Why ASO matters
Do not underestimate a well-designed app listing in Apple’s and Google’s app stores. Chances are, you will acquire a major part of your new users, maybe even most of them, because your app pops up as a store search result. If you get it right, you can create a valuable, constant stream of new users installing your app. Getting it wrong can - in the worst case - have very destructive and unintended side effects.
To get people to install our app, häpps, we were first thinking about inducing mouth-to-mouth propaganda (ridiculous, I know) and running ads in Google’s and Meta’s advertisement networks to reach people on Insta and co (have you ever seen an app ad on Instagram?).
That was until we learned that, especially for a young app, bringing people in using the app stores is an approach that pays off more and, most importantly, costs less than a well-done marketing campaign.
Then, we thought, the goal must be to get as many people as possible to find, install and try our app. After all, if someone doesn’t find what they’re looking for, they would just search for something else or uninstall it. We might even learn something. What could go wrong?
You’ve probably heard of SEO or Search Engine Optimization. Consequently, there is also ASO, App Store Optimization. ASO is the wizardry associated with improving your app’s ranking in various app store listings. Like in SEO, app store optimization means you’re mostly flying blind since there’s no real insight into what factors affect your store listings, or exactly how.
Your app store appearance includes not only text but also images and, sometimes, videos. Moreover, your app will be listed in a certain category and has to compete with other apps in that category. There are learnings in all of these aspects.
Choosing a category
Take for example your app’s category. Having built a social app, the most obvious thing to do would be to place our app in that category. That however means, our app listing would have to compete with other social apps like Twitter and Instagram, whose associated companies may have budgets in the millions to optimize their app’s discoverability.
A smarter way about this might be to choose a category that is somewhat related to your app but includes weaker competitors and therefore leaves you with a greater probability to be found or even being listed as a trending app. Since our app was about the organization of happenings with your friends, we chose lifestyle. An interesting read about this topic is Choosing the Right App Category by Jonathan Fishman.
The next obvious thing to do was to hire an ASO expert to optimize our app store listing’s text. After an explanation and introduction to our app, Robert, the Fiverr freelancer of our poor choice, would get to work and improve our listing.
He would go about it by constructing a text that includes high-ranking buzzwords that aren’t used by too many other apps, like Beer, Party and meeting people. After all, these are all things you can do if you organize happenings with your friends.
As a result, we had a listing that was full of slightly unusual phrasings but still kind of managed to bring across what the app was all about. At least in the eyes of its inexperienced creators.
In hindsight, the first red flag was that Robert didn’t seem to fully understand our app’s purpose. We brushed it off by telling ourselves he only has to deliver ASO-optimized keywords, another poor assessment on our part that, looking back, should’ve been easier to avoid.
Unmet expectations lead to frustration
Our learning came shortly after we applied our ASO changes: They proved to be effective insofar that more people found our app through various search queries. But disaster was also imminent: We wave of one-start-ratings incoming. Getting rid of those is essentially impossible once they’re there, even if you fix the problem. It is also tremendously harder to motivate people to write positive reviews to make up for the bad ones.
As it turned out, people installed the app and created an account with vastly different expectations. Häpps helps people to organize events and happenings with their friends but it was found by people who expected an app where they can meet new people.
It’s a tough effort to get people to spend time on an app review. Disappointing people’s expectations seem to just do the job: The intelligible frustration drove many to leave us one-star ratings.
Although our app store appearances eventually turned out to be our most reliable source of new users, optimizing it proved to be much harder and more time-consuming than we thought.
For now, we ended up phrasing the text in a way so that it was easier to understand the app’s purpose. We also removed all the buzzwords that we considered to be misleading. These were small changes, but they worked: We didn't receive any more bad reviews after applying the fixes and ended up with a small but steady stream of new users.
Moreover, the unintended experiment showed us how powerful the influence of single words and phrases on people's behavior can be.
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