Your first million app users: 15 keys for mobile growth

By John Koetsier June 4, 2024

How do you get your first million app users? It’s hard: you generally have to start from scratch, especially if you’re an indie or a startup. If you’re a massive app publisher, you probably have big user acquisition budgets and you can cross-promote, but you’re still starting something that needs to sprout and grow and stand on its own legs eventually.

So it’s tough for everyone.

We recently held a webinar with global experts on user acquisition and mobile app growth focusing on the cold start, setting up your tech stack, defining your app’s unique value and audiences, and generating massive and profitable user acquisition.

In this post, I’m going to share the very best of their insight from that webinar …

The mobile app growth experts

First, let’s meet them:

  • Sara El Bachri, Founder @ SHAMSCO
    I called Sara the gunslinger of growth in a recent Growth Masterminds podcast episode. She’s a former Gameloft UA manager and has also published the Mobile Gaming Growth Masterclass. Check her out in this Growth Masterminds podcast.
  • Hannah Parvaz, Founder @ Aperture
    Hannah is a former app marketer of the year, and she’s also the marketer behind the phrase “becoming the most interesting person in the room” which has been stolen endlessly by apps and brands around the world. Hannah is also one of my favorite guests on Growth Masterminds … check out her episode here …
  • Guy Galin, Senior User Acquisition and Ad Monetization Specialist @ Mad Brain Games
    Guy is a big lover of the word AND. He does both UA and ad monetization, which is hard but incredibly useful to combine, and he loves both data and creative.
  • Beth Berger, VP of Americas @ Moloco
    Beth is a former VP and GM at Bumble and a former Googler building adtech solutions. She’s also been the CEO of a software company and an investor, and has an MBA from Stanford in product strategy.
  • Egor Ershov, Senior Growth Partner @ Unity
    Egor was formerly in marketing at Starbucks. He’s the host of WN Events for the games industry, and focuses on gaming UA and monetization via video networks and incentive channels.
  • Mike Gadd, Director of customer service for EMEA @ Singular
    Mike is a super smart mobile measurement expert with a long history in tech startups. He helps growing and enterprise clients every day with complex SKAN and growth challenges and — fun fact — was a rock climbing instructor about 15 years ago.

Getting your first million app users: starting out

What do you need to do right away when starting a new app? What are some of the very first growth-oriented tasks for marketers?

1. Know your customer or user or player

No, we’re not talking fintech anti-money-laundering tech (KYC) right now. We’re talking deeply knowing who your users, players, or buyers are (or, if you’re totally new, will be).

If you don’t know them — or don’t have any users yet — go where you think they might be:

“The first thing that I always want to do is have an understanding of who the customer is,” says Parvaz. “So the first thing I’m doing is finding out who could be a potential customer … what is the problem that I am trying to solve, or what’s the problem I think I’m trying to solve with my products? I go into Facebook groups, I go into Reddit communities, I go in, find these people somehow and I start talking to them to understand, in their language, what are their jobs to be done.”

(Check out “jobs to be done” in Harvard Business Review if you haven’t come across that phrase yet.)

2. Know your app

Your app might be fintech and you don’t do finance. It might be a game and you don’t play games. Or it might be a pet-sitting service and you don’t have a dog.

Doesn’t matter.

Use your app.

“So you actually must use your app, or you must play your game,” says Ershov. “Whether you like gaming or not, or whether the app is designed for you or not, you gotta deeply understand what kind of product you are promoting. I’m stressing this because I’ve seen so many cases where the marketers would actually ignore this aspect and there was a huge disconnect between the product and marketing.”

3. Test the first-time user experience

There are so many steps involved in getting an engaged, profitable user. 

There’s awareness via whatever channel, a decision to install — probably after multiple touches — a decision to open your app, and then multiple very fast decisions about what people see, how it conforms to expectations, and what conclusions they draw from it.

“I would highly recommend testing the first time user experience to see how you match up against the competition,” says Galin.

You spend a lot of time and money getting people in the front door. You should deeply understand how they feel when they step inside. Doing so will increase your conversion rate between app opens and engaged, retained users, decreasing your cost per customer acquisition.

