Mobile App Burst Campaigns –The pros, cons and all the considerations in between

Exploring the Advantages, Disadvantages, and Key Considerations in Mobile App Burst Campaigns

“Burst campaign” is one of the most popular techniques used by mobile app marketers, who are looking to climb up the app store ranks. Still, there are some pitfalls you want to be aware of along the way. This item discusses the pros and cons of this popular user acquisition tool.

If you find the below graph miraculously beautiful, please raise your hand. Yes, you are not alone. This is how a burst campaign looks like in the backend. It looks yummy, I agree, but it doesn’t necessarily say anything about how successful the campaign was! Negative side effects may change the whole picture. I am not at all against burst campaigns, but let’s talk a little about how we can all be smart about it.

Mobile app marketers love burst campaigns. It’s a treat you can enjoy when you have sufficient budget. Service providers love burst campaigns as well. Buckets of money, flowing in in a short period of time, requiring minimum effort, no optimization and no headaches around campaign management.

Burst campaigns have the potential of boosting you your app all the way to the top, instantly, finally letting it be discovered by the whole world. Users, competitors, journalists and partners. Burst campaigns are the “celebs” of the paid user acquisition ecosystem… they get all the glory.

Like with many other app marketing techniques, burst campaigns vary in terms of execution, pricing, impact and so forth. If you want to make a smart decision around burst campaigns, you should be aware of the bits and bytes. Also, you need to make sure the decision is aligned with your high level strategy, to make sure the “go” decision is fully supportive of getting you closer to your goals.

You know me … I am a big fan of working against strategy, goals and predefined KPIs. Everything’s gotta be connected to the goals, otherwise there is no point. I am stressing this, as burst campaigns may get you excited and capture your attention with its glorious results, but you must not surrender to temptation, and always keep looking at what’s important: the context and your goals. I will show you how later on.

I mean, I could tell you yeah, go ahead, burst is awesome, you will just love it when you will see the skyrocketing charts. But truly, only when looking at your strategy, KPIs, budget, timeline, markets and so forth, will I be able to seriously offer burst campaign as a technique that can get you closer to YOUR success.

What are Mobile App Burst Campaigns, anyway?

Executing a burst campaign means that you spend a large budget in a short period of time. The goal is to get as many paid installs as possible (many times of questionable quality) – boosting your rank. All this with the hope of increasing the volume of quality organic installs – that should follow when the app is finally ranked high enough to be discovered.

While burst campaigns have been around for quite a while, they have evolved over time, along with the changing mobile app ecosystem. Increased competition, combined with changes in the app stores ranking algorithms, have naturally changed the results of burst campaigns. I will go over it in a minute.

Generally speaking, you can potentially create a burst effect only when spending a significant budget (how significant depends on the country and the app category, among other parameters).

When you try to “burst” your app, you “buy” a huge percentage of the relevant and available media inventory, hopefully at a much bigger volume and frequency than any other single app in that territory, during the campaign period.

Your main purpose during a burst campaign is to gain as many installs as possible within a given time. Quality is almost not relevant, as quantity at a given time is what matters. You usually can’t get them both, so you compromise. I keep hearing developers say: “I know I am after sh###y users, I don’t care, I just must get to the top”

As a consequence, you gain a huge bulk of installs within a short period of time, and supposedly climb right up to the top of the charts. How high? Well, it could get to the “highest of them all”.

Many app marketers ask for the details: How does it look like? How do you do it exactly? Well, if you are keen to hear all the details, here they are:

I have run several burst campaigns, in European countries. Since I was usually using the same advertising network (“app of the day” recommendation style), I had to wait at least 3 months between campaigns, to let the community refresh a bit.

I paid a fixed price (somewhere between €15K to €20K) per campaign. The campaign included one push notification that linked to a unique landing page that explained the value of my app. The push talking about my app was sent to the community of the ad network (users that have installed their “app of the day” iPhone app). I think that the push was sent to approximately 500K users (out of 2M), that enabled the “app of the day” push notifications. The rest got to see the communication around my app only if they had voluntarily opened the app during the campaign.

The only commitment I received, back then, was to reach to the top 25 of the general store of the country where the campaign ran (as previously mentioned, there are many burst networks, tactics, business models and so forth. I have tried quite a few but here I provide just one example).

Right before the campaign was launched (and the push was sent), the app was number 30 in the category and way below the top 200 in the general store of that country.

