Business Development · Marketing Strategy

Do I really need to pay for the marketing of my new mobile app?

Olumidé Gbenro

July 22nd, 2015

We are close to releasing our first app, a social one related to transportation. 
My question is do we need to pay for a marketing team when the team already contains a group of competent marketing majors from my university. Further we have the university system as the base to validate our concepts before we move to the larger population as a whole.

Why would I pay someone to do something that we can already do on Twitter, Instagram, Google search. This is my initiation into this market so i'm sure you are sensing some naivety but I am quite confident in the capital conservative approach since I believe the app will spread like wildfire anyways from word of mouth.

Todd McMurtrey Global Marketing Operations Manager | Digital Marketing at Medtronic

Last updated on November 28th, 2018

My question is do we need to pay for a marketing team when the team already contains a group of competent marketing majors from my university.

As others have stated, this heavily depends on what they are really bringing to the table. Success here will rely on two things:

  • Time
  • Expertise

Surely your team has some time and some expertise, so there are a lot of partial solutions (which others have suggested). There are a few questions you can ask yourself.

  • Are there areas where the team is weak? Specifically, are they good at community building, user behavior analysis (and using that to improve the product), online advertising (all types), product promotion, public/media relations, strategic partnerships, etc.
  • Is the time you'd spend doing these things worth it? Specifically, are there other things that would be a better use of your team's time that they would have to sacrifice if they spent all day posting on Twitter or whatever.

Further we have the university system as the base to validate our concepts before we move to the larger population as a whole.

  • It sounds like you have a good target audience, and that you may be in the very early stage of development. This may help answer your question since it may be better to hold off on significant expenses until you have proven the market.

Why would I pay someone to do something that we can already do on Twitter, Instagram, Google search.

There's a lot more to marketing an app than just posting on social platforms and some SEM. What you'd be paying for is either:

  • Things you can't do or can't do as well as you think (expertise)
  • Things that aren't worth your time to do (resources)

This is my initiation into this market so i'm sure you are sensing some naivety but I am quite confident in the capital conservative approach since I believe the app will spread like wildfire anyways from word of mouth.

Since you are early in the process of proving out the market, being conservative makes a lot of sense. However, in my experience, strategies that consist of "it doesn't matter if we market because this will just go viral" are almost always doomed to failure. You are basing the entire success of your product on a "wish," and have no actual plan to make it happen.

Viral campaigns almost never happen on their own, and they take an incredible amount of behind-the-scenes crafting, management and influencing. I'm not saying it can't happen, but if you don't actually have a strategy to enable, promote, and guide your new community to promote your product for you, they aren't going to go very far on their own. Word of Mouth marketing can do wonders, but it isn't hands-off.

Michael Meinberg Teacher (iOS Development) at The Mobile Makers Academy (A Hack Reactor School)

July 22nd, 2015

Man, I hope it does for you. That certainly is the best avenue if it does spread real well. The reality is, though, that very, very few apps spread quickly without at least one push, whether that is with capital (buying eyeballs) or with sweat (pushing it on social media and PR work yourself).

It is that there are so many apps out there that you get lost in the shuffle, even if the idea is good.

Michael Meinberg
iChoice App Design

Chris Gorges Managing Director, Infinia Group // Founder, Biddlist

July 22nd, 2015

Agree strongly with both of the points above. A couple of points / questions:
  • What exactly do you mean by "pay for a marketing team"? Do you mean hiring a CMO, hiring a brand strategy firm, hiring an advertising agency...?
  • When you say you "have the university system as the base to validate" -- has your university system already adopted and proven out the concept / adoption? Have you accurately and appropriately tracked all metrics of usage and adoption?
  • What is that "something that you can already do on [social media]"? If you mean PR in this case (coverage in Mashable, TechCrunch, TheNextWeb, etc), you can hustle to make those connections, but to John's point, you may be burning valuable time that your team should be focusing elsewhere, when an outsourced resource could have done it much more thoroughly and efficiently, and in a more appropriately-targeted way. 
  • You say your team can handle "Google search" -- if your team has an SEO expert, that's outstanding and a huge leg up -- but if not, you may be missing out on an important opportunity. OR on the other hand, you may be inappropriately allocating resources -- who actually finds a social transportation app via search and downloads it? I would venture to guess few, but I'm not an expert on that, and haven't done the research.
  • Lastly, if you're quite confident that the app will spread like wildfire, I'd love to check it out as a beta tester to get ahead of the market. Do you have influencers who will lead this word-of-mouth charge?

