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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

How to master app store optimization by thinking locally and globally

February 27, 2018 | By Peggy Anne Salz, Founder and Lead Analyst—Mobile Groove @peggyanne
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Think of it like products in a supermarket. Content companies with mobile apps are locked in a fight for two incredibly scarce resources: consumer attention and shelf space. Unfortunately, on the digital shelves of the app store, discovery is the bottleneck. Consumers can’t download apps they don’t know exist in the first place. (And how can they in a market where the number of apps submitted to the Apple App Store in the month of January alone topped 500 submissions daily?)

To rise above the noise, and drive app installs in the process, app owners compete for a top-notch spot in search results. Smart companies are winning the battle with App Store Optimization (ASO) by tweaking keywords, icons and other assets to make sure their app store landing converts. It takes dedication and budget to get ASO right, which is why companies that succeed and boost downloads in one country or store are leaving money on the table if they don’t publish their apps in more places.

But before you go global with your app, double-check that you have mastered more than the ASO basics. The checklist is much longer than it was just a year ago because ASO has evolved, expanding beyond the app store presence and deeper into the funnel. Looking back, the first wave of ASO was a lot like the early days of SEO (Search Engine Optimization). Companies could score quick wins by hacking Google algorithms or focusing on “long tail” keywords. Moving forward targeting “killer” keywords is not enough. ASO is morphing into what I call AMO (App Marketing Optimization) and ready for a rethink.

Rethinking ASO

ASO/AMO tops the agenda at every stage of the app lifecycle. But it’s never a case of set-it-and-forget-it. It requires app owners to monitor and manage a laundry list of elements that starts with keywords and ends with compelling video clips. It’s an ongoing effort, but the pay-off is massive organic growth that every app owner can afford to tap for their app. The key is to take the right steps in the right order.

It all starts with testing, refreshing and optimizing all of the moving parts of your app (titles, descriptions, icons, screenshots, videos, and reviews) on a regular basis. Once you have the processes in place to achieve positive results for your app at home, it’s time to take your app abroad.

Mobile Games companies need little convincing. They were pioneers in aligning app elements, visuals and gameplay with the preferences of a global audience. Consider Candy Crush, a blockbuster app with audiences in nearly 200 countries thanks to a look-and-feel that is a match with local tastes and trends. Now other categories of apps, notably those in the Entertainment category, are following a similar blueprint to attract and acquire more users.

Localization differs from internationalization

But before you embark on a strategy to take your app global, know the difference between localization and internationalization. Think of internationalization as table stakes. It encompasses what you need to adapt your app to different languages, regions and cultures to reach a global market. Your focus in this stage is on the basics: changing time, dates, region format, and other aspects of your app to fit with your target markets and audience.

Localization goes deeper. It starts with translating the language of the app and other elements (keywords, description, and even the name of the app) to be a tight fit with your target audience. If you plan to engage in commerce, be sure to adapt your app to local regulations and payment methods to avoid any legal battles further down the line.

Clearly, localization is not a job you want to leave to Google translator. Amateur efforts rarely pay dividends, and literal translations can do your app brand more harm than good. (Case in point: KFC’s famous finger lickin’ good motto for its fried chicken is a notable example of a bad translation. In Chinese, it urged consumers to bite their fingers off.) It’s also important to resist the temptation to localize every aspect of your app from the get-go just because you can. It pays to pace yourself.

If you don’t know what you’re aiming for, or the countries to target, then start with your app name and keywords and localize these assets for popular countries or languages. As a rule, use your organic app installs as a guide. Pinpointing countries where your app is taking off allows you to prioritize your efforts, starting with keywords. Use tools to check traffic volume for specific keywords and bake the best (yet most relevant) keywords into your app assets.  If you see a bump up in your app downloads, then take it as a sure sign you can move on to localize other assets, such as the app description, followed by other marketing collateral including screenshots.

Cater to local cultures

From here on, industry literature tells us localization is just a matter of “wash, rinse, repeat” for every additional country or app store on your list. But is it really that simple? In a word: no.

