years after the launch of the App Store, the pace of innovation in mobile app user acquisition seems to have hit a brick wall… in the search for increasingly efficient methods of marketing, we seemed to have hit the efficient frontier.

In India, efficient user acquisition is a key problem area for developers targeting Indian users as well as global users.  Fortunately, marketing has gone online, along with placement, onboarding, monetization and payments. And mobile marketing can be done at world-class levels right in India.

So, what is this efficient frontier? What are the best practices for mobile user acquisition?

To provide some concrete pointers,  I organized several founders-only sessions on enterprise/SMB SaaS user acquisition as well as mobile user acquisition in Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai. This month, I also organized and moderated a session on mobile user acquisition with TIE in Delhi.  Our eminent panelists included Harinder Takhar (CEO of PayTM), Pathik Shah (Head of Growth, Hike), Jamshed Rajan (Chief Product Officer, Nimbuzz) and Chandan Gupta (founder/CEO of PhoneWarrior).

So here’s a summary of what we discussed – please note the tone of the conversation was more around hacks and learnings from practitioners as opposed to some over-arching strategic viewpoint on mobile user acquisition.  Many of these tips fall into the non-scalable bucket but some are more scalable. I will leave it up to you to decide which is which.  Also, it was assumed that developers were tracking efficiency of marketing campaigns and funnels through some form of app instrumentation, whether through commercial solutions like Mixpanel, Apsalar, Flurry, Google Analytics etc or home-grown analytics.

CONVENTIONAL PRE-MOBILE TECHNIQUES

These include traditional PR/media outreach, analyst relations, direct selling and tradeshows/conferences.  These techniques are fairly inefficient and out-of-date for mobile apps as most target users/consumers are not reached through these means.

Blogs/websites: Chasing Techcrunch and other tech blogs does not have nearly the same effect it had a few years ago – previously, a post on Techcrunch could drive 50-100k visitors/downloads – now, this number is down to 100-500 downloads.

Vernacular newspapers: Targeting vernacular media outlets across India, as opposed to the English and Hindi dailies could provide some advantage. Regional language papers are hungry for technology news and can be quite effective in reaching regional audiences.

Localization: On a related note, for some apps, it makes sense to provide app store listings in several different languages, sometimes backed up by the product being localized as well but not necessarily.

TV: In India, it could be useful to get onto NDTV Cell Guru and other such shows.  These media outlets also have Facebook, web, mobile and video assets to drive awareness.

Print: Some panelists had tried this. It does not have any meaningful impact on mobile app downloads.

Offline: Some panelists had tried stationing people on campus to get some initial adoption. It does not work and the message gets diluted/warped when temporary employees are hired to do this.

MOBILE 1.0 TECHNIQUES

These include OEM/mobile operator distribution, mobile advertising and search engine optimization (SEO).

A basic deterrent is app size – especially in Tier 2 towns and beyond, people are wary of downloading apps greater than 10MB in size.  Really need to minimize app size.

Factory loading: Average OEM/carrier deals take 5-6 months at least and have to be positioned as helping the OEM/operator differentiate. Most OEMs are now looking at apps/services as revenue streams so this should be baked into the business case for them, perhaps as a rev-share.  Some panelists mentioned Rs 5-10 per install as what Indian OEMs are asking for.

If the app is already factory-loaded onto the product, this doesn’t drive activation either – factory-loading has to be on the homescreen and accompanied by an above-the-line marketing campaign (e.g. advertising or logo on device box) preferably paid for and driven by the operator/OEM.

Some of the smaller/newer OS/OEMs providers are being more aggressive in courting developers. These include Tizen, Intel, Amazon, and Blackberry.  If you build your app for these, you will maybe get an advantage and may get paid to build out on their platform. The flip-side, however, is that these platforms have small audiences and will most probably not drive a meaningful amount of downloads/usage.  Panelists mentioned Parag Gupta at Amazon, Annie Mathew at Blackberry and Priyam Bose at Microsoft/Windows.

Mobile advertising: General consensus is that users acquired through paid advertising tend to be less loyal than users acquired organically.  One exception may be advertising to users of competitor apps on Facebook and the use of promoted posts on FB. Panelists mentioned Google/Admob, Inmobi, Flurry, Tapjoy, Yieldmo, HasOffers etc.

Mobile advertising gets an initial burst of downloads to move up into the top rankings on the app stores and then some drip marketing is required to keep rankings high.  Some people expressed an opinion that any burst marketing should be done on one day rather than over several days and perhaps should be done on a Friday so the boost in rankings persists over the weekend.  The key is to get into the top 10.

One needs 100k-200k installs per day to get into the top of the charts in India. Can’t get there through paid advertising.  Advertising is not cheap.  Especially given the messaging wars between Line, WeChat, Whatsapp, Hike and others, mobile inventory seems to be sold out in India.