Within one hour from the launch of the campaign, I was already number one in the general store. Yeah that’s right, the first app in the market (reminding you this was in a medium size market, not the US). I remained in the top for about 4 days, and then started dropping. A week later the campaign effect was over (I did not return to the previous low rank as I added more marketing activities such as PR, “regular, paid user acquisition” campaigns and so forth, based on prior planning).

Around 50K installs came directly via the campaign (guess most of them through the direct push notification), and additional ~60K organic installs followed, during the 4 days of my app’s top rank.

As expected, the burst campaign users were not of the best quality. Although this specific burst method I was using did not incentivize users for installing the app (did not offer any reward for the app install), this community of users was getting a push for an app install every single day!

These users download apps like crazy. I guess they download 365 apps a year… of course they are not using all of them. So overall the quality of users is not even close to the quality of users arriving via quality paid campaigns or organically (after searching or browsing the category).

Platform specific burst campaigns (iOs vs. Android)

For most of you I am stating the obvious, of course. The ranking algorithm of iTunes relies heavily on frequency of installs (volume of installs within a given timeframe). It means that the app store is the heaven of burst.

On the other hand, rumor has it (nobody really knows the exact recipe…) that Google Play’s algorithm, like Google in general, assigns heavy weight not only to volume and frequency of installs but also to actual usage, quality of the app, performance issues, SEO status (Google general web search), reviews, ratio of uninstalls, quality of all the apps by the same publisher and so forth. Can you climb up the Google Play ranks with just installs? Well, you can. I did once manage to do just that, so I can answer with a “yes”. But the volume of installs you need to generate within a given time is so huge, that it is almost impossible to achieve this effect based on a burst campaign by itself. I enjoyed an instant jump in my Google Play rank based on a super successful initial launch that included a variety of activities (PR, paid campaigns, Social buzz etc.). What I didn’t launch was a Google play burst campaign (it wasn’t in the plan and I believe it was a smart decision). Therefore, I was very surprised to learn that you can actually climb up the ranks to the top of the Google Play charts within just one day. I had realized it after the fact. I am guessing that it happened since the volume of installs was in-line with other parameters, such as usage, reviews, buzz, PR articles and so forth. It was all pre-planned as part of the launch campaign.

This difference between the App store and Google play is reflected in the level of top charts volatility. I find Google Play top charts to be very stable (even too stable, and a bit boring if I might add, with the same mega apps at the top, every time you take a look), while every snapshot in the App store presents a completely different picture.

This is why a mobile app burst campaign is commonly used for iOS apps, while rarely used (if at all) for Google Play apps.

In a minute we will list the variety of networks you can use to execute burst campaigns in selected territories, as well as their business models (how much you are going to pay), but first let’s touch upon how to determine whether to launch (or not) a burst campaign, and what you should expect.

Pros, cons and some contextual thinking

The question of “Why should I launch a burst campaign?” may sound like a stupid one, but it isn’t. The junior marketer will probably think “in order to climb up the rank and enjoy organic installs, da!.” This may be a legitimate answer, but I think it’s worth it to dig in and add some context to the matter at hand:

