the secret to getting 2.3 million App users with zero marketing spend

May 9

the secret to getting 2.3 million App users with zero marketing spend

In this podcast series we ask experienced Appreneurs for one success story and one fail. In this episode of the Mobile Engagement Podcast:

Stuart Hall built the “7 Minute Workout” App with no domain knowledge (i.e he doesn’t exercise). He tells his story of what worked and what didn’t to grow a user base of 2.3M users without a single cent spend on marketing.
There is some valuable lessons in here for any App developer or startup and he also talks about he’s commercialised his feedback gathering mechanism into the Appbot SaaS platform.

Engagement Score

We score all out interview anecdotes based on 3 axes of: acquisition, UX and retention. The key lesson here is that planning and funding your launch and user acquisition is needed to just get enough consistent user interest and feedback on the App. If you don’t acquire enough users then as an App developer you are in a “no-mans-land” in regard to usage patterns and the curse that only 1 in 1000 users takes the time to provide feedback.

Let us know on our Twitter account how you score it.



    1. price changes are a hack (move price around)
    2. go for free is an acquisition hack
    3. make sure inApp purchase is ready to capitalise on free
    4. listen to feedback/manage feedback/iterate product
    5. not all Apps fall into the common belief that big launch and then tail off. For Stewart the App has grown an audience over time.
    6. you don’t need to do “3 for 2 deals” in bundled inApp purchases. Some customers just buy at the full price for convenience. This is particularly true if the customer has “clicked” with the App. For Stewart the “7-minute-workout’ was a pretty quick instant gratification for App users.
    7. get inApp purchases early because you maximise your revenue from tyre-kicking customers.
    8. by asking for a 5 star review and handling the “no”, you can redirect workflow to handle feature requests/bug reports
    9. Do what you can to be featured by Apple. Watch out for things that support Apple releases like being ready for Healthkit’s release.

– email and tell them you’ve got these “feature-able” elements

Transcript Detail

David: How do you get 2.3 million app users and spending zero bucks on marketing? Today’s guest built his Seven-Minute Workout app and submitted it in six hours. And that’s what he got, 2.3 million downloads. Hi Stuart, how are you doing?

Stuart: Very well, thank you.

David: So you’re going to tell us a little bit of the story about what happened with the arc of this app release, okay?

Stuart: Sure. I’m happy to do that. So winding back a few years, I was a Co-Founder of an app called “Discovr” without the “E.” We were quite a successful app. We’d reached I think about 3 million downloads at the time. We raised the venture capital and I had a lot of people coming up to me going, “How did you get the downloads? What were you doing?” We didn’t have a lot of knowledge exactly what we were doing different than everyone else. We built up a bunch of techniques along the way, how we thought we were requiring these users. I wanted to see if I could do it all again from scratch. So I sat down one night.

David: It was almost like you had a template of the best experiences of app like Discovr. And you were going to try and hack it based on that.

Stuart: Yeah, I had a bunch of theories that worked with Discovr and I had no idea if they would work with other apps. So I wanted to do an experiment basically to see if I can reproduce it with the same techniques, how it would treat for the different apps.

David: Very good. Alright, so you literally did this off your own bat. Just tell us about the genesis of the idea itself.

Stuart: Sure, so it started just that I wanted to make an app. So I wanted to pick an idea that I had no main knowledge in, something that I didn’t have an advantage in. So the results were going to be pretty pure. So being an app developer strapped in my chair every day, I’m not the fittest person in the world.

David: [laughter]

Stuart: So I thought, a fitness app, why not? I have no idea what’s out there in the fitness world. So I was reading Hacker News that day and there was an article about the Seven-Minute Workout. The New York Times had written about it. It was a couple of guys that had been at a university in the States. And that was just 12 body weight exercises that you do for 30 seconds a piece and rest up for ten seconds in between.

David: Right.

