Peter Cunningham
Peter Cunningham 11 June 2015

Beware The Zombie App! The Zombie Escape Strategy

A simple guide to drive downloads and users to your app.

Apart from stars like Uber, Angry Birds, Facebook, and Draw Something etc. the plain truth is that most apps are inescapably destined to join the ranks of the ‘living dead’ languishing unfound and unloved among over a million competitors in the Apple Store and Google Play.

Even those that are found won’t be downloaded and the privileged few that make it to a smartphone are often forgotten and uninstalled after a few months of neglect.


In other words, they will be zombies until you finally apply the mercy blow and remove them from the App Stores.

Let’s start with a few zombie stats:

  • Localytics found 20% of apps were opened only once during the first six months of ownership
  • In 2013, Stardust found between 41-69% of apps in App Stores had less than ten reviews and had never been updated

That makes pretty dire reading considering an app can take 7-12 months to build and average ‘ball park’ costs are between US$50-100k, including ongoing testing and updating (although Kinvey found that 18% cost as much as US$500k-1m). No wonder Gartner called the app success rate ‘dismally low’ and predicted that by 2018 only 0.01% of apps will be considered a financial success. 


Despite the high costs and slim chances of success, as customers are spending more and more time on mobile, apps are increasingly important for driving sales and bookings across verticals like ecommerce, retail, travel and personal finance. So getting your app strategy wrong could be suicidal! 

So how can you escape the clutches of the Zombies?


An app that is not seen has no chance of being downloaded. Simple as that.

Even though the Apple App Store reportedly gets around 300 million visits a week (and that is a lot of eyeballs!), the huge competition for attention means you would be ill advised to rely on the ‘featured pages’, ‘trending’ or ‘related’ searches, or being found via the ‘explore’ tab.  And while there are some things you can do, like basic App Store Optimisation (ASO) including choosing a search friendly app name and keywords and using a beautiful icon to stand out in a list this will only marginally increase your chances of being seen. Although, provided your app is actually found by potential customers, using great screen shots and descriptions and getting user reviews may increase the chances of it actually being downloaded.

Even if you manage to create some launch buzz, all download spikes eventually wear off, and last year Apple changed its algorithm to discriminate against manipulation of rankings with ‘burst strategies’ of paid ads and incentivised downloads.

But App Stores are already becoming less relevant. Gartner stated that, faced with so much choice ‘app users are increasingly turning to recommendation engines, friends, social networking or advertising for app discovery’. In other words, this means to be successful you need to build a community and get users talking about and recommending your app. 

Super-charging App Discovery

Given how powerful friends’ recommendation are, we’re great believers in motivating and rewarding your most enthusiastic users to supercharge discovery, by injecting social buzz to make it exciting, addictive and rewarding to share the conversation.

What we are talking about here is amplifying the archetypal pub conversation, where you talk with friends about a product or service you discovered and love, by using the tools and language of social to magnify reach and effect of that conversation and carry it way beyond the pub walls.

First by realising that a positive recommendation from a friend will make a big impact in terms of attention and conversation, you need to ask your most loyal customers to talk to their friends and family about your app and to leave and share reviews. Provided you make it easy for them to do so, they can become your marketing channel.

You can contact those loyal users by a combination of in-app push messages, email newsletters, tweets and posts in your forums and Facebook Groups. But to really super-charge this you need to combine concepts like tiered rewards, gamification and mutual targets. A tiered rewards means your reward increases for each additional friend you encourage to download the app. Gamification engages super referrers to compete for a special ‘money can’t buy’ prize by getting more friends to try the app than anyone else. And finally mutual targets means everyone benefits as milestones of new customer acquisition are achieved.

As mentioned above, reviews are also very important for convincing users who stumble across your app to try it out. Studies show the average iOS app gets 80% of its reviews in the first 18 days after launch, whereas for Android and Windows Phone it is 16 and 13 days respectively. This means that without nurture, your reviews will just dry up. So you should constantly be engaging new and loyal users to ask them to write and share reviews, not just focusing on the launch.

What we don’t mean:

To be clear, what we are suggesting has nothing to do with the kind of incentivised downloads that app marketing firms use to influence rankings whereby a list of  ‘More Games’ is included inside an unrelated app. Here users are offered in-game credits to download or watch a video about the new app and app owner gets a fee ‘per download’ or ‘per view’. The user typically cares little about the new app and just wants the game credits.

Instead we are talking about targeted recommendations from friends and family where the sharer believes the recipient will find the app interesting.


Assuming the first part of your escape plan is successful and your app is widely downloaded, you have still not yet escaped the Zombies. Downloads do not equal use. When you consider that, in 2012,Comscore reported that the average smartphone user had over 40 installed apps it is little wonder that many are ignored.

Use will also be increasingly important for monetisation given that Gartner predicted that by 2017 94.5% of apps will be free, relying on in-app purchases and advertising to make money. This means you should spend as much effort on retention and engagement as on getting the initial download.

Thankfully many of the same principles of tiered rewards, gamification and mutual targets can be used to drive discovery and use of app features, particularly after each upgrade. By using in-app push messages, or if the app is little used try email or social posting, users can be alerted to a new feature or promotion and encouraged to try, review, and share it.  In this way a series of micro-conversions can be created with rewards for each desired action like trying a new feature, linking a credit card, creating a profile or redeeming an offer.

A smart use of these concepts can ensure that the effort you spend encouraging downloads is not wasted.

Zombie Proofing your App

Ultimately the strategy you take will depend on the nature of your app and the kinds of behaviours you want to encourage. But whatever the purpose of your app, get in touch as we would be happy to discuss with you how you can use concepts like tiered rewards, gamification and mutual targets to drive downloads and app usage and retention.

An abridged version of this article was recently published on Developer Tech.

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