Fishbrain’s Lisa Kennelly on Scaling App Marketing Teams from Scratch
The top app's CMO shares brand marketing strategies in a post-IDFA world
When was the last time you asked a product designer to create marketing content? It’s easy to conflate the two, but the roles require different skills. In addition to marketing not being their area of expertise, product designers are normally too busy.
“That’s the underrated aspect of building a performance team,” says Lisa Kennelly, Chief Marketing Officer of top fishing app Fishbrain, “having really killer designers who understand what you’re doing and are owners and guardians of your brand.”
You may need to build and scale your app marketing team from scratch, so having the right marketing strategy to grow your app — and your bottom line — is crucial.
The Changing App Store Landscape: From Land Grab to Revenue Generation
Back in 2013, before her time at Fishbrain, Lisa found herself in a very crowded space. The core user proposition of her app at that time? Telling users when their periods were coming.
“There were 200 period tracking apps in the app store. So, it was really just like a land grab at the time,” she explains. “People would ask me at the time, ‘how do you make money?’ Figuring out the answer to that came later. The priority instead was ‘claim market share and really set yourself apart.’ And brand was a big part of that.”
The company tinkered with different models for monetization — including the Wikipedia donation model — both on monthly ($1) and quarterly bases. Considering membership versus subscription, Lisa found that the focus on female health, community support, and ethical data usage helped the shift from a focus on growth into prioritizing revenue.
If you’re bootstrapping, though, you’re using a different playbook. You have to get creative.
“We were able to grow really fast for quite a while,” Lisa explains, including through the use of Facebook ads, which in the early days were “incredibly cheap; incredibly easy.” The name of the game was marketing to the target demographic and watching the downloads skyrocket.
She adds: “We were very early with influencer marketing. If you could get a bunch of female influencers to talk about using a period tracking app, [users] would just go download it. So, the focus on growth made sense because it was pretty easy.”
It is easy to do in hindsight, but sometimes an earlier focus on monetization pays dividends down the line. “Branding was so big, so core to that product in that space,” Lisa says, with a focus on “customer acquisition costs (CAC) from these different channels,” user engagement (as much as possible), and the DAU/MAU ratio.
Of course, the business bottom line is having users who are using the app.
Underserved Markets Can Make Monetization Easier
In a 180-degree pivot, Lisa found herself in fishing — the world’s most popular hobby.
“That’s in terms of money spent on it,” Lisa says. “Even if you don’t fish yourself, I guarantee there’s someone in your life who is obsessed with fishing.” Huge niches like these are often overlooked in VC, but they can be highly lucrative with underserved spenders.
Consider the weightlifting app FitnessAI, which may replace some capabilities of a personal trainer — for just $60 a year. At roughly the cost of a monthly gym membership fee or even a single session with some personal trainers, it represents big savings.
Likewise, people spend tens of thousands on fishing boats, trips, guides, tackle, and fishing poles — it’s an expensive hobby. A fish finder costs around $300, but what if you could have one on your smartphone?
“We probably could be a little more aggressive on pushing our pricing than we are,” Lisa says. “It’s something we’re evaluating and working on.” Re-envisioning an app as a tool might be one way to do this, and looking at how your core demographic thinks is part of the process.
“Utility is really how you grow,” Lisa says. “That’s the top of the funnel — what people think about.” There are fundamental questions for app developers and marketers, too. “Are we a tool? Are we a social network? Are we an app? Are we actually a platform? All of those things impact pricing strategy.”
Grow and Scale Your App Marketing Team
Measuring the impact of marketing is notoriously tough, and an awareness budget may help. You can pay an agency for a tracking service to help evaluate it, but a focus on brand and brand marketing — not just performance marketing — is paramount.
“Ten percent of the performance acquisition budget … is going toward awareness activities,” Lisa says. “[Another] 10% of the budget is going toward our commerce business.”
The key, though, is that stakeholders have to trust the marketing team, which also takes a lead in education about how finances are being allocated. And with the death of IDFA, funding in other forms of marketing has become even more important. Stakeholders should thus be more open to awareness activities.
That said, some marketing truths are eternal. “The more we can push measurable conversion metrics, the better,” Lisa says. QR codes are one way her team has been doing this. Not everyone is on Facebook, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to capture — and measure — non-Facebook users. Radio is one example.
“I worked with someone from a performance team who was doing the media buying and coordinating,” Lisa says. This individual prioritized hitting key talking points and ensuring that the effort stayed on brand. Social media and business development departments that collaborate and avoid siloing will naturally strike a balance between performance and brand.
“They have very high quality standards but are also very collaborative,” Lisa says. Avoiding distinct design teams and being aligned on messaging has helped, but having “very clear brand guidelines [and] making sure everyone knows about them” is crucial, too.
When she began from scratch, Lisa and her lead performance colleague quickly realized that they needed their own design team. “The product designers are too busy, and this isn’t their area of expertise,” she says. “That was a really key hire that was quite hard to find.”
Now the team is bigger, and the broader overview is clear. Hiring for specific channels and social media platforms is more effective. Having “junior designers super-focused on social media and creating content for [a] very explicit channel has made a huge impact,” Lisa says. “I’m a big believer in investing in design resources to support marketing needs because I think it is really worth the investment.”
Is a Focus on LTV the Key to Cracking Social Commerce?
As subscription-based apps grow, there are opportunities to layer on additional revenue models, but it can be difficult to match the user experience to how you market yourself. “It’s been a lot of fun,” Lisa says. “I’ve been working really intensely with commerce for the last year or so… most of our commerce revenue comes from the web and much less from mobile.”
Social commerce is a powerful vision, “but executing on that is quite challenging,” Lisa says. “A lot of the interest we get from outside investment is in that potential of the marketplace.”
Concentrating on user lifetime value (LTV) and repeat customers is her team’s latest focus on the road to cracking the code of social commerce.
The use of marketplace ads and ad testing also take some tinkering. The problem is that free users who see the ads don’t buy, while paying pro users wonder why they see ads. That’s why subscription-based social networking apps often don’t layer on additional revenue models — it’s very hard to get right. “We do regular market research and really segment those personas,” Lisa says. Is the demographic searching for shopping deals or downloading the app to be part of a community?
Establishing a customized user journey from a single ad all the way through the funnel — covering totally different needs that are being addressed individually — and then adding a layer on top can be a huge challenge.
There’s No One-Size-Fits-All for App Marketing, but Talking to Customers Is Key
Between navigating the post-IFDA landscape and layering on new revenue models, the right marketing strategies are critical for app growth.
Talking to customers, understanding their personas, and getting closer to the community will all drive a bigger pool of app users from whom we can learn even more — it snowballs. “When we have a big pool of users,” Lisa says, “we can just DM them in the app. It’s not that hard to find them. So, I push for that a lot with the team.”
Hiring not just your target customers but people with an interest in your niche will play a major role in marketing and growing the business, especially with non-local customers and users.
“We are looking to expand,” Lisa says, and the “challenge of not being located where our customer is — that’s something we definitely have to overcome.”
One solution? Have a customer call in virtually.
Lisa did just that recently. She organized a Zoom meeting with a Fishbrain customer, and “he just took questions from the team for 20 minutes,” Lisa says. “That was really great… in front of the whole company, getting someone to do that. That’s pretty powerful.”
This article is based on an episode of our podcast, Sub Club, which explores best practices and insider secrets for scaling your app. Subscribe via Apple, Google, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.