John Seiffer Business Advisor to growing companies

July 22nd, 2015

You've fallen into what I call the "bootstrapper's trap" thinking that if you can do something yourself or with your team, there's no cost to it. 

At the beginning of any company, it only cost you time not dollars to do things. But if you are successful and the company scales you'll have to hire people to do most (if not all) of the things you're doing. If you don't build the market value of what that costs into your business model then you'll either have to stay small to stay profitable, OR you'll make mistakes in pricing, cash allocation etc that might cause you to fail. 

Rob Underwood Advisor and Entrepreneur

July 22nd, 2015

May go w/o saying -- there is MUCH more to marketing than "Twitter, Instagram, (and) Google search." 

Personally, I am skeptical of social media's ability to generate demand solely on its own independent of help from other channels. Great for building brand, amplifying messages, communicating value props, etc. But as a stand alone way to create qualified leads and lead people to hit the "buy button" I am suspicious of how well it does. Just guessing based on the limited description but I'm guessing something like transportation is going to rely on word of mouth and referrals (which of course can be amplified and directed on social media). How are thinking about building buzz "off-line" about your on-line product? 

Think about your experiences with Lyft or Uber. If you're like a lot of people, I bet you heard a lot of buzz about it on-line, especially on social media. But it's often the social proof of a real-world friend saying they use Uber (and like it) that is the impetus for someone trying it out (and hence why they do a lot of referral marketing with referral discount codes).

Todd McMurtrey Global Marketing Operations Manager | Digital Marketing at Medtronic

July 22nd, 2015

Warning: Long rambling on virality.


First, I'm going full disclosure to say "viral campaigns" and social media isn't really my area of expertise. I do boring things like predictive analytics, programmatic ads, marketing automation, and the like.

But having worked at an agency, when the client says "make it go viral" what they generally seemed to mean is that they don't have the money to put together an actual campaign and they are hoping that it'll just market itself.

Does that work sometimes? Yep! Sure. Maybe. I'd love to see it. But to risk your entire business on it? Well, that's a risk I wouldn't take.

If there's nothing you can do to make it happen, don't make it the keystone of your strategy. If the outcome depends on you, you'd better have a plan. Which was the main point I was hoping to make.

Even so, you are right. Viral campaigns do take a mind of their own (which is kind of the point, right?), even if it takes some effort to get going. Clever agencies build on existing movements and just nudge them into something to promote what they want. Look at the #batkid campaign (a "viral" campaign by clever girls collective that started with the agency buying ~12,000 tweets and post from notable influencers - not to mention press announcements and more traditional efforts - and preparing several of the locations and celebrities that were "spontaneously" shown throughout the campaign.) But really, this was just a spontaneous unification of the community on behalf of a kid on the Make A Wish Foundation's list, right? I mean, it's not like the agency would go to all that effort just to show what they could do, right? Or that they were hired by Make A Wish to helped increase donations? It kind of ruins the magic when you see how the sausage is made. Here's a brief video by the agency explaining a high level of what they did to make it happen: Notice the mix of "virality" with pre-positioned planning.

(Also, for other interesting case studies, check out the agency's client list and case studies on influencer marketing in which they talk about how they do what they do. I only chose this one because it gets mentioned so often as a great example of a completely viral campaign, when really it was a well executed agency strategy.)

Aside from that, insiders on everything from the Ice Bucket Challenge to the (intentional) community "outrage" at American Apparal regularly talk about the amount of orginzation and effort that goes into planning and maintaining said viral campaigns. While these certainly gain some momentum as they progess, in every case I can think of, it didn't "just happen" on its own. Though of course, I'm sure some were easier that others, and some, according to those that run them, were suprisingly easy. Also, I'm sure agencies take credit for things that they really didn't have a lot of influence over, so it goes both ways.

From the perspective of marketing an app, "virality" has an important role but requires a few things:

  • How will people share (in app, FB, social groups, etc)?
  • Who will they share with (are you building a community in the app, sharing to FB/Twitter friends, to phone contacts, etc)?
  • What elements in the app reward and incentivize sharing?
  • Will you onboard referrals differently?
  • Sharing among "regular" people generally has so little influence that it'll almost never reach critical mass. How will you identify major influencers and turn them into evangelists to share to many people very quickly and enough to spread elsewhere?
  • What message/branding do you want them to share (are they promoting a feature of the app, sharing because of your company story, etc) and how will they get that message (are you using rich sharing elements like twitter cards that can include video, image, or other elements. What does your invitation email say? What does the onboarding process look like for them)?
  • How does the "viral" and sharing parts of your campaign support other marketing elements, and vice-versa.

