I built my first official, full-fledged IOS app, Focusbyte, a couple of months ago and wanted to share the strategies I used, as well as the failures I dealt with in order to get thousands of downloads without spending a single penny.
What my App is About
Focusbyte is a gamified pomodoro timer that helps users focus while fighting their phone addiction. I knew something like this would be very useful during the pandemic when people are using every last ounce of willpower to stay sane let alone do work. Focusbyte gives the user an avatar they need to level up as well as coins they can use to unlock mystery boxes. If users try to leave their phone while the timer is on they lose all their progress for that session. So although the concept is simple, it is extremely effective as even just a tiny bit of incentive is enough for people to get grinding. Below is a short video of my friend, Marco, explaining what the app does.
To begin with my app turned a boring activity into something that is potentially rewarding and even fun. Add in the cool pixel art and animations, and my app was now considered "cool". This is an extremely important point because it made the following marketing strategies so much easier and receptive. So if you have another simple to do or cam scanner app that doesn't have any originality or uniqueness most of these strategies will be ineffective.
This is something overlooked by my first time app creators. They think they have the most brilliant app idea in the world, they don't want anyone stealing it, so for five months in complete silence they build the app and finally release it. To their surprise, Forbes and Tech Crunch aren't calling, and they get a total of 3 downloads on launch day.
This is where validation comes in. You want to make sure that your app is something that people actually want. First create rough sketches of the app using Figma, put up a quick landing page using Wordpress or Squarespace explaining what the app will do, and add a sign up for the beta section where users can input their email.
Now go to discord, facebook groups, or subreddits where people in your target niche hangout and tell them about the app your building and tell them to sign up if they want beta access. Don't be spammy, and don't try to come off as a business but as a human being. If you have a mission behind your app, even better, for me I wanted to help people who were struggling to focus to in the pandemic by making it easy and fun.
I did exactly this with my app, made some mockups and a landing page and went on a bunch of subreddits telling people about my idea. Like I mentioned before, the app was deemed "cool" so my posts usually weren't taken down and they got a ton of engagement. Before I even started coding Focusbyte I had 500+ email sign ups and great feedback which gave me enough confidence to continue.
Won't someone steal my idea?
Success is 99% execution, so the chances of someone taking your idea and building it themselves are so so low. Even if someone steals your idea, your vision for what the app should look and feel like is something that can never be taken.
On launch week I got around 300+ downloads per day. I once again posted on subreddit forums announcing the launch of my app and blasted my email list. I also had a discord channel of 50+ people who gave me constant feedback and all wrote glowing five-star reviews for my app.
One of the most important factors in organic free traffic is ASO or App Store Optimization. If you have heard of SEO it is similar a similar concept where you are trying to rank for keywords so your app shows up when someone decides to search it.
I can write a whole article on this topic, but pretty much in the beginning target long-tail keywords and slowly work your way up to more competitive keywords as time goes on.
I highly recommend using Appfollow.io it's great for keyword research and for spying on your competitors.
If you're a complete beginner watch App Masters on Youtube, as he provides great free content on this topic.
Product Hunt - I was really banking on getting on the front page of Product Hunt and spent a lot of time spreading the word. I got over 100 upvotes without spammy techniques but it sadly did not work. Most likely due to the fact I have no connections with any influential hunters which sucks.
Hacker News - I guess I don't really engage enough on my account because whenever I posted on the Show HN page it just wouldn't show up. (However, I'm gonna try again soon once I release the android version)
Apple search ads - the cost for one download, for the keywords I was targeting was around $4, and my profit margins was around $0.50. I stopped this campaign just after a day.
A big chunk of my traffic came from reviews from influencers. I think I reached out to 100+ small - mid-size influencers on Instagram, Tik-Tok, and Youtube. I told them the story of the app, how I'm in college and don't have a massive marketing budget, and that I would be happy to give them a free pro account for life. Almost every single influencer that responded to me loved the app, and agreed to promote it for absolutely free.
Tip: Dming on Tik-Tok has extremely low response rates. So when reaching out try dming them on their personal instagram and commenting on their last post that you messaged them.
Currently Experimenting With
I'm currently experimenting with doing content marketing on my homesite and will update you with how it goes.
I'm also thinking about making an educational Youtube channel, because I believe the majority of my audience watches videos rather than reads blog posts.
Also currently growing a Tik-tok that has around 700 followers in just under two weeks. This channel takes a lot of creativity and consistency.
So in conclusion, don't get discouraged if you have a few downloads and don't consider it a failure. Think of it as a success because you learned something extremely important -> building it doesn't mean they will necessarily come. The strategies I talked about might not work for you, so continuously experiment and pivot. Your app might work great with referrals, or social media sharing features, or maybe Youtube could be your gold mine. What you think might be the worse traffic channel could be your best.