An effective strategy to go global with your content goes beyond the pure “science” of ASO/AMO to the “art” of understanding how addressing individual cultural preferences and nuances. Pay close attention to other aspects of your app—such as colors, images and user interface—to build a loyal audience for your content.

Do your homework and use common sense.

Primary design considerations:

UI: Does your audience read left to right or right to left? Or is it vertical? Make sure you factor in how the text and images are read. And make doubly sure the use of directional icons in your app are logical and genuinely helpful. It impacts engagement and dictates how users will interact with their device, especially as they swipe left—or right—depending on the app and activity.

IMAGES & CONTENT: Brush up on ethnology (or hire someone with those skills). Adapt the ethnicity of your visual elements to local culture and pay special attention to skin, hair, and eye color. It’s a no-brainer that Asians or Indians might be wary of buying into localized content that displays blonde-haired, blue-eyed models, presenters, or families. Rethink the obvious icons and idioms. Sure, using a piggy bank icon as a metaphor for saving money works well in North America and much of Europe, but it’s a miss in most Middle Eastern countries.

COLOR: First impressions count, and different colors resonate with different cultures. For example, Japanese players like subtlety and pale, softer colors and shades. Chinese users, on the other hand, prefer vivid, strong and bright colors like red and orange. The mobile games industry learned this the hard way, so deep-dive into posts and publications (such as Pocketgamer.biz) where they share their tips and tricks.

From images to music, be prepared to adapt every aspect of your app to match your target markets.

Pay attention to the political spectrum

Done properly, localization engages your audience with content that resonates because it respects their local customs and cultures, not just language. Significantly, the same rules apply to your choice in app marketing and advertising messages and ad creatives. Sure, it’s a must when you take your app global. But the surprise success of SmartNews, the news app that delivers the top trending stories downloaded by over 25 million readers in over 100 countries, suggests the same approach can boost results and user loyalty in your home market as well.

In the case of SmartNews, it started with the realization that readers in North America were divided by political parties but united around one goal: the desire to access to real news, not fake news. “The most effective way to show we understood our audience and their concerns was to adapt our marketing to appeal to all sides,” Fabien-Pierre Nicolas, Head of Global Growth at SmartNews, told me in a recent podcast interview.

SmartNews bet on a simple creative capable of delivering a powerful message that would appeal to a broad political spectrum of users.

A review of app data and demographics revealed that the SmartNews audience was a mirror of American society. “Our readers are mostly between the ages of 35-65, and they range from liberal to moderate conservative in their politics,” Nicolas explained. An effective campaign would have to be objective and emotive. Nicolas, recently named a Mobile Hero for his user acquisition approach and accomplishments, went to work and immediately rejected flashy images and trendy buzzwords. Instead, he worked with his team to develop a simple creative capable of delivering a powerful message.

The approach worked, boosting usage and earning the app positive reviews. Nicolas says the results are still coming in and a focus group will provide the inside track on audience and brand impact. In the meantime, internal data shows the focus on eliminating the filter bubble has allowed SmartNews to increase app appeal to both genders at all levels of society and across the complete political spectrum.

You’ve invested time and resource to make your app a hit at home, and it makes business sense to take your app to global in order to maximize exposure. Yes, that starts off with mastering the fundamentals of global and local design considerations to adapt your app to your audience. But we all know that designing a terrific app is not enough given the glut of products in the market and the increasing consumer requirement for apps that are aligned with local tastes and trends. Discovery is a critical component of conversion, but apps have to strike a chord. Moving from simple App Store Optimization to an effective global app marketing strategy will help you maximize your investment so that your app will be popular with audiences everywhere.


Peggy Anne Salz is the Content Marketing Strategist and Chief Analyst of Mobile Groove, a top 50 influential technology site providing custom research to the global mobile industry and consulting to tech startups. Full disclosure: She is a frequent contributor to Forbes on the topic of mobile marketing, engagement and apps. Her work also regularly appears in a range of publications from Venture Beat to Harvard Business Review. Peggy is a top 30 Mobile Marketing influencer and a nine-time author based in Europe. Follow her @peggyanne.

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