Stuart: And it’s actually closer to eight minutes than seven minutes. But that obviously wouldn’t be as good a story. So I thought, that’s great. That’s actually something that I can achieve, something, actually personally would like to do. So I sat down and thought to myself, what’s the most basic app I could make that could help me do the Seven-Minute Workout?

David: So you actually did want to do the exercise as well as the app?

Stuart: I did, yeah. And I did try out a couple of the quick web implementations that the people have put out there. And so I tried it on my phone and my screen would lock up right through it. And they’d drop out and I have to restart. And I didn’t keep any history of what I was doing or really tell me how to do the exercise. I had no idea what the plank was at the time. So I tried to build the simplest possible app I thought would actually help me complete the exercise. So to start with, it was basically just a little description and a YouTube video of each of the 12 exercises, as well as the timer that just about counted down… And that was basically version one.

David: Okay, cool. Very good. So let’s see, so basically the story goes that you sat down and wrote it in one night?

Stuart: Yeah, that’s right. So I gave myself about five hours, and I think it took about six in the end to make this really basic functionality, throw an icon together, some basic screenshots and then throw it in the App Store. So obviously, being six hours, that was a very, very basic app at the time. And that’s where I wanted to start with the experiment to show the evolution of a product at the time and what it takes to get customers. So I stuck that in the App Store. It took a week to improve and I released it at $0.99. Then over the next couple of weeks, it actually did get some downloads. I think it was making about $20 a day. This is from no promotion, no telling anyone about it, just purely from no people searching for it on the App Store. There was some level of people just searching for the Seven-Minute Workout. You read the New York Times article and some knowledge.

David: Yeah, so you’ve basically tapped into a way that was at that particular stage, but you were certainly seeing conversions per day at that particular stage. I think at that stage I read you’re ranked fairly decently in health and fitness. You’re between 100 and 300 or something like that?

Stuart: Yeah, that’s right. So I guess it shows that most people ranking between 100 and 300 are only making a relatively small amount of money of app paid.

David: Yeah, it’s probably very much a logarithmic drop-off in revenues.

Stuart: Yeah, definitely. It’s possible, the changing of the business model in the App Store which is probably what we’re going to get to in the next stages. So I added a few little features there. I added iPad support and a few other little things. And so, absolutely no difference in either number of downloads. If anything, it went back a little bit. And the amount of competition was increasing. And there were a lot more people making Seven-Minute Workout apps.

David: [laughter] Yeah, right. So you were one of the first out of the gate, but then the meter was going as well?

Stuart: Yeah, for sure. I think I was still not even the first. I think I might have been the third or fourth app. But yeah, a whole a wave… and had a trial which we had quite a bit of success with Discovr was price changes. So I dropped it to free just one night at that time. Then, went to bed. And then the next three days, I got 210,000 downloads basically from the price change sites and word-of-mouth. So yeah, basically going from something like 10 or 20 downloads a day to something like 80,000 a day just from going from $0.99 to free.

David: Right. So let’s just drill in there a little bit. So you’re saying that surely with users that were probably still searching for a Seven-Minute Workout, and they would install based on it now being free as opposed to being $0.99. But you’re saying probably a big driver of the traffic at that particular stage was based on the price change sites. Tracking the change, that price drop from paid to unpaid is where you think you got a lot of inbound traffic?

Stuart: Yeah, definitely. I mean, some of these sites are quite huge. And there was a lot of people waiting and sitting there looking for free apps. So that’s definitely an asset driver and something that I’ve experienced before. And just the changing of the price can make a huge difference.

David: Right, so what you learned during Discovr was that you could just move it around and that was enough to kind of make interest or it only does make a big difference if you do go to free?

Stuart: Well, back in those days, we did find that even price changes, price drops would make a difference, obviously not to the same degree as going from paid to free. But they definitely did make a big difference. So that was learning one that I wanted to reproduce and definitely went to a high level than I expected.

David: Yeah, so did you do any attribution tracking on that or there probably wasn’t even any attribution tracking around in that space and it was pretty early?

Stuart: No.

