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How do you start buying users for apps?

Mobile apps have been around for over a decade but there are a vast number of app developers – some brand new, others with millions of organic users –who have the same question: how do I buy users (profitably) for my app?

The answer, in short, is: you need the right infrastructure to measure the buys, start testing sources, then iterate on your successes and trim your failures.

This article expands on each of these steps to give app developers a playbook on where to get started.

First, you need to be able to measure your results

The first step – and the one most often skipped – is investing in the proper measurement infrastructure. The number of app developers who start buying users without a clear indication of success would surprise you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard: “I’m running a couple of campaigns, but I’m not sure how they’re doing.” That’s wasted money and not being able to measure your success is a recipe for failure.

Measurement comes down to 4 separate, distinct items:

Campaign Attribution:

In short, linking the campaign (where the user is bought) with the acquired user. While this is a gross oversimplification, you’re essentially tracking users between your app and ones that have clicked on your ads. This is a ~$2B/yr industry so I won’t attempt to address the complexities & options here.

The “actual” earned value of a user:

Meaning tracking each user’s distinct value across all earned revenue, which for freemium apps are usually made up of to 3 types:

– Ad impressions
– In-app purchases
– Subscriptions

Related reading: Mobile User Level Ad Revenue

The “projected” total earnings of a user:

Most commonly referred to as LTV, this tracks the user through their lifetime earnings. This is done by projecting the earnings of a user’s lifetime.

Related Reading: Using LTV as a success-metric & Common Data Type Integrations (documentation)

The success of a campaign:

Simply put, user-earnings divided by spend-to-acquire those users. Also know as Return on Ad Spend (or ROAS). Where $100 earned by users that cost $100 to acquire indicate a 100% ROAS.

Second, choose your source for buying users

There are a wide variety of sources (or platforms) for acquiring users and each will have their own strengths and weaknesses in being able to find and capture users that are important to your app.

The best source users for you will depend on your app. Which types of users are most likely to download, pay (and continue to use) your app? You likely have some hypotheses on but the good news is this matters less – given you’ve followed the first step of measurement—as success will be easy to determine given you’ve followed step 1.


Facebook is one of the biggest sources for buying users. Historically, because they have a rich array of user demographics and interests at their disposal they’re very good at finding user profiles (e.g. women over 35 that are interested in yoga) as well as lookalike audiences which allow you to find other “good users” based on your existing users. The downside with Facebook is recent Apple changes the measurement is changing and cost of user-acquisition is going up.


Google is the other big source for installs. Their dizzying breadth of content (search, YouTube, Google Play Store, Admob Network, 3rd party sites) allow you to reach a tremendously-large group of users. The downside is with breadth comes complexity – getting started with Google can be rather daunting.

Apple Search

Apple allows you to buy placements based on user search. While this can be relatively straight-forward (your app is a yoga app, so you buy the search term “Yoga”) most developers have found this very expensive to scale.


Unity has made very good in-roads to mobile user-acquisition recently and can provide excellent reach and results for gaming-apps. However, because of Unity’s large footprint with games, we haven’t seen many non-gaming campaigns achieve significant scale.

Do it yourself

Where Apple is easy to get started but expensive to scale the complete opposite is true for a DIY buying platform like Beeswax. While you’ll need to become an expert at running your own campaigns—and learn a completely new set of acronyms– you’ll cut out the middlemen and may achieve better prices than other sources.

Hire the experts

There exists a whole subset of user-acquisition platforms (DSPs) that will help you acquire users. Companies like Lifestreet (disclaimer: I worked there), MoPub Acquire, and Liftoff have built complicated technologies to find and acquire valuable users. The downside with these types of solutions is they often need tens of thousands of dollars to train models and start finding profitable users at scale.

Other Options

Another often overlooked option is influencers or referrals. The yoga app in our earlier example? What if you get the top yoga influencer on Instagram to promote your app to their 100K followers? Or get a mention from the top yoga blog. Because this is a more targeted audience, you’re competing with less buyers and can achieve higher ROI.

It should be noted that each of the aforementioned sources will have budgets and goals that should be tied closely to your success metrics assigned in step one.

Last: Monitor and iterate on your success (or failures)

Regardless of your choice of where to buy users, the third step is potentially the most time-intensive – and therefore often skipped — but the most important step. But luckily, if you’ve followed step one, it will be the easiest.

Measure earnings of the users from each campaign: Keep in mind, success is relative. You likely won’t get profitable users out of the gate, instead start looking at earned revenue by each campaign you’ll be able to find the highest-value campaigns to start. From there you’ll be able to move forward.

Iteration is the key to increasing your campaign’s success. Find the winners and cut the losers. There are a few levers you have at your disposal:


The biggest bang-for-buck – changing the look of the ad won’t increase the cost, but may increase users clicking your ad. And while it can be daunting to “make better ads” it can be incredibly effective.

Find better users:

Intuitively the easiest lever understand – some users are worth more — but in practice not the easiest to ascertain why. Simply put, you need to figure out what makes these users valuable. Is it the actions they take in the app? Is it the demographic of the users? This is where we recommend you leverage a product like AdLibertas Audience Reporting that will allow you to segment your users and determine their future value and valuable behavior.

In way of example:

Case Study: Using day-1 actions to predict user value

Mike Newman, creator of Flow Free, always wondered if the number of games played on the first day would help predict a user’s lifetime value (LTV).

Case Study: Predicting user LTV early and accurately

Random Logic Games increases user predicted lifetime value (pLTV) accuracy and saves time by leveraging Audience Reporting forecasting.

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

Changing your cost-per-install (CPI) price:

While changing the cost you pay per install may at first seem like just a tool for adjusting scale, there is a (difficult to measure) impact to ROI as well. Increasing the number of users downloading your app will increase the rank of your app in the store. Being at the top of the charts has a dramatic effect on your app’s discoverability, and while potentially expensive to buy your way to the top, it can be a very lucrative method in increasing organic installs.

Photo by Rami Al-zayat on Unsplash


The sites – or more appropriately– the apps that are showing your ads – are going to have their own mix of user audiences, ad-frequency and other variables. Don’t overlook this one: buying a reader from the Financial Times vs. BuzzFeed will give you access to a very different demographic of users. This is true for apps as well. Our customers measure LTV of each site, on a rolling basis to determine the effectiveness of users.

Your app effectiveness:

This topic may deserve an article of its own. How do you iterate your app to be more effective? Quite simply the same way you iterate each of your campaigns: find out what works in driving user profit and fix what doesn’t. This has a hugely variable approach depending on your app, so the best explanation is best suited from a few examples from our customers:

Case Study: Remove a paywall, increase revenue?

VisualBlasters released some paid-features to users and was surprised to see that — in addition to retention — revenue increased as well.

Case Study: How do you use data to make your app better?

How do you use data to positively influence user-engagement and earnings?

It should be noted that each of the aforementioned sources will have budgets and goals that should be tied closely to your success metrics assigned in step one.

Conclusion & Other Reading

While simply tip of the iceberg, we hope this was helpful in getting started on buying users for your app. If you’d like to know more about our findings or speak with us tips for getting started, we’d love to schedule some time to speak with you. Simply head on over to our contact page and book a call with us!

For some related reading, please see some of the following articles:

The 3-biggest mistakes when buying users
Choosing the right conversion events for your app
The first-step to buying installs for your mobile app? Understand your investment.