How to Hit 4 million Users in 6 months – A Startup Case Study

Grow Your Startup











How to grow your startup from zero users to  million users, in just 6 months?

That’s the question I’m regularly asked at startup events when they hear about the success we’ve had with I Am Playr (the social game I work with), which we launched 8 months ago.

So I thought I’d use this post to answer that question

This is the story of how we grew I Am Playr, the first game for our social gaming startup to over 4 million users in just over 6 months. I’ve picked out the 6 most impactful things that got us there:

Before I get started, some caveats:

4 million users is really a vanity metric. Yes, it’s true – we’ve had four million users play our game – but that’s actually easy to do (if you have deep pockets), what’s harder is to keep those users engaged and coming back day after day (and month after month). That’s why the standard industry standard metric is Monthly Active User (MAU) – we have 1.3 million of these now playing on ave 48 minutes a day, which is still pretty damn good. More on vanity and non-vanity metrics here

• These user numbers may sound huge to you, and to a certain degree they are large, but we are still a tiny player in the social gaming industry. Companies like Zynga alone have over 292 million monthly active users (and Drawsomething famously added 50 million users in 50 days) – so although we’re proud of what we’ve achieved, we’re very aware we’ve a long way, and a few more zeros, before Mark Zuckenberg is posting about us on his Facebook wall

• I write this from the perspective of Marketing Manager for I Am Playr – so most of what I’ll I write about will be marketing focused, however – the growth could not have been achieved if the game production team did not develop (and continue to develop) such a genuinely amazing game

• Throughout this article I use the word ‘game’ – but you could really change this for ‘your startup’ in most of the cases

Ready? Ok let’s go

Here are the 6 factors that helped our startup reach 4 million users in 6 months

1) Viral Marketing

Before I started working with I Am Playr, viral marketing was one of those buzz words that I often heard talked about but rarely saw in action. However, like all good social games (and social startups) – we now have lots of viral marketing mechanics to help us grow our users.

Technical note: Before I start telling you about vital marketing, I first want to tell you what viral marketing is not: Word of Mouth. Yes Word of Mouth can spread like a virus, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of how Hushpuppies did that very thing in his book The Tipping Point, but that’s not a viral mechanic per se.

Virality (measured as ‘k’ factor) is defined as a action by a user which directly brings in another user to the game. This should be trackable path of clicks to prove where each viral user came from.

We have a number of these viral mechanics in I Am Playr – ranging from sharing achievements on your Facebook timeline to rewarding you for having more players in the game with you. An example of this is here.

A few months after launch we introduced a viral mechanic that rewarded users for inviting friends to the game. It looked like this:

playr invite










Here was the impact:

Viral Marketing Growth








Takeaway – Study viral marketing and implement every proven mechanic there is (there are lots)

2) Facebook Marketing (paid)

Having a budget to give your startup an initial boost of users can be vital. Much like a rocket trying to leave the earth’s atmosphere – it can give you the user base you need for other, self perpetuating marketing channels (such as viral marketing, media partnerships etc) to kick in.

But what do you do with it?

When I started working in Marketing about 10 years ago – we would spend tens of thousands of dollars on above the line advertising that we would never really know if it worked or not.

How times have changed.

If you’re a web business you have to be great at pay per click advertising (biggest of these are Facebook ads, Google PPC or Bing PPC) simply because you can guarantee huge number of users. You want to be able to buy them in the most cost effective manner possible – ideally users that spend more money with you than you spent to acquire them. This is called positive return on investment.

Most direct response digial advertising is based on a Cost Per Click (CPC) basis – well you should take more note of the Cost per Acquisition (CPA), which is far more important. This tells you how much it costs to acquire a real user (i.e. they register with you in some way) – vs someone who clicks an ad and hits the ‘back button’ before you can say ‘not interested’

The most effective form of online advertising will vary, depending what you product is and where it is found on the web. For us, Facebook ads work the best, for two reasons:

First: Users play our game on Facebook – so when they click on our Facebook ads, they are already signed in – which reduces friction in the user conversion funnel. Compare this against if someone sees a Google PPC ad, clicks it and see’s the ‘sign into Facebook’ page = massive drop off in users

Second: Facebook ads allow us to target users using both their demographics and psycho-graphic profiles. This gives us the opportunity to target users who are most likely to spend money in our game (we track user type behaviour once they get into our game).