  1. Your optimal rank: Who said being at the top of the general store is good for you? What will you gain? Or, in other words, what type of users are you after? Who is your target audience? When you go on a burst campaign, you spend your budget on being discovered (and installed) by everybody. This includes all kind of users; different ages, demographics and interests. It can be good for you, if your app is relevant for the masses. If your app is a niche app, however, valuable for very specific segments, you may want to stop and think again about spending your budget on burst campaigns. After all, you can’t direct the campaign at certain people only. Well, at least not via burst campaigns as described here. So, you may not benefit from using this tactic. Moreover, you may even get hurt by using it.. See #2 here.
  2. Engagement ratio: Related to the previous point, when you launch a burst campaign and your app climbs to the top, you will get many downloads as many people think: “hey, this app is at the top, I will download it, I download everything that is at the top”. If your app doesn’t really fit to their needs, they will not use it and get disappointed. Your engagement rates may therefore drop, and ironically enough, this can damage your “normal level” rank (usage rates are now also considered by Apple when calculating rank). On top of that you can end up “enjoying” negative reviews from those less engaged users. In other words, if your app gets downloaded by users that are not in your target audience, you may enjoy a short term jump in your rank, but damage your result down the road.
  3. Client-server stability: If your app is based on communication between the client and a server(s), how stable are your servers in terms of coping with large volumes of installs coming in all at once? Burst campaigns may test your limits. A burst campaign usually generates tens of thousands of downloads within hours. When your servers don’t respond well the results can be nasty. I know from experience. Make sure to prepare for that.
  4. Timing: Is it the optimal time for you to launch a burst campaign? Since burst campaigns are relatively and absolutely costly, meaning they can’t be executed too often (for other reasons as well, not just budget), marketers tend to combine burst campaigns with additional activities, such as PR, social promotions, etc. Since PR is usually connected to specific events (such as a major version update, reaching a specific milestone or announcing an interesting business cooperation) – deciding on a burst campaign is usually part of a wider plan. I will now go into some additional considerations that influence the timing decision.
  5. Product quality – Is your app right for a burst campaign? Let me clarify: When you push your app to users, you are extra vulnerable (you pushed yourself upon them; they didn’t search for you specifically), and need to quickly prove your value and quality to these users. These are users who (usually) had no prior intention to install your app. Users, in general, are cruel and impatient, and paid users take that to the extreme. Of course, this is a valid point for all user acquisition campaigns in general. Still, while you can monitor and control your risk with “regular” campaigns, and freeze or cancel the push when you identify product issues, you don’t have this privilege with burst campaigns. Once you hit the Enter button, the snowball begins to roll. And if the app doesn’t run smooth for some reason, you are dealing with a huge volume of unhappy users. Creepy. My job is to shake you up…
  6. ASO starting point – Recently we’ve discussed ASO guidelines on Your existing ASO status has implications on making the right decision. Obviously, top players don’t need to spend money on burst campaigns. But back to our reality, your starting point in the charts can, potentially, limit the achievements of your burst campaign. The lower your rank, the higher the budget you may need to put, in order to get to the desired rank. Naturally, the market/country is critical here as well. The bigger the store (think of US or china for instance), the larger the install volume you will need in order to climb up the ranks. Moreover, your existing rating, volume of reviews and their quality are part of the considerations: If you want the campaign to be successful, you should launch it when your rank and volume of reviews look sufficient. You should also make sure your rating (stars) is stable enough, so in case the campaign provokes negative reviews for some reason, they will not lower your total rating (the rating is calculated based on the ratio between positive and negative reviews). Taking this into consideration is important! Here too, I am talking from personal experience.
  7. Recovery update- if, you’ve done everything you can, and still, the burst campaign resulted in a drop in rating of a bunch of nasty reviews, you may need to release a new version, just to recover and start again with a normal rating (iTunes has “current version” rating that is presented upfront, besides the “all versions” rating. The new version rating starts as soon as you have at least 7 reviews for the new version, and then users will get the new rating as the default view. When you need to recover, every minute counts, and you want to release a new version as soon as possible to minimize looking bad on the store. So when you consider a burst campaign, make sure you are ready with plan B.

What you can expect on the positive side

  • Burst campaigns for your iOS app, if done right, can boost your rank up to #1 in the general store, within hours.
  • You can enjoy tens of thousands of new paid installs, with additional, similar (or higher) number of organic installs.
  • Payment for burst campaigns can be based on regular CPI, or based on a fixed price (depending on the agreement with the media channel )
  • Once you have reached the top, you can expect to stay there for at least a day, and hopefully for a couple of days, but with a downward trend. You can try and maintain the effect running additional activities in parallel (such as PR, paid media and so forth)
  • You can expect an overall uplift of your activity level (PR coverage, social buzz, customer care queries, user feedback in all communication channels, etc.)

Summary and my two cents:

I have prepared a competitive analysis of the providers who can help you execute burst campaigns, including our point of view on their specific offering, the results they can get for you, their pricing, territories covered and pre-requisites.

I believe that you should positively consider adding burst campaigns to your marketing plan when:

  • You have the budget (don’t spend everything on this campaign)
  • Your app is appealing to wide segments of the users – think of your target audience (niche vs. masses).
  • Your product quality is good enough, as well as your servers
  • Your ASO status is satisfying (download page looks, reviews, etc.)
  • The timing is good and you can leverage and combine the campaign with additional activities
  • You are ready with a well-cooked plan B, just in case something goes wrong

Now, if you decided to go ahead, you need to find your optimal media channel/provider, based on your budget, the market you are interested in and the results you are after. As mentioned above, we have created a non-biased competitive analysis.