If you measure real CPI (i.e. CPI taking into account successful download rates, activiation rates and 3 or 6 month churn), actual cost of customer acquisition (CAC) ends up 4-10x as high as CPI quoted by ad networks. In India, iPhone CPIs are under Rs 120 ($2) and Android Rs 30 ($0.50) at low scale.

There are mediation layers from Flurry, Hasoffers, Mopub and others available so that developers don’t have to integrate multiple ad network SDKs into their apps.  All these SDK providers have their own ad networks but also connect with other ad networks. Meanwhile, publishers use SSPs to route between ad networks. It’s a complete spaghetti-like mess.

Incentivized downloads: Tapjoy/Flurry used to provide this but have moved away from this. Panelists urged developers to not even think about trying incentivized downloads as CPIs are high as are uninstall rates, given that users are downloading without any intent to use.

Search engine optimization: Most developers mentioned that web SEO did not work for them.  Content on the web does not bring traffic from the web to the app stores.  Some people mentioned content marketing e.g. blog posts and posting presentations on Slideshare as a way to drive some traffic.

Mobile web: Make sure you have a http://get.yourwebsiteURL.com mobile-optimized website up and running.  Apple and Android have special HTML widgets to include here that you insert once you know the OS of the device (through the header). These widgets redirect to the relevant app in the relevant app store.

Social media is not very effective for user growth. It is somewhat effective for engaging existing users as well as a support channel.  Adding social network sharing within apps does generate some virality, especially if sharing is encouraged at points within the app where users get a delightful experience.  Apps with social as their core may benefit from Facebook, including automated actions posting to Facebook (e.g. ‘read’ or ‘play’).

Virality:  Startups should track their k-factor/viral-factor and viral cycle time.  Even a k-factor of 0.2 really helps if it can be sustained over several months/years.  A viral factor anywhere close to or greater than 1 is phenomenal but can only be sustained for a short period of time.

MOBILE 2.0 TECHNIQUES

App store optimization (ASO): The panel talked about platform stores (like Google Play, iOS App Store, Blackberry App World and Amazon), indie stores (like Getjar, Opera, UCWeb and Appia) and operator portals/stores. Most indie stores have a paid/sponsorship model but CPIs are the same as ad networks.

Platform app stores require carefully crafted keywords (repeated in title and description), creative content (which is mostly only read by loyal users), quality screenshots/logos and a good demo video for Google Play (linked through Youtube). Do not to go overboard here e.g. do not stuff keywords in the title/description – you will look desperate.  Best tools for ASO include Google Trends, Searchman SEO, AppCodes.  Reverse engineer the search algorithms on the app stores by typing in keyworks to see output of apps appearance.

Getting featured is obviously great but is driven purely through relationships (for Apple and Amazon) and algorithmically (for Google Play) with the curation teams for each platform, sometimes on a geography-by-geography basis.  Always make sure to comply with the design guidelines provided by each platform – this makes it more likely you will get picked up for featuring. Use AppFigures and Appannie to track your performance and reviews.

App updates also drive additional downloads and push up ranking for a short period of time.  Since there are no well-proven A/B testing methods for mobile apps, it makes sense to try several variations with each app update.

Cross-promotion: Companies like Outfit7, Zynga and Google have very effectively used their large network of apps to cross-promote new app launches. Outfit7 has been able to get to one billion+ downloads and has cross-promoted new launches to tens of millions of downloads in a few weeks.

Barter: Many developers don’t think about this, perhaps because it only applies when their apps get to some scale (several million MAUs). The trick is to find mobile app properties that (1) have tens of millions of MAUs; (2) have users in demographics/regions that you are targeting; and (3) have a large proportion of unsold or remnant inventory i.e. low sell-through rates.  Bilaterally trading this remnant inventory can then be quite an efficient, not to mention cashless, way of driving downloads.

Referral schemes: Virality can be driven through incentives that provide an individual relevant app-specific user benefits in inviting people successfully. Examples include Hike (free SMSs for each successful invite), Dropbox (additional storage for each successful invite), Evernote (one month of free premium service with each successful invite) and Paypal ($5-10 for each successful invite).  These schemes do not work for single-user utilities if you hand out real money.  Users will try to hack around this system.

Beyond a certain point, only word-of-mouth/virality works, can’t use paid. This does not apply necessarily in the case of apps where the lifetime value (LTV) of an average user has been quantified, as can be done with many user-paid models like games, ecommerce and subscription services.

UNCONVENTIONAL TECHNIQUES

Use social influencers: If you can identify and target social influencers, it sometimes works to make them proponents of your app.

Gamification: Leaderboard-based incentivization does not impact new user acquisition.  Make sure that gamification works even if the user does not have any friends using the same app.