(Note: this is why product and marketing have to be deeply connected.)

4. Set clear KPIs

You know you’re making progress on a hike when the signposts telling you how far away your destination is start counting down the miles.

You need the same sort of milestones in your app growth journey.

“You have to set clear KPIs in terms of all the parties that are involved, whether it’s monetization, management, marketing, just to understand where you’re going through,” says Galin.

Setting, measuring, and regularly monitoring those KPIs will show you when you start seeing improvement in usage, retention monetization, and cost of acquisition. Or it will show the opposite, which is just as important.

Getting your first million app users: making progress

OK. You have made some progress. You have some users. And you might even have some cash.

Now what?

5. Don’t go on an ad-buying spree immediately

Start slow.

The worst thing you can do when you start getting a little bit of cash in hand is to blow it right away. The biggest problem right now: you don’t yet know how to scale growth profitably for this specific app, product, or service.

“Even if you have some cash, I don’t think you should spend and test quickly,” says El Bachri. “I think you should start really slow until you gather at least the first cohorts, the first numbers, in order to kind of get a baseline of performance.”

If you spend, spend carefully.

Look at those first cohorts. How many become long-term engaged users? What’s indicative of users with good retention? How do people behave in your app? What does monetization look like.

Until you know those things (and you never know them as well as you really want to know them) tread carefully. Remember: fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

(Including angel investors!)

6. Understand your growth loop

Knowing your app is 1 thing. Knowing how your app will grow is another.

Is it going to be viral? Will it be word of mouth? Does the product get better when more people use it? Will early adopters actually take the trouble and risk of inviting others? Is it all going to be about paid advertising? 

In short: what will the main mechanic of growth be?

“There isn’t a 1 size fits all answer to this, but the only real answer is you have to understand how your product works,” says Parvaz. “You have to have a deep understanding of what is an appropriate way to build a growth loop.”

This will vary wildly depending on vertical, and by the specific things you do in your app. One thing that worked in the early growth stages for an app Parvaz was consulting on was as simple and manual as sending out very personal emails to prospective customers.

Test and observe until you’re sure you’ve hit something good. But try to test fast.

7. Optimize conversion rates with excellent ASO

It’s generally a good idea to have good ASO. But not just for the reason most people think.

Most people think good ASO is about getting more organic app installs from people who just happen to be whiling away hours of their lives browsing Google Play or the App Store. 

And yeah, that’s great and good magic when you can get it, but it’s rare.

Good ASO is much more about conversion rate optimization.

“Focus on app store optimization, keyword optimization specifically on Google Play” says El Bachri. “On iOS, it’s a little bit more difficult to move the needle just with keyword optimization. But on Google Play, I’ve seen there are some cool tricks you can do with keyword optimization.”

Keyword optimization buys you visibility for those who might be searching for things like your app.

Good ASO buys you cheaper installs thanks to higher conversion rates. And this can have a super-dramatic impact on your true CPI:


aso for cro


“By improving your store page appeal, you basically make sure you need to serve less ads for people to download your app, right?” says El Bachri. “So you’re optimizing the funnel.”

8. Deep dive on push notifications

Most people mail it in on push notifications.

That’s a mistake, says Galin:

“I would highly recommend to get a deeper understanding of how the push notification strategy is working for you and really dive deep in and see if you can get insights on what’s working, what hours, what kind of messaging,” he says. “Is it better on iOS, is it better on Android … usually with most of the companies it’s pretty much automated and nobody pays attention.”

Paying attention, however, pays off. A lot of daily active users in Mad Brain Games come back thanks to push notifications.

9. Appoint a high-LTV account manager

Set up someone whose main responsibility is to understand and advocate for high-LTV users. They are the lifeblood of your monetization, which means they’re critical to the success of your game and your studio.

One example of their utility from Galin: situations where something in the app breaks that payers and high-value users require. Getting it fixed quickly, and communicating with them, are critical.

