Some things that make mobile user acquisition difficult

By November 29, 2012Mobile

Vibhu Norby, founder of YC backed Everyme and Origami has a good post up explaining why his company is pivoting from mobile-first to web-first. At the highest level they are pivoting because they were unable to acquire and retain users profitably. The interesting thing is why. Nibhu has a good list of the things that make acquiring and retaining users tougher on mobile than it is on the web:

  • iteration cycles are slow making it hard to react fast to user behaviour and test lots of things
  • non-active users only download big updates
  • shipping bugs hurts your rating
  • emails have tiny conversion rates to mobile
  • consumers need a good reason to embark on the long process of going to the app store, finding an app, downloading it, entering their password, opening the app, and going through onboarding
  • you can’t get as much data from users as you can on the web because data entry is more painful
  • small screens and less data make it hard to add value on the first impression
  • App stores take a big cut

For a host of reasons the web is, of course, much easier, e.g. bugs can be fixed ten minutes after discovery, multiple landing pages can be tested simultaneously, the journey from email to service is very quick, connecting with OAuth is much quicker.

Nibhu also points out that there have only been a handful of mobile first companies that have been successful (Instagram, Tango, Shazam…) and gives some discouraging data on Path (only 200,000 DAUs, which doesn’t get you far as an ad supported company).

For these reasons, and because he has had two bad experiences Nibhu is now developing web first.

So, is he onto something here, should other entrepreneurs follow suit?

I don’t think so. What we can say for sure is that mobile is more difficult than the web, but as Instagram and others have shown, it is not impossible. Crucially, mobile has capabilities that can’t be exploited on other platforms – e.g. camera (Instagram), GPS (maps, Foursquare, Runkeeper), and connecting to third party sensors (e.g. blood glucose monitors).

I think the takeaway is that because of all the extra friction on mobile the value proposition of mobile first apps needs to be stronger than for web first apps, probably much stronger. The good news for mobile proponents is that the unique features offer the potential for creating some very strong value propositions. I’m particularly excited about innovation using the mobile as a platform to connect to third party sensors.

Moreover, as mobiles improve all the problems Vibhu describes will get easier, with the possible exception of the App store cut…

  • Interesting and useful points to reflect. It is easier to create “virality” on web.

  • Acquisition isn’t the biggest challenge in mobile, retention is. Discovery can be bought, sometimes expensively: estimated at $1.13 per download by Fiksu.

    Thriving in the new mobile app economy relies on the same YC mantra “make things people want.” It’s especially relevant in mobile apps given most apps are free, disposable and subject the massive churn from download to long-term retention. One of our consumer clients at Converser has 290k downloads, and 42k MAU. That’s actually good, and getting better. MAU is the key – rarely do you hear app publishers quote MAU, WAU, DAU.

    Mobile apps do come with inherent friction. It’s difficult to hack and iterate on the fly. Native still wins out: speed and ease of use dictate native. App upgrade inaction and approval cycles make development cycles clunky.

    A major challenge for mobile apps publishers is that they are hermetically sealed from both knowing and communicating with their app users. The tools we use in the physical or virtual world (CRM, messages, updates, tutorials, polls, questions, feedback, dialog, etc), by and large don’t yet exist for the mobile app world. These tools are the grease to iteration. They’re required to get app engagement to a better place.

    Ultimately it boils down to the utility of the app – are you solving a problem in a more simple and affordable manner. Another of our clients is a bank. They now have 9m mobile app users – of which 8.5m are MAU. Because the app experience is so much easier than the desktop, almost to a default, customers rarely go near the desktop app. Utility = engagement = profitability. Design that serves customers, serves the business.

    “Real” enterprise mobile apps, internet-of-things mobile apps, services apps will see ever increasing engagement rates. Done right, they can fundamentally change customer interaction. The tools to engage and serve the end user are nascent. Mobile is the future of personal computing and communications. It’s early days.

  • Thanks Barry. In the end it all comes down to utility: do the benefits of using the app outweigh the costs, including the hassle and time wasted checking out apps that we decide not to use.
    As you say, it is early days, and the benefits will only get better and the hassle factor will decline.

  • Mobile is growing as a market but getting worse for vast majority of developers (even if you have a good app with good retention). Especially on Android. Mobile might be the next bubble. In 2-3 years.

  • Only just got to reading this. Very interesting. Thanks.

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