Push SMS marketing: CPIs end up being within 25% of where the ad networks are, so not much different in price.  Historically, SMSs went out to non-data, non-smartphone users as well so were not effective.  This can contribute to cheapening the brand. Also, TRAI has specifically banned sending spam SMSs to users on the DND list.

Restricted invite lists: This is what Mailbox did, as have many others.  A permanent beta is a less extreme example of this. This make sense for apps like email which need to be scaled up slowly given their complexity.  However, restricted invite lists only make some sense when there is a lot of PR and noise generated some other way to drive artificial scarcity.

Review sites: At small scale, this helps. Some developers pepper comments throughout review sites such as Appolicious, AppTurbo and AppBrain to drive some downloads.  This also build links into the developer’s website to drive Google search rankings.

(Source: Zen)

[Published in Medianama]

Ecommerce in India has gone through a cold spell, but there is hope for warmer days ahead. There appears to now be a clear focus on contribution margin and sustainability versus the previous race to buy topline. As Bejul explained in his post, customer lifetime value is a metric that Lightspeed believes is critical to measure and optimize.

The ecosystem is a key enabler of sustainability for an industry. For example, it is unviable for all ecommerce players to build end-to-end logistics and payments/wallet capabilities internally. Certain ecosystem trends are emerging which may help ecommerce businesses become more viable over time:

Capabilities of logistics service providers aren’t static

Logistics is where rubber meets the road, and ecommerce glamour meets the offline reality filled with dust, sweat and lost/wrong/delayed shipments. Some ecommerce specialist players now provide:

  • End-to-end ecommerce solutions, including inward, racking, picking, packing, shipping and collection.
  • Transparency into logistics company’s processes through APIs, which can reduce returns (and costs) and bring predictability.
  • Variable warehousing bills (per order shipped) that help manage costs at lower scale, and a projection for reduction in per unit cost with increasing scale of the ecommerce business.

There are several new and old companies worth calling out:

  • Dedicated ecommerce divisions within traditional players like Bluedart, Aramex, etc
  • New ecommerce logistics specialists such as Delhivery, Holisol and Chhotu. These companies and teams tend to be more hungry, innovative and nimble than their traditional counterparts but are still building their capabilities. Also interesting is Mudita for bulk inter city shipments.

Payment gateways/aggregators are trying to address pain points

Payment gateway failure horror stories are common, with failure rates as high as 35%. This continues to be a lost opportunity, and a very expensive one, as it costs up to Rs 1,000 to get the customer to that point.  Here are a few improvements/innovations that are coming up:

  • Wrapper technologies that work with multiple banks to minimize probability of transaction failure.
  • Deep analytics and visibility into customer’s intent to buy: For example, ecommerce companies can track a list of failed transactions (with customer and cart details) so that their teams can follow-up and close offline.
  • PCI/DSS compliant widgets which simplify the payment experience for consumers.
  • Capability to handle payments originated over mobile web.

There are traditional names like Billdesk, CC Avenues, EBS, who are incrementally adding value but the new teams that are coming up quickly are Citrus and PayU, in addition to GharPay which collects cash from consumers’ doorsteps when no physical delivery of goods is involved (e.g. tickets, collection in advance of shipping).

The industry is maturing

Some of the more recent trends I see are:

No-poach agreements: After the initial land grab in the OTA space, Yatra, Makemytrip, Cleartrip got into such arrangements. Leading ecommerce players are now discussing these. It is good from a talent pool perspective too, as people apply themselves to fix hard problems versus moving to the next job.

CoD Blacklist: CoD is a key part of Indian ecommerce. However, high CoD return rates (upto 25% in some categories) cause operational challenges and working capital burden. Some players are discussing creating an industry wide CoD customer blacklist – this can drive significant efficiency for ecommerce / logistics companies and a better experience for genuine customers.

Trust from OEMs/Brands: Brands/OEMs are putting more trust into ecommerce now. Eighteen months back ecommerce was not strategically important to brands/OEMs, but brands are now launching their own ecommerce platforms, and/or have a clear strategy for ecommerce as a channel. Senior executives with years of core category experience are now excited about ecommerce and are considering opportunities in this retail format.

These trends are still in their infancy but if they continue the situation will be very different a few years from now. The key question is to what extent and in what time frame will these developments move the needle in making ecommerce sustainable.

Some thoughts for ecommerce entrepreneurs

My thoughts for entrepreneurs building ecommerce companies are to:

  • Assess if you can derive value out of any of these services / trends: For example, compare if your current logistics / payment provider (in-house or outsourced) is competitive with the changing environment or revisit if you can bring in top talent from the domain into your team.
  • Step forward to support the ones you find relevant: For example, you would take risk when you test a new partner in your order flow (logistics or payment), or when you commit to not hiring from competition, but these partnerships can pay off very meaningfully in the long run.
  • If you are a new startup, identify and focus on your core competence: Logistics and payments contribute significantly to direct costs but they are only necessary and not sufficient for success.  So unless you plan to differentiate on these, leverage the ecosystem.