10. Identify the habit point

When your app becomes a habit, you know you’ve got a retained user. And that’s where you have the opportunity to monetize.

“At the nightlife app I mentioned earlier, to become activated, it required having three redemptions at bars on different nights,” Parvaz says. “And so we measured that by looking at, okay, we create a funnel and then what’s the drop off after these?”

“So from install to first redemption, huge drop off, second first to second, smaller, second to third, smaller. And then third to fourth was like a 2% drop off. After that, people were continuing.”

The key questions to answer: how are people becoming activated? Where is that activation point? What triggers it? How deep is it in the funnel? And can you find sufficient numbers of new users who go through that entire process to acquire the habit and become activated?

Getting your first million app users: tech stack

What do you need in your tech stack as you start to grow?

Good news: not as much as you might think.

11. Get an MMP (for free)

Most MMPs have a free tier and Singular is no different: go to the Singular home page, click on Start Free, and you’re in. (Or just scroll to the top of this page!)

“Definitely start simple,” says Gadd. “The majority of the basics you should be able to cover with an MMP: you can get a report builder, you can do attribution, you can pull your campaign data into one place, you’ve got revenue tracking, retention tracking, creative optimization … all of that is within one free product that you can use.”

There’s an ETL, so if you just want to push your data into a Google spreadsheet, you can start there too.

This is actually a critical point in the app growth journey, says Ershov:

“Please get yourself an MMP and your future self will thank you later so much. And you’re gonna remember this moment when you got an MMP and your life changed … it’s really vital.”

12. Outsource your tech to your ad partners

Maybe when you’re a massive publisher with multiple huge games you’ll run many parts of your BI and ML in-house. But that doesn’t mean your journey to get there has to be completely bare bones.

Moloco’s Beth Berger talks about a company that captured the data from their soft-launch campaigns to pre-train machine learning models for their growth campaigns. As it turns out, it was Scopely and Monopoly Go, both hugely successful, but even they leaned on others for some help.

“Whether it’s a Moloco or whether it’s Meta and Google or any other advertising tool, they can take that data and do a lot of the heavy lifting for you,” she says.

That’s hugely helpful, especially in the beginning.

13. Use your tech to analyze your cohorts

Future user acquisition and monetization will depend on acquiring the right kind of users. So analyze your current cohorts to learn more about what they should look like.

“Those early signs that you are able to track via an MMP tell you a lot about what the progression will be for that specific group of users,” Galin says. “That’s extremely important in terms of understanding how the users behave, how the product behaves, and how you match up versus your competition.”

14. Build your custom KPIs

Everyone knows the standard KPIs … the CPI and the ROAS and the LTV, the CTR and the CVR, and they matter, along with many other metrics.

But you’ll also have some custom KPIs just for your app, because you’re starting to learn what really drives long-term success:

“What are those key events that are happening that you can then optimize towards and try and drive your growth that way?” says Gadd. “So we see a lot of customers who are optimizing towards registration or free trial events, or it can depend on the industry.”

Fintech or social casinos? Probably first deposit.

On-demand? First order.

Social or messaging? First friend add, creation, or message received.

“If you’re building an SKAdNetwork strategy for iOS measurement, understanding the impact of those metrics is really, really useful,” Gadd says.

15. Start working on data governance

It might be boring, but it’s an absolute necessity. Data governance will save you so much trouble when you start segmenting and analyzing your data.

“Even if it’s just a Google sheet and you have a column for each of the dimensions you’re tracking, you add a dimension into each of those columns, and then that builds your campaign name or your creative name,” says Gadd.

“That’s a way that you can get started, but there are also other sorts of tools out there, and sometimes free tools as well that you can use. There’s one in Singular, and it basically builds your campaign and creative name for you and then automatically turns them into dimensions … being able to do that is really, really critical for being able to segment the data effectively. And if you are, if you’re focusing on testing and growing, that’s gonna be really, really important.”

So much more in the full webinar

There really is so much more in the full webinar. 
I strongly recommend jumping over to the full webinar, which is available on-demand, and taking a few minutes to absorb it all in context.

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