There was a time, in the murky annals of the App Store, when an innovative mobile application idea was enough. There were green plains of opportunity in which creative opportunity abounded. The notion of accelerometer-regulated pint-pouring was enough to propel Carling’s iPint app to millions of downloads through gimmickry alone. Unfortunately that time soon passed and the low hanging fruits of untapped ideas have been well and truly harvested.

A decent idea is no longer enough.

The next great differentiator was incredible execution. On the Apple platform in particular the key differentiator for many years was to build and maintain a fantastic user experience, free from laggy UI, cumbersome monetisation, crashes and other barriers to adoption. Through clever use of innovative mobile application technologies such as push notifications, wearable integrations, background processing and much more, the truly exceptional apps could push ahead to the front of the download queues by relying on being one of the growing minority of well-executed, innovative ideas. Alas, this too has become commoditised. In the last few years the standard of app development and expectations of users has developed to the point that a quality of execution is the minimum expectation of a new app.

A decent idea, even with incredible execution, is no longer enough.

So what’s the secret? In the modern age of app development you cannot expect to build traction and success for your mobile application without a clear route to market. With thousands of apps released every day, your beautiful, innovative app will simply get buried in a mountain of mediocrity without an ability to access your target audience.

The question therefore becomes, how to build a route to market…

What Doesn't Work: The Viral Myth

Let’s dispel the “viral myth” immediately, your app will not grow virally. In the early days, when innovation was enough, you might have relied on this approach to cheaply, efficiently gain market share through viral adoption. “R-Factor” is a trendy word at the moment, but even 10 years ago marketeers were obsessed with how many more downloads each download could generate. Keep the R-Factor above 1 and it was only a matter of time until everyone with an iPhone would be exposed to your app.

Unfortunately, that seldom works these days for two key reasons. First, even if you are successful in building a mobile application so compelling that each user convinces >1 more people to install it, you would need a colossal “seeding” of users initially to scale as quickly as you need to to start generating significant revenues. If it simply starts with your employees and their partners it would take years to decades to achieve the growth required. Which brings us to the problem of how to find these seed users initially. Second, someone who does have a route to market could simply copy/clone your idea in the early days and vastly outpace your growth rate, rendering your mobile application to the depths of the app store charts.

How to Build a Successful Route to Market

If a low-seed, viral growth plan is unlikely to work, what will? Assuming your idea is already innovative, and your execution incredible, I would argue you need (at least!) one of the three following approaches to successfully launch a mobile application in the modern app ecosystem:

Direct Access to your Target Users

This is one of the key differentiators we see between successful apps and those that struggle to land with impact. If your organisation already has access to your target users it becomes a whole lot more viable to market to, educate, and provide access to your mobile application through external channels.

Examples include the AA launching a mobile application targeting car owners who no longer own cars in warranty; or RSPB launching a mobile application to build awareness of the diversity of British waterfowl. When you can address your user, en-masse, through channels outside of the app store you have solved one of the biggest challenges of app development: exposure. You also have access to focus groups, surveys, and feedback from your userbase so you can inform the app’s development. In short, you’re starting with a great asset at your disposal.

So what to do if you don’t have access to your users? You partner with someone who does. Look at your target audience and consider which organisations have access to them. Ideally, you would choose a small- to medium-sized player that lacks its own digital strategy and might like to be associated with an exciting, innovative project such as yours. If your app is truly innovative and deliciously executed you are highly likely to be able to strike up a conversation with the right person.

Size is critical here. Too small an organisation and they might not have the access you need to really kick-start your growth. You’ll need access to at least tens of thousands of your targets to land with an impact. Too large an organisation and you may lack the access required to have the conversation at the right level and they may lack the risk appetite to associate themselves with a new venture.

A significant marketing budget

Another obvious approach is to have a significant budget. Corporate organisations with many millions of pounds to spend on marketing will have in-house expertise on how to use that money wisely to promote a mobile application on many of the traditional marketing channels.

For the rest of us however, having a decent (read tens of thousands of pounds+) budget to spend is, just about, a viable route to market which is particularly relevant in cases where your app is revenue-generating. We would look at two primary areas to spend this money:

First of all there is digital advertising, particularly within app stores and other apps. Through the judicious use of marketing spend, customers can be acquired at a cost less than their lifetime value, which can produce a replicable means of scaling rapidly. Over the past decade this practice has moved from art to science and is now one of the most well-understood marketing techniques within the industry, particularly within the gaming space (which accounts for around 25% of all mobile applications). Coupled with a strong App Store Optimisation program and ongoing investment in Conversion Rate Optimisation for your mobile application, you can use a large marketing budget to good effect in scaling your userbase, particularly in those critical early days.

Second, an area we have seen good success with influencer marketing. This idea might feel a little outdated, but following on from our previous point, finding the right partner with the right access to the right people can provide a tremendous spring board to launching your application.

A hyper-targeted launch proposition

The previous two points can be tricky; you either have access to your audience and money or not. While you can always work towards partnerships and investment, we have found that, in both cases, some sort of market traction is required to generate interest in either.

Which leads to our third approach, which is to scale back our initial scope to create a hyper-targeted launch. Apps with a “real world” presence/service can do this geographically, which is the means by which many of today’s larger and more successful apps started, including Uber, Amazon Prime etc. Pick a geographic region and focus all of your attention and energy on successfully launching the application in this area. Use the benefits of local community, action groups, and word of mouth to build a compelling proposition and then work outwards. Doing this can hone your application’s performance early and make attracting partners and investment much easier.

Apps without that real world emphasis can achieve the same effect with a virtual location. Find an online community of your target users, ideally with 500-1,000 of your early-adopter type users to whom your mobile application is directly targeted, and run a pilot with this community. If your app is truly innovative and ground-breaking for this group of users, you should find recruitment and feedback easy to come by to grow a critical mass within your targeted niche.

By taking these hyper-targeted segments and launching into just them you will be in a much stronger position to grow the application. Either through steady organic growth if you think your idea is hard to clone or copy, or through partnership and investment as discussed earlier if you need to scale quickly.