This list is by no means exhaustive, so please feel free to add more names / trends / thoughts in the comments section.

(Source: Andrew Bolin)

[Published in Medianama]

I attended the Founders Forum event in Mumbai, organized by Rajesh Sawhney, Brent Hoberman and Jonathan Goodwin, as well as the Nokia Growth Partners Mobile Internet event.

Jonathan Bill of Vodafone spoke at both these events about upcoming changes in Vodafone’s offdeck rev-share regime in India.  This change, along with a potential broadband data plan price war and growth in smartphone users could result in a real transition in mobile data usage over the remainder of this year, charting a way out of the slump that I discussed in my last post.

Vodafone will start to offer more favorable rev-share deals to those direct-to-consumer mobile apps/services companies that will not rely on Vodafone for promotion and customer acquistion. In other words, developers will keep 70% of the revenue from their applications (at a scale of Rs 1 cr+ in billings; 60% below that), as opposed to the 25-30% currently prevalent here.  70% is more in line with what Apple and Google offer to developers for iOS and Android apps respectively as well as what operators are offering in the US, Europe, China and Japan.

The bet here is that the smaller operators like Aircel and Tata DoCoMo follow relatively quickly and then the larger ones like Airtel and Reliance may be compelled to follow suit – in aggregate, these greater offdeck rev-shares will drive more innovation and more revenue for developers.  Nokia, among others, is citing a 3-5x jump in conversation rates when operator billing is enabled for paid apps and in-app purchases.

I don’t think mobile operators are risking much in the short- to medium-term by tring this since this change in rev-share would only apply to offdeck billing and not to the majority of revenue that these operators get through whitelabeled services, data plans and p2p SMS that they already offer.  In the long-term, though, whitelabel services will suffer from competition from D2C apps/services – also, ARPU from data plans will come down in price wars although overall data plan revenue should go up with significantly higher numbers of data subscriptions.

I don’t expect these changes to break open the eco-system overnight.  70% rev-share to developers was offered in the US for several years prior to the iPhone being introduced in 2007, yet the eco-system there did not break-out.  Why?  Because there is lots of other friction in the eco-system as well, including multi-step transaction flows for consumers, 4-6 month payout periods for developers, reconciliation issues, no standard app discovery methodology (although app stores are starting to be offered by most operators today), no offdeck billing aggregator in India, fragmented platforms, lack of customer trust, and limited success/availability of multiple business models like paid apps, in-app billing, in-app advertising etc.

However, assuming this change from Vodafone comes through in the next couple of months, here’s some of what could ensue:

  • In anticipation of other operators following through with the same model, I expect to see the formation of many new teams with strong consumer acquisition, engagement and retention DNA.  Hopefully, with funds freed up for product and marketing, there should be a greater focus on building brand and acquiring customers directly on what will be the leading platforms in India in the next few years: mobile Web and Android (in my opinion, not SMS, USSD, J2ME or iOS).  I am bullish about the prospects of some of these D2C categories, especially related to entertainment.
  • Mobile ad networks (e.g. Google, InMobi, Appia, Getjar) will benefit from some increased performance-based ad spend from developers.  As we have seen in other countries, mobile content providers (music, ringtones, apps) with direct revenue models have been the earliest adopters of mobile advertising because they have been able to tie marketing spend directly to revenue.
  • Existing whitelabel MVAS vendors will launch consumer brands or start pushing their nascent consumer brands more aggressively.  In other geographies where the D2C eco-system opened up, whitelabel vendors have struggled tremendously with building consumer brands and have mostly failed.  Impediments include trying to maintain relationships with their mobile operator customers while competing with them in their D2C business and not having the consumer DNA in the team for user acquisition and retention.
  • Other mobile operators might slowly start offering similar rev-shares although I think they will wait to see the results of Vodafone’s new initiative before risking their arguably miniscule offdeck billing revenue streams.
  • We may see a carrier payments aggregator emerge once enough operators have changed their offdeck rev-share percentages.  InMobi (with Smartpay) and Opera are already moving this way in India as announced at MWC.  Boku, Zong, Paypal may come this way over time.  There should be a space for a standalone Indian carrier payments aggregator, along the lines of what Qpass did in the US a decade ago.

So, I see a much more vibrant and larger MVAS eco-system emerging over the next few years.  Now is a right time to start direct-to-consumer companies in mobile – we are seeing a ton of founders with exciting new ideas.  Bring it on!

(previously published on Nextwala blog and Medianama)

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