Apple Search Ads for newbies

Understand how the advertising network works within the Apple Store itself. Spoiler: for now, it has no user tracking issues

User Acquisition
Posted on
May 1, 2023
Apple Search Ads for newbies

The Basics of Apple Search Ads

After managing hundred of thousands of dollars on ad spend for the last 1.5 years within this ad network I feel comfortable making this blog/guide for beginners that are looking to start working with Apple’s advertising platform for developers.

Before start reading you must know that the purpose of this content is to be precise and clear, so it won’t be short.

I will not only share with you the basics of ASA (Apple Search Ads), but also my personal recommendations and best practices that help me scale multiple apps across different verticals.

What is ASA? 🍎

ASA is a digital acquisition channel that connects advertisers with iOS users inside the App Store. As the way Google Search Ads works, the highest bidder takes de impression on a particularly keyword.

Why you should try ASA? 👀

The App Store is incredibly popular, with over 500 million people visiting each week. People come to the App Store knowing that it’s a safe, trusted app marketplace.

Also, this is a powerful acquisition channel because the user is the one searching for the ad, and not vice verse.

The main data show that 50% is the average conversion rate for ads in App Store search results, 65% of downloads occur directly after a search on the App Store and 70% of App Store visitors use search to discover apps.

As well, Apple Search Ads ranked 1° in the AppsFlyer Performance Index for the Retention and IAP Index (this last index ranks ad networks by their ability to deliver paying users.)

How it works?  🛠

Depending on your needs and level of expertise, two versions of Apple Ads are available: Apple Search Ads Basic and Apple Search Ads Advanced. My recommendation? Use always ASA Advanced.ASA Basic allows you to budget up to $10,000/month per app, and promote a maximum of 50 apps. This option is useful for marketers who want predictable costs and a simplified setup.

When we talk about “effect” we refer to an app install, like the ideal opportunity to reach the consumer, and the “cause” can be a digital ad or a series of marketing campaigns. This helps you to create more effects translated into more app installs.

The key to success is the understanding of the “why” and the “how” because when you learn about users’ motivations and their journeys, you can grow faster. