App Marketing

Soft launch strategies to boost user acquisition

James Haslam
Senior Content Manager

With app user acquisition there are several strategies you can integrate into a plan which could mean nothing without really testing them out. And on something as essential as mobile user acquisition strategy, it’s important to get things right without wasting too much time. Soft launches enable the ability to test the waters without jumping in. User acquisition, along with a host of other features, can be tried, tested and changed to fit with what works, and reduces the likelihood of failure at launch.

Limiting yourself to a single release can potentially reduce your app’s potential, as it could become hidden under the myriad of applications and the confusion of app stores. Without significant budget, and a strong focus on day one spend, your app could fail to make an impression. Soft launches are a great way of putting theory to the test by gauging your creation without putting everything on the line. But what are soft launches, and how can they help you take some of the sting out of day one hazards, and help ensure success on release to the markets that matter to you?


What’s the point of a soft launch?

As has been drilled into modern marketing since ‘data’ became the word of choice, testing has become an essential part of decision making. It’s no longer a question of almost guessing at how the market will take to your product, but instead trialing it before the big launch. In the app world, this makes a lot of sense.

The app market is saturated; with over two million apps released since the launch of the App Store in 2008 (and rising), and with the Zombie Rate at 90%, it’s hard for new developers to break through. How can a newbie reach an audience, in spite of the competition? Defining a user base who’d be the most receptive to your application would be a great start, and though user personas must be tied into this, a soft launch can help better define real users, and show you the tactics which you could use to get their attention.

A soft launch is also a sure way to test the acquisition costs and lifetime value (LTV) of users across localities and demographics to those matching your ideal user. Soft launches provide feedback on all kinds of datapoints, including app performance (similar to a beta test), budget expectations, and what users like, and what they don’t.

Long gone are the days of creating an app and simply waiting for users to install. Promotion is increasingly essential, and testing creatives, as well as your media mix, can all be done with a soft launch. Copying a successful companies’ strategy can only work so far; the most efficient strategy is to define a niche audience and to concentrate efforts in the specific cohort. One which is much more effectively done in practice than in theory.


What is a soft launch?

A soft launch is like taking a half-step, by releasing your application in a smaller market before going worldwide (or to the target marketplace). So, you could make your app available early in the UK before the US, or Austria before Germany, and so on. This means that you’re able to see how users take to an app, and how it performs on a smaller scale, before going any further.


What’s a famous example of a soft launch?

The 2016 smash hit Pokémon GO initially pursued a soft launch strategy, which proved so big that its popularity forced a full launch within days. The app was first released in Australia and New Zealand on July 6th. Within a matter of days, Niantic, Pokémon GO’s publisher, rolled the game out to additional countries, staggering it in Germany, the UK and across the Mediterranean. This had the effect of putting a tremendous load on the servers, rendering the game unplayable (even for this writer). While the success of Pokémon GO is somewhat legendary, it can also serve as a warning of releasing an app too quickly, and without building the supporting infrastructure first.


What are the goals of a soft launch?

The goals of a soft launch are:

  • To gather data on user behavior
  • To define success criteria
  • To find out which kinds of promotion are effective
  • To learn enough to improve and repeatedly optimize with each new launch

Having the ability to segment users into cohorts, thereby establishing the type of users that are your highest and lowest value becomes a vital part of soft launching. From that information, every new release means better targeting, bigger lifetime value, and lower CPA. This, coupled with an understanding of what creatives best work for you, and what channels, means that you should be much better prepared to take on your target market, and your acquisition marketing strategy.

You might also want to consider soft launching as a means to bug test, similar to how the Games industry releases beta tests for players to demo a new game. After all, apps could be broken, and features such as in-app purchasing could be bugged. By putting your app through its paces in a smaller market, you’re potentially saving embarrassment (and money, too).


Planning: The definition of soft launch success

Before a launch, you need to decide:

  • How many users you need to acquire in order to gain meaningful data
  • The types of users you want to target
  • The length of time you expect a soft launch to last
  • Your budget per launch, and the percentage it makes up of your total acquisition marketing expenditure

These numbers will fluctuate depending on launch, but over time could be narrowed. Cost, particularly, has a lot to do with locality. However, it’s vital that each launch has these forecasted in order to tell when it’s time to move on to the next one.


A note on app user acquisition metrics

There’s not one single metric that can tell you whether your user acquisition strategy is working or not, particularly since we’re not talking about one single vertical in this post. In fact, there are about four metrics that we think are the most important: retention, engagement, monetization and virality.

Retention and engagement tell you how many users keep coming back over time, while monetization provides you with revenue (a no-brainer). Virality has a singular importance when it comes to promotion, and also has an impact on mobile user acquisition as a whole.


Country specific tips

The real secret to soft launches is picking the right locality. After all, they’ll be your first testing grounds, but there could also be a couple of benefits to countries which have the potential to generate a buzz.

For publishers who are aiming for the United States as their target market, soft launching in the Anglosphere (Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and the United Kingdom) could make for a good beginning. For Asian markets, consider Taiwan, where users tend to be more receptive to foreign publishers, as well as Hong Kong and Singapore.

Our friends at Chartboost have written rather well on the topic, so for more tips on country-specific soft launches, take a look here.


How to perform a soft launch

Once the app is finished, and after defining your metrics to success, your strategy, and picking the territories you’re going to go after, it’s time to launch.

Uploading itself is covered in detail by Apple and Google, and your developers should be well aware of the process.

So, what’s to look at immediately after upload?

  • How is onboarding? Many users could be dropping off due to confusion, or fiddly sign-up forms. How long does it take before a player arrives at your main offering? How much needs to be explained before someone really engages? What could be optimized?
  • What does retention look like by events? For example, do people leave when they begin running out of coins or weapons? What percentage of users complete a purchase? Which features aren’t they using?
  • Take a look at your monetization model. Critically, a soft launch can help you find the right balance between your monetization and retention efforts.
  • What are people saying about your app? Have you caused a stir?

The optimal timeframe for a soft launch is between two to three months. This should be enough time to acquire an audience of a necessary size, analyze it, and find some insights. Furthermore, daily active user counts need to be in the four-figure territory - it’s difficult to create meaningful cohorts out of a handful of users.


How to measure outcomes of a soft launch?

There’s only one real way to get the best mobile measurement, and that’s with Adjust. Our data is supremely accurate, and our cohorts and segmentation are infinitely detailed, which makes the whole identifying your best user issue quite simple. We’ve already covered off this section a little in the planning, but just to remind you, here’s what you should be looking out for:

  • User acquisition
  • New user acquisition cost (known as cost per install)
  • Organic growth
  • User engagement
  • Retention rate
  • User interaction
  • Monetization
  • Virality
  • Sessions per user
  • Time per session
  • Time per user
  • Bottlenecks

All of these, along with custom event tracking, can be done with Adjust.


Lifetime Value

During a soft launch, you can more easily figure out the LTV of your users. It’s important to calculate it accurately, so you can compare it to your cost-per-install and figure out the cost and profit from each new user, and which cohorts are the ones to go after. If you find out during the soft launch that your CPI is larger than the LTV of a user, then you have a chance to optimize it before full release.


What to do afterwards

Although you may not want to acknowledge it, a soft launch will validate your product or show that it isn’t quite market ready. If your app receives low interest or engagement, you can then decide what needs to be improved, or else begin an entirely new project. Even large successful studios have been known to abandon projects due to poor performance during soft launch - for some, it’s their business model to create several, and keep only the best.

In the best case scenario, your app can receive validation upon soft launch. This then justifies your commitment to the project, and you can continue to give it the time and resources it requires. 

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