Why paid UA is the primary driver of discoverability for mobile apps

This guest post is written by Shamanth Rao, a seasoned mobile user acquisition executive and a popular contributor to the Mobile Dev Memo slack team.

“We are ready to go big. Let’s turn on the organics!,” said the founder of a mobile startup I was advising.

Alas, if only it were so easy.

I had to sit them down and explain that turning on organics isn’t like flipping a switch — and if they want growth for their app, they’ll have to make meaningful investments into paid ads. This wasn’t the easiest of conversations to have — and indeed, this was a reality check for this founder who had assumed that their strong product would be enough to generate meaningful organic growth.

What makes a conversation like this particularly difficult is that in many circles, paid marketing is a dirty word. Much of this perspective tends to come from folks who have expertise on the web but not mobile, or from VCs who understandably want their portfolio companies to grow with minimal capital expenditure but don’t have enough of an understanding of the nuances of mobile to articulate exactly how this organic growth ought to happen.

“Grow organically, don’t rely on paid ads!,” they exhort. “Marketing is like sex. Only losers pay for it,” they quip.

The reality is that growing a consumer-facing app organically without the aid of paid marketing on mobile is very very hard.


There are only a few ways to scale user growth; Andrew Chen put together this helpful list:

  • Paid acquisition
  • Virality
  • SEO
  • Sales
  • Other (partnerships, etc)

Let’s look at each of these strategies in the context of B2C mobile apps.

Of these, Sales often isnt relevant in a B2C context.

Partnerships can be hard and time-consuming to pull off, especially if they have to be meaningful enough to drive massive volumes of installs. Plus: partnerships require dedicated BD resources and have long sales cycles that can require a lot of capital and sales/management bandwidth.

Virality, or word-of-mouth, is great if you’re a Flappy Bird or Instagram — but for every hyper-viral app there are millions that don’t get any traction. Virality is also hard to achieve on mobile simply because the app stores add a layer of friction onto the user funnel — the fact that one-click liking or sharing isn’t quite as frictionless as it on the web makes it more challenging for apps to proliferate easily.

What is also worth noting is that apps that are considered as having ‘natural virality’ or ‘strong word of mouth’ do absolutely tend to invest in paid user acquisition to drive their growth. These apps look at virality as a fuel for their paid user acquisition campaigns — because these viral organic installs enable these apps to invest more into their paid marketing efforts, which can accelerate the pace of their marketing flywheel.

This brings us to SEO — or ASO in a mobile marketing context. This concept, in particular, is something many web marketers who move to mobile find very hard to grasp. Companies like Yelp and Hubspot have built IPO-scale companies on the basis of SEO alone, so surely it should be possible to unlock massive scale via ASO for mobile apps as well?

Unfortunately SEO is not ASO. As Eric Seufert mentioned in his interview on the How Things Grow podcast, A brief history of Mobile User Acquisition:

“There’s no real SEO on mobile because there’s no real page rank. So there’s nobody that’s crawling all of mobile and crawling all of mobile content and allowing for some kind of intent to be accommodated for in search. There’s search in the App Store and on Google Play, but that doesn’t link into content that’s been evaluated for relevancy for those keywords. If I do a search for game or if I do a search for flashlight, I get results that match those keywords, because those are pretty superficial keywords and they’re easy to semantically parse….

And so that’s not true search capability, that doesn’t necessarily capture intent unless the intent is very easily interpreted through just like a superficial search term. All that does is that matches specific keywords in a limited keyword space to a search term. And so without that ability, discoverability is basically a 100% reliant on ads, and that’s not true on desktop.”

While ASO keyword optimization can drive some incremental install volume, it just cannot unlock massive install volumes on a consistently scalable basis.

This leaves paid marketing as the primary lever of unlocking sustainable, scalable growth for the vast majority of B2C apps. Indeed, once an app does hit strong unit economics, and it’s clear that investing a dollar yields more than a dollar back, it becomes financially irresponsible for a company to not invest aggressively in its paid marketing efforts.

This isn’t an easy message to hear if you are a capital-constrained or bootstrapped founder without significant budgets to invest — or if you’re a founder under pressure to grow organically. It certainly can feel unfair if you have a strong product but not a lot of capital.

As it happens, the idiosyncrasies of the mobile app ecosystem outlined above make such organic growth hard. For any founder looking to unlock meaningful scale for their app, it’s best to understand this and to come to terms with the fact that the best path forward for is to gradually prove out unit economics for an app — and to be comfortable investing in paid marketing, even if it must be done in a gradual, incremental manner.

Shamanth Rao is the founder of the mobile UA agency RocketShip HQ, host of the How Things Grow podcast, and regular contributor to the Mobile Dev Memo Slack community. This article includes inputs and feedback from Sharath Kowligi, Head of Ad Monetization at GameHouse and advisor to RocketShip HQ.

Photo by Johann Siemens on Unsplash