David: Yeah, so you don’t really know which sites were driving most of the traffic or most of the install?

Stuart: No, definitely not. It’s definitely sites like AppShopper. And there’s free app of the day. Basically, they end up copying off each other. So once they got to the top one, each other, even to the level of something like OzBargain in Australia. But there’s quite a number of those sites around in each different country. So getting featured in each different one of those can be a massive driver.

David: Yeah, so you could only see it en masse. You couldn’t actually see which were the big ones. And as you said, they just basically catch up with each other anyway. So as long as you crack with one, you’re away.

Stuart: Exactly, yeah. For sure.

David: Alright, very good. So at that particular stage you went free, did you go in-app purchase as well?

Stuart: Not at that stage, no, which is probably a big failing. So I didn’t manage to capture revenues from that big spike in traffic. So the next stage was to add in-app purchases. So again really simply, I just added a product upgrade which all I did was allow you to adjust the amount of time the workout was done for, do a few different sets. So I chucked that in and then started making I believe about something around $60 to $70 a day.

David: So 3x to your paid download revenue?

Stuart: Exactly, yeah. So obviously, much higher volumes and I didn’t have any service. I didn’t have to worry about trying to maintain lots and lots of people which was good. So just basically going from paid to free with in-app purchase saw a 3x return.

David: Okay, great.

Stuart: From there, I’ve got a service called Appbot that I was tracking the app reviews for. It was getting really, really good reviews, but I could see the same requests were coming over and over again. People wanted different workouts and different variety. So from listening to customers which I think is the key, I was listening to your interview with Graham that makes the Oz Weather app just the other day. And I think his story is really, really typical of what happens is he listens to feedback and improves the product based on that. But then when you get a whack of really bad reviews, that has a really detrimental impact going forward on these apps. So I’m a really big believer in listening to customers and making sure those app reviews are really good and trying to avoid the bad reviews. So based on that, I added a bunch of different workouts, an alternative Seven-Minute Workout which was basically the same, just with some different workouts, some different exercises. And had a lot of this one as well. And then, the ability just to type in your own, so give some names and there was a text-to-voice engine in there, which should announce the name for you. So I added those to separate in-app purchases which again bumped up the revenue more towards $90 a day, I believe.

David: Right.

Stuart: So just by listening to the customers and adding these extra features, I managed to slowly just grow the revenue, which is very different to what a lot of the belief is out there where apps that are a big launch, and they tail off towards nothing, and then you abandon them. I think there’s a lot in actually listening to users and continuing to improve the product. And I think you can actually reverse that trend.

David: So you launched within three days, you got 200,000 downloads. And that’s still one-tenth of what the total downloads were out of a life cycle of the app. So tell us a little bit about actually how that listening to customers and about keeping it a sustainable thing. Were there specific things that blipped it up along the way, or was it just basically a steady stream over time?

Stuart: Yeah, that settled into a steady stream of somewhere around 1,000 downloads a day, once that we kind of come off that big peak. And that kind of continued on forever. But what I did manage to do is actually just start to increase my conversion rate and the amount of sales I was getting, so a few other things I did along the way. One thing that made a really big impact was I had all these different in-app purchases. So there was four or five at the time which was the product upgrade in those different workouts.

David: Right.

Stuart: As I added in-app purchase which was basically largely to buy all the in-app purchases in one purchase-

David: [laughter] Alright.

Stuart: What I actually found is that a lot of the people that only bought one of the workouts actually ended up opting in just to buy them all, so I saw a really big increase. Because this was at a higher price point, I saw people that would buy maybe two of them. They’d just buy the whole thing in one shot, even if it was the same price. So I saw a really good spike in revenue.

David: So you didn’t even discount. You didn’t even do kind of like a three-for-two type thing. You actually just said it was still ‘three for three’. It was some title all of the individual prices.

Stuart: Yeah, that’s right.

David: Interesting.

Stuart: So obviously, you have to go through only five in-app purchases, it’s a pain. What I did promise is that they would get future in-app purchases for free as well, which I never actually got around adding anymore.