Some of these are design decisions. Some of these are marketing actions. Some of these require work and time and expertise. But the chance of it all happening on its own is almost zero. Could it happen? Sure. Will it happen even with lots of effort? Probably not. (Which is why "going viral" isn't a ever good plan, in my opinion). But even so, if I was advising here, I'd ensure that they have a solid Plan B that isn't primarily based on hopes and wishes. Hence my disagreement to the statement of:

"I'm quite confident in [not spending money] since I believe the app will spread like wildfire due to word of mouth."

Those aren't mutually exclusive, nor does one does guarantee the other. But expecting it to be successful on its own isn't a good excuse not to have a launch and growth strategy (whether that's you and your team, or an outside vendor/agency).

(Edits for formatting and spelling)

Chris Gorges Managing Director, Infinia Group // Founder, Biddlist

July 23rd, 2015

I'll be brief, but I will say that this is one of the more interesting and engaging discussions I've seen on this forum, so that's great.

@Steve I think we may just disagree about what is truly "viral" -- which is completely fine. The Evian babies, Red Bull space suit, et al, were clearly and transparently branded *advertising* -- and I spent a couple of years as one of said agency geeks (actually at Havas, which created the Evian babies). The numbers associated with the videos you listed aren't really in line with the numbers below -- which I consider truly viral content (and honestly I've never heard of the Hobbit plane or the LG disappearing floor but I'll check them out today).

"Gangnam Style" - 2.4 billion
"Charlie Bit Me" - 825 million
"Chocolate Rain" - 100 million
"Never Gonna Give You Up" - 132 million
"Sneezing Baby Panda" - 217 million
"Evolution of Dance" - 290 million

@Todd you more clearly and thoroughly articulated my point, the foundation of which is essentially that you cannot and should not (particularly as a startup) rely on blind trust that something will go viral. An agency can generate / manipulate some level of viewership, but it's a tipping point thing, and I sincerely doubt Olumidé has the budget at the moment to hire an Omnicom or WPP company to try to orchestrate a viral campaign for his app.

Bahiyah Robinson Strategic Marketing, Biz Dev + Communications for Innovators and Enterprises in Tech, Media and The Arts (US-AFRICA)

July 22nd, 2015

Agreed with all the above.  The bottom line is, as a startup founder, you need to use your money and time wisely. This means having an expert (or expert team) build a brand identity and marketing strategy for your startup, including the how and why users (and investors) should care about your product, how it's differentiated in the market, what market opportunities you have that may be of no or little cost.  

After that, you can start testing which types of marketing campaigns work with your various target user groups online and offline- this is where data analysis and SEO is so important.  A clear marketing strategy gives you a framework to test and build out which levers will get you to the fastest and most sustainable user acquisition, and will create some loyalty within your user base.  

To John's point, you also have to think about sustainability - if you haven't trained your staff and have some sort of marketing infrastructure in place and you grow quickly in the first 12 months, how will you sustain and build on that growth?  Many startup founders miss the boat when it comes to really understanding their market position and user behavior.  In order to be thorough and wow your Series A/B investors, you will have to make a strong case that outlines what the marketing challenges were, how you solved them, and how they'll inform the future growth of your company. 

Jacob Johnson Artist and Creative Product Designer

July 22nd, 2015

Whether you like it or not, your team and yourself are responsible for marketing - any way you look at it.  It is my opinion that early stage startups need to realize they can't get anything for free.  In this case your team contains marketing majors - are these team members doing other vital things in the company?  Taking their time away from why they join on with you may be a friction point.  The cost to you if you went with an agency could get expensive fast!  Yet doing all the marketing yourself will cost you more time than you realize, even with the majors on your side.  Where is their experience?  Can you verify that they have the wisdom and experience to notice subtle red flags in their approach?  Part of what makes marketing agencies so valuable is that they know what they're doing, and have the experience to see potential barriers that students just won't see - or see too late.

My straight up advice, do a mixture of both!  Pay for the parts of the marketing strategy that are just huge time sinks, and handle the rest yourself.  For example, do you need a trailer video, commercial, banner ad?  Why not pay for those to get them out of the way quickly?  Meanwhile you focus your valuable time on brand awareness and priming virality on social sites.  At this point it's not a question about doing it all yourself, or paying someone to do it all for you, it's about finding how you can stretch your runway, use your time wisely and take advantage of your core teams strengths.

Steven Rahseparian Founder & Chief Executive Officer at Secured Universe

July 22nd, 2015

I think you answered your own question. :-) It may make sense to get an Advisor on board that can fill the gaps where your team needs help.