An example of this is, that we know that – a 28 year old Norwegian Male (demographic) who supports Barcelona and likes to play social games (psychographic) will be very likely to spend high amounts of revenue in our game.

Trouble is – so do all the other smart Facebook marketers out there – which is why it gets competitive :)

More on some ways to get the most from your Facebook ads – see here

Takeaway: Have a marketing budget to give you a base level of users to make things interesting. Then get really good a PPC based online marketing

3) Localisation

Might sound like I’m stating the obvious when I say that the web is global. But I don’t think you can truly appreciate how global it is, until you’re dealing with millions of users from around the world that do not speak your language.

I Am Playr is now played in over 200 countries – and it goes without saying that it’s more fun to play a game (or use any product) that is in your native language. So when we saw that we had hundreds of thousands of users in countries such as Turkey, Brazil and Argentina – we had to follow suit.

So we localised the game into three languages (Spanish, Portuguese and Turkish) – and the results surprised even us.

Not only did we see a huge increase in users from these regions, but revenues from these areas increased massively! Learning: For people to take out to take out their credit card – it needs to be in a language they’re familiar with.

Sounds so bloody obvious typing this, but we never realised how much of an impact this could have.

Takeaway: Look where your users are from your data – move quickly to localise in countries that show early adoption

4) Open Graph

Being connected to Facebook, either by being built directly on Facebook, or off-canvas via Facebook connect has it’s perks

By perks I mean tens of thousands of free users every day

How does this happen? This wonderful thing call Open Graph – as you play games (or interact with apps that request a Facebook permission called publish_actions), certain things users do can get automatically shared to their feed.

You know when you see what your friends are listening to on Spotify? That’s Open Graph.

Anyone that clicks on any of these messages are brought directly to your app (and they do, in their thousands).

Best thing is – once you ask for the right permissions when users installs your app, and you have Open Graph set up – it runs automatically in the background.

As Open Graph is still pretty new (Facebook just full launched it a few months ago) – it’s still a bit Wild West like & there are still opportunities for massive growth for companies who are doing this right.

open graph growthIf you asked me what 1 way could lead to rapid growth in viral installs? I’d say Open Graph.

Takeaway: If you’re linked to Facebook in any way – implement Open Graph now.

5) Cross-promotion

There is a healthy eco-system of games on the web – games companies know that most users play a number of different games over the course of an average week. Hence the word – Casual Games, as you can pop in and out of them quickly (of course the games try to get you hooked once you’re ‘in’)

Enter the cross-promo or click sharing

Click sharing networks such as Appplifer or MauDau work by games placing their cross promo bars somewhere on their game. Every time a user clicks on an ad on the bar, the game owner receives a ‘click credit’ and they receive a reciprocal click from a user somewhere on the game network.

Make sense?

And don’t be fooled into thinking not many people click these bars – we recently received over 30,000 clicks in 3 days from one of these bars. They’re clicks & users that we didn’t pay a penny for.

Of course having too much of this kind of thing can negatively impact your game’s retention rate (sending too man users away from your game) – but if done in moderation – they’re usually a powerful way of getting new users. And better to get a reward (a reciprocal click) for someone clicking an ad, than none – which happens if someone clicks a Facebook ads when playing your game.

Makes me think – what other industries would this model work for?





Takeaway: Implement a cross-promo bar – track number installs you get and monitor if retention rate drops

6) Discovery

Just like on Google – people search for stuff on Facebook/App Store etc, however these sites are not search engines – so they’re search algorithms are more basic than the Google’s of the world

Meaning you have to spell it out for them.

Meaning SEO 101 – know the keywords relevant for your game and use them often everywhere you can (without it sounding unnatural) – think name, tagline, supporting description, meta data (if you can add it)

Go to Facebook and type in ‘Play Now’ into the search bar – how do you think the top result got its 130,000 Monthly Active Users?

Being smart here and thinking ahead when you’re naming your product can pay dividends.

Takeaway – Do Keyword Research, know your keywords and implement them strategically

Your Turn: Know any other marketing techniques that have worked really well for you? Share them in the comments below

About Howard

Howard is a Startup Marketer, Blogger & founder of 3 startups. Currently working with a London based Social Gaming startup.

View all posts by Howard

11 Responses to “How to Hit 4 million Users in 6 months – A Startup Case Study”

  1. Giles Farrow Says:


    Thanks for sharing. Tons of great information here.