David: Okay, great. So were you able to segment those users to understand what usage led to an in-app purchase like that? They must have been completely sold on the app itself in order to make that commitment of just taking the whole package of all in-app purchases. Could you actually get some intelligence about who those people were and what they look like? And could you group them together as a logical group?

Stuart: Yeah, definitely. And surprisingly, it was a lot of people that haven’t actually stayed in the app that long. So I think around fitness is that thing where you commit and you jump in it, and you think by having this in-app purchases it will generally make you commit to exercising. So it was really interesting, they’re not necessarily long-term users. It was actually people that would download the app and convert quite quickly.

David: Yeah, right. That puts end to the myths that people need long trial periods or things like that for products, still to some people in regards to SaaS products. Well, do you give them a 30-day trial or do you actually give them a seven-day trial, because the reality is that people make the decision within the seven-day period often like that. So if that seems to support that as well?

Stuart: I think it definitely comes down to the product. Obviously, with the Seven-Minute Workout, within seven minutes you know whetehr or not you enjoyed that workout, and you’re going to want to do more, have more flexibility. I think there’s lots of great articles out there about trial periods. And I guess it just takes, it spends how long your product becomes sticky or how long it takes for the baby to show.

David: Yeah, and I think as you kind of alluded to then, that by making this purchase, I’m actually doubling down on my own personal commitment to health. So that timing with a human motivation is really interesting as well.

Stuart: For sure, yeah. And then we found with Appbot as well, which is a SaaS product that we used to have, we used to be freemium. We’d have a free level and connect people after a while, and actually removing the free level. It has been much more effective for us. So I think it’s different business models for different products, for sure.

David: So just tell us what’s the biggest win that you’ve got out of the whole process with the Seven-Minute Workout?

Stuart: Sure, I think it’s definitely listening to customers and I’d probably give it to you, definitely listening to customers and giving them what they want. So if you can quit plugging the errors or the problems that people have, there’s probably thousands of other people out there that are having the same problem, but not verbalizing it to you. Exactly, so listen to your app reviews. And also, building a work flow there around getting those people that are enjoying your products and leave five-star reviews and try and circumvent those ones that are having such a good experience to send you feedback, which is twofold. So you end up with better app reviews, but you’re seeing that with a lot of really great feedback, and you’ll start seeing patterns of the same things over and over again, which goes directly straight into your road map of what you should be building next. So you end up with this feedback loop, where you’re getting better app reviews and your product’s improving. And I think you can really start to snowball it.

David: So let’s drill into that workflow that you talked about there. So for example, I think in 1.1, you introduced a rating or a review nag after the third completed workout. There’s some people, what they do is the next time you open the application, they put the nag in front of you and that really gives me a rash. [laughter] Because I’m trying to actually do something, and they’re actually asking a favour from me without actually letting me have the experience. And so we preach that what you need to do is actually look for those reviews after a happy experience, in your case, I guess completing a workout with a happy experience. So can you drill into that step/workflow a bit more? Just tell us a bit about how you think of that?

Stuart: For sure, so early in the piece, I added a review nag, which is somewhat effective. But you do annoy a lot of people popping that up in front of you. So what we actually got in Appbot as part of our product is a way to add a little component into your app which you can ask there actually in lines, so you’re not popping it up in front of someone, but actually as part of one of your screens. So actually in Seven-Minute Workout, I put it in when they completed the workout and there’s some social sharing there and it tells you if it’s logged to HealthKit. And then, there’s a little component from Appbot that’s dropped in there and it says, “Hi. Are you enjoying this app? Yes or no?” And if they say ‘yes’, then I ask them, “Would you like to leave us a five-star app review?” But if they say ‘no’ then “Would you like to view our frequently asked questions or would you like to send some feedback?” And so I use Seven-Minute Workout as a case study for Appbot there and actually saw a 500% increase in the number of five-star reviews. I’ve got even over top of the nag I used to have, plus the streams of really valuable feedback, and the same things over and over. I probably got a hundred requests from our seven-minute abs workout, which again, I never got around to doing. But I think that can be really effective and it helps segment your users between those ones that are happy and those ones that are vocally unhappy and try and get them before they’ll go and leave that one-star review.

