Anyone working with mobile apps (or investing in them) by now knows just how difficult distribution is. As I’ve written about endlessly on this blog, distribution on mobile platforms is a brutal, brutal game, and I’ve tried to develop a framework for organizing which types of mobile apps actually breakout. Briefly, those categories are gaming, apps that leverage key sensors (camera, location), apps with network effects (e.g. messaging), apps that power on-demand services (e.g. Uber), and apps that were either launched at the right time (pre-2010) and could port over a large, engaged web audience.
Given how constrained distribution is on mobile, and given how fast the mobile platform continues to grow, companies and startups are taking cues from mobile gaming companies and using clever cross-app promotion techniques to get mobile audiences to try new mobile experiences. It’s no secret that gaming companies, which dominate mobile app stores in terms of downloads and revenues, would have a great incentive to cross-promote other games in their studios to existing players.
I started thinking about this a few months ago when colleagues at Swell pointed out what Yahoo! was doing on mobile, using a sidebar menu to promote other apps in its growing mobile suite. It makes perfect sense: Leveraging an existing audience and its attention to help grow another mobile property when mobile distribution channels are choked. That’s exactly what Google does across its own suite of mobile apps (and what they hinted at even further by integrating Uber into their native Google maps client). This is what Dropbox is trying to do with Carousel and its ever-expanding suite of apps, and what Foursquare will try to do as it moves its signature check-ins out into Swarm (which launches tomorrow as a brand new app). A friend on Twitter remarked that Gap, the clothing company which owns separate brands underneath, also does this on mobile. Again, makes a great deal of sense. Of course, this is why the mobile messaging companies like LINE, WeChat, and Whatsapp are so critically important — seen in this light, it becomes much clearer why Facebook valued Whatsapp so highly, as Facebook is exploiting the mobile distribution problem brilliantly and laughing all the way to the bank.
Well, what does it mean for startups that don’t operate at the scale LINE, Whatsapp, or Yahoo? An idea: Sensible cross-promotion of complementary mobile apps.
Assuming an app has an engaged, loyal base of users, those bases could provide enough of a foundation to smartly target and drive mobile app installs. Especially for apps with drawer/hamburger settings, it’s relatively painless to include a section to promote other non-competitive apps and act as a curator of mobile experiences for an app’s user base. Of course, app makers don’t want users to leave their own walled app garden, but it’s not hard to imagine audio-based apps promoting Sonos (for broadcasting at home or office) or Runkeeper (while exercising); or to imagine photo-sharing apps offering suggestions for third-party storage systems (which is already happening). With startups, this will require them to work together, but I don’t see why that can’t work with as something as critical as acquisition and awareness.
Maps and Google Now will likely be two of the most important “promotion” points as mobile shifts from a search/pull model to a push model. For instance, with Google Now, I can see them suggesting two to three apps between each card based on a variety of contextual factors — much like Cover and other lock/home-screen efforts. How this all unfolds remains to be seen, but the main point here is that startups could get much more creative about mobile distribution in a manner that doesn’t really cost money and a bit of engineering and design resources. On top of this, it creates an opportunity for startups to work together. There’s a community element to it, and I’d like to think loyal users would appreciate discovering other apps that they can use while enjoying their current one. In a way, that’s what Facebook has already figured out — at scale.