    Most of the feedback around Facebook ads is negative. Clearly this worked for you and a lot of that is down to being a good fit with your users (and your product).

    Did you try PR? that seems to be the main growth tactic you have not covered. Do you think this offers less return on your time / money?


    • Howard Says:

      Hey G – great to hear from you :)

      Re Facebook ads – in my experience people who speak negatively on them either:
      A) Don’t know how to use them properly, or
      B) Use them for products that do not suit pay per click campaigns i.e. buying a car (hence why GM pulled out of using Facebook ads).

      It’s not the right solution for everyone – but I would recommend setting aside a budget to test numerous ad channels – and see which produces the best results for least spend. When done right – it can be incredible effective (look at how much Appsumo advertise on Facebook – rest assured their ads produce positive ROI!

      Yeah we do PR – however if I had to guess I’d say it probably resulted in less than 5% of all user numbers. Generally my feel on PR is that it adds credibility and can bring some important soft benefits to the table (investors like to see their baby in the news, which is important etc) but it’s not that effective on attracting BIG numbers….like 20,000 users. There are exceptions to this of course, but in general if I only had £5,000 to spend, none of that would go on PR (but I might do some in-house PR myself to support whatever campaigns we’re doing)

      The PR value depate is an interesting one though – will defo do a longer post on that sometime – what’s your feeling on it?

      Thanks for the comment!


      • kabir Says:

        “B) Use them for products that do not suit pay per click campaigns i.e. buying a car (hence why GM pulled out of using Facebook ads).

        It is not necessary that only that products that can be sold online may need to be advertised on facebook in order to have a direct conversion of a pay per click advertising. Facebook advs can be a great tool for introducing new brands/products/features in products and services and which may lead to an increase in business/conversions.


  2. Mike O Says:

    Hi I liked I Am Playr, Howard I have one question does buying a single CPI convert to a single MAU? or how does that ratio work?


    • Howard Says:

      Hey Mike
      Yes – a single CPI converts instantly into a single MAU. However unless they come back at least once in the following month, they will no longer be an MAU next month (hence why it’s called an Monthly Active User)

      Hope that makes sense


  3. aditya menon Says:

    Hi Howard, thanks for being so open and sharing all this information, it truly is extremely useful! Now to implement this stuff :)


  4. Zareh Says:

    Hi Howard,

    First of all thanks for the post, It is a wonderfully useful post, let me say your game is pretty fun and a great idea, I watched the video and I’m about to try it. So besides all these points, you should have added, “Have an application which rocks, both implementation and idea”
    I am working on a personal web-fb project, and after 4 months of after work effort it’s almost ready. It will go live in a couple of days. I have already considered some of your recommendations and your post made me sure I am in the right track,I liked “Cross-promotion” idea a lot, I had not thought about, and I will definitely add it to my site.

    hope you continue gaining successes with your fun game
    Zareh B


  5. Dee Says:

    Interesting story and great success. In my experience it seems that most startups always have some sort of lucky break too, just as we have seen in our app business.

    My question would be, what was your lucky break or stroke of luck that really made you viral? I believe you make your own luck, so please don’t take the question badly, i’m very interested in knowing what magic moment helped create your success.


  6. Fer Rullan Says:

    Hello Howard,

    I absolutely liked your post. You tell in a easy way a process that is far from easy.

    Of course its depends on the product (mine is a social network app called Wittpic) that will be launch in a couple of weeks.

    The only thing i did not like is the “automatic post in the feed” that your users might get without knowing while playing your game, that in my opinion is a user catcher but also makes some users unhappy with the uknown post in their walls.

    Other is a little question, did the “invite friends to unlock X” did the users really invite friends or pay for unlonck that “x” thing?

    hugs to all and good luck in your adventures!!

    fer rullan


  7. Andrew Whitfield Says:

    Great post. I’m really enamored by your invite idea and think it will work well on my site. One question about that – is just enough to send the invite to receive the reward or does the reward occur only after a sign-up/conversion has been registered?


  8. Maarten Schenk Says:

    Interesting post. I’m currently trying to get my website (which shows you the latest trending stuff on Facebook) off the ground, and some of these ideas seem worth pursueing.

    Wonder if Facebook or other ads will do much for me. I think the math works against it: if I pay to get 100 clicks, and only one of these users clicks on my ads, I lost money.

    So it looks like viral stuff is the way to go, and localization.


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