David: Yeah, right. So this is a capability of Appbot that basically a new developer can use, that they can insert something that’s in line? Is that easy for anybody to do that’s developing app?

Stuart: Yeah, it is. The components are actually open source, and then we just have the SaaS product sitting off the back of that. We can add the frequently asked questions and handle the tickets. But anyone can drop it into their app quite easily or customize it however they like it, because it’s open source.

David: Right, okay. Very good. So in the situation where somebody doesn’t like your app and you sent them the frequently asked questions or feedback, you’re routing them to a feedback that’s not in the App Store in that case. Is that right?

Stuart: Yeah, that’s correct. So that’s part of the Appbot product where you can remote frequently asked questions native to your app. And also, collect feedback that goes back into the Appbot system like a typical ticketing system. So you’re really trying to bypass and stop that vocal public bad feedback and route it to you so you can try and win that customer over to become a happy customer. And also, fix the problems they’re having because likely there are other people having the same problem.

David: Yeah, okay. So that’s just to look at the competitive landscape. So from an Appbot perspective, you might have—I think in the Formula One podcast that we have, Nathan was talking about using—was it Zendesk or Freshdesk—I think it might have been UserVoice. So that he had a plug-in or had an HTML render that works pretty good on mobile. So that’s one way of doing it. Yours is a way where the work flow, there’s a focus on actually getting the work flow a bit cleaner. As a developer, you don’t have to do as much work?

Stuart: Yeah, definitely. What we try to do as well is we build completely for mobile. We’re not a web product that’s trying to fit into mobile. And we also bring the app reviews into it as well. And we’re starting to bring different sources in, so we’re really a product around mobile user sentiment. We’re trying to collect all that data within your app from your app reviews. And out there on the general web, and what people are talking about your app and help you with tools to try and help reply to that. And also, try to skew it in your favour.

David: Right. Okay, cool. So what came first? Did Appbot exist at the time that you actually did the Seven-Minute Workout or was it something that you kind of built based off your learnings?

Stuart: Yeah, so Appbot started actually three years ago. I built us a little tool to help me monitor app reviews of Discovr. It was just a little thing that ran on my computer that would go off into all the different App Stores over different countries, and send me a little digest of the app reviews, because that was quite a pain point for us to actually read those and see what people are saying. So it started like that and then a few people from within Discovr wanted access to it, and then a few friends off track-

David: [laughter] Okay, great.

Stuart: I put it out there just as a little free product, just a little side project for myself, and end up getting thousands and thousands of apps using it, some of the biggest app developers in the world. So when Discovr came to an end, I was looking for what I should do next. So I dived into Appbot and expanded a lot and took it from just app reviews to being much more of a platform. We’re really around actually talking to the users and bringing that information in and processing it. And we have a sentiment dashboard around how your sentiment is tracking. So we’re much more focused in that aspect.

David: So you do tend to see yourself really focused on the feedback flow. And your competition is really the UserVoice, Get Satisfaction, Zendesk, Freshdesk-type companies?

Stuart: Yeah, definitely. If you just want that side of it and you’re not interested in the app reviews, or you don’t see them as related, then they’re definitely our cmopetitors for sure.

David: Cool, so you provide those two dimensions of managing feedback, and also actually seeing the feedback that’s happening in the App Store. So that whole sentiment of tracking?

Stuart: Exactly, and where we’re going now is doing that from everywhere. So we’re doing it from within the app in an App Store as well. And we’re looking to branch out and see what people are saying everywhere about your app.

David: Okay. Pretty cool. So you mean kind of social-type behaviour?

Stuart: Yeah, all sorts of different things that will be out in the next few months.

David: [laughter] Okay, I’m pre-announcing stuff.

Stuart: [laughter]

David: So in the context of Seven-Minute Workout, can you tell us about one big fail that you had on the way?

Stuart: Yeah, so I guess there was a bunch of different fails, definitely not adding in-app purchases when I went free. That left a lot of money on the table there.

David: Yes, it is that lesson that you capture somebody when you’re actually trying to convert them right on the spot. So you definitely got to have a plan, if you’re going to go for it.

Stuart: Yeah. Something like Seven-Minute Workout. I think there’s hundreds and hundreds of seven-minute workout apps now. So you get some pretty stiff competition. And what I saw from the analytics, people convert pretty early in the piece. And then, they quite often churn, even after they pay, so you need to be there ready to convert them in that app for sure.

David: And so, with the churn-type equation, you were oblivious to that particular stage. But now, with the benefit of hindsight, you see that’s an essential thing, of getting people the opportunity to do in-app purchases early in the cycle. And if I choose to actually be retained, then well, I’m good. But you want to try and catch them at the time when they’re most engaged with your app.

Stuart: Yeah, definitely. Obviously, you’re doing everything you can to keep them as an active user. But the way the mobile app landscape is there’s so many apps that people churn through, that there’s only going to be a certain percentage that you can keep as active users. So there are obviously the guys who want to continue, hopefully make money from that, definitely trying to capture some revenue from these guys, deepening out as well.

David: Right, okay. That’s a really good tip. Alright, so anything else then?

Stuart: Probably not failing. I think probably the other big—Apple are looking for stuff to feature and you really want to start doing things to get on their roadmap. So when things like HealthKit and Apple Watch and things like that coming out, definitely try and do them from day one. The biggest revenue they had ever was the day after HealthKit launched. And there was probably only a handful of apps at that point that have bothered putting in HealthKit. So I ended up in there. They featured HealthKit that’s my default. So definitely, add these features so with Apple are looking to feature from day one.

David: Yeah, okay. So let’s just go back to that then. So you knew HealthKit was coming. You built the capabilities into the app. You released and got approved in the App Store. Did you change anything about what you said in your app, in terms of the App Store description to at least try and promote to the Apple staff? Or did they just naturally pick it up the fact that you’d actually turned on that flag?

Stuart: No, there’s an e-mail that looks like an App Store review at, and you e-mail and you nag them in and tell them that these things are there, so they’re getting thousands a day. And they’ve got a filter on that particular feature that’s coming out there via e-mail. You might come up on their radar.

David: Okay, so really keeping an eye on what you can do with features or getting featured by Apple is a really big deal. That’s come up many times over things. But certainly, hacking it in terms of looking at Apple’s incentives is a really big way of doing that.

Stuart: Yeah, for sure. A lot of people say Apple, particularly developers and now it’s a bit of a lottery, but I think you can definitely stack lottery in your favour just by giving them what they’re looking for.

David: Very good. Okay, alright. Well, thank you very much for your time. It’s really been great and it’s a great story to tell. And it’s interesting to hear that it’s still alive and things like HealthKit is still actually, again, get another kick along as well too. Tell us a little bit about what you’re doing at the moment. Obviously, you’re working pretty heavily on Appbot. So tell us more about what your plans are apart from those unreleased ones?

Stuart: Yeah, well obviously towards the end of last year, I sold Seven-Minute Workout to a health company. So that gave me a bit of a buffer to do what I wanted, so yeah, really diving in deep into Appbot now and building out a team around that, and just trying to make tools around what I’ve learned really works and growing your app over time. And I think it really is that user sentiment and connecting with those users, and hopefully making it snowball over time. So I’m just full-time into Appbot.

David: So keep us posted in terms of anything new coming up. You got me intrigued with these new announcements. So it would be great to hear from you. And we might get you to just pop on again, just let us know what you’ve done.

Stuart: For sure.

David: Great. Alright, mate. Thanks a lot. Take care.

Stuart: You too. Thank you.

  Get our Referral Program Guide