The Boring Story No-One Tells

How did Cash App beat PayPal, a much bigger company with a much bigger brand? How did Chick-fil-A beat fast food competition with just as good growth prospects in app install volume … and sales? Why did music discovery app Shazam double installs in Q1 2022, or little-known music streamer Audiomack deliver over 4 million installs last quarter?

“Lesser known retail apps outperformed 33% of leading retail brands,” a new report from Apptopia and Digital Turbine says. “Lesser known news apps outperformed more than 66% of leading news brands. In the last six months across all categories, lesser known apps on average outperformed 46% of leading brands.”

Plain old business development, smart partnership strategy, and a continuing emphasis on product development beat out viral flash-in-the-pan mobile app success stories across the board, according to the report. It’s the not the story the press usually covers — the brilliant new app that wins the world in a frenzy of hype — but it’s what drives business success across the mobile ecosystem.

And it’s how David beats Goliath. Top apps use one or more of three key strategies, according to the report:

  1. Offline partnerships with companies, stars, or influencers, particularly ones “that aligned a brand with an active fan base.”
  2. Mobile ecosystem integrations to get pre-loaded on phones and platforms.
  3. Product-led growth to simply keep pushing innovation that makes users or customers value the app, service, and brand more, including “unique currency, experiences, entertainment, or information.”

Cash App sponsored paying Odell Beckham Jr.’s salary in crypto, and signed a TikTok star to appeal to teens. Chick-fil-A partnered with sports teams to give away chicken sandwiches when the local teams won. Shazam, owned by Apple, used an integration in the iOS control center to boost discovery outside of the App Store, while also adding integrations with other apps and features around concerts, TV shows, and movies.

Almost-unknown Audiomack targeted emerging artists and enabled a creator-fan relationship that Apple, Spotify, Amazon, and other music leaders did not, drive outsized success.

And in news, relative unknowns like News Break and Opera News outperformed big brands like Fox, CBS, and CNN by partnering with wireless carriers to get pre-installed on phones.

The report is the BRAG index, for Brand Relative App Growth. The top 10 BRAG apps include both big and small brands across categories like finance, food, fitness, shopping, and streaming video.

  1. Cash App
  2. Crypto.com
  3. Coinbase
  4. NewsBreak
  5. Spotify
  6. Planet Fitness
  7. Yelp
  8. Google Pay
  9. Flo Period Tracker
  10. Workout Planner

All of this has an impact on much more than simple app downloads and usage. For most mobile-first brands, it’s a leading indicator of business success. In September of 2021, for instance, I reported that use of the Peleton app dropped 42% in four months. By May of 2022, the company’s stock was sitting at records lows, down 64% in 2022 and about 90% from it’s all-time pandemic high in late 2020.

In other words, mobile success is a leading indicator of business success.

This is of course completely obvious for companies that are mobile-only, like mobile game publishers. But it’s an under-the-surface tell for the average company that has business, physical products, and real-world services, because most of those now come with companion mobile apps. Seeing the success — or failure — of those mobile apps is a strong indicator of the health of the business.

One of the most interesting insights app usage can highlight is emerging winners. And on how they’re finding ways to grow in an age of privacy as Apple and Google soon will implement technological restrictions that make it harder — if not impossible — to track, find, and target high-value customers.

“The limelight is on the Transcender category more than any other,” Apptopia VP Adam Blacker told me via email. “This report is not only trying to understand how much brand matters (not as much as you’d think when it comes to app installs) but what are the most creative ways to boost install numbers given the privacy environment we find ourselves in today where Hyper-targeted advertising is harder to execute on. Yes, some big brands with lots of awareness did well, but they did well because they executed on one or more creative campaigns and not on awareness alone.”

Going viral is still great, and has built massive mobile businesses like Pokémon Go, a $5 billion and growing franchise, and TikTok, which currently seems unstoppable.

But across the board, winners are looking to new strategies to grow on mobile. And frankly, they look like fairly familiar from pre-mobile business tactics: partnerships, product, and integrations.

“Today’s CMOs are always on the lookout for successful growth strategies,” Greg Wester, head of On-Device Marketing at Digital Turbine, said in a statement. “Having a method to identify the brands whose brand growth or mobile performance growth is truly outpacing the competition was the missing piece.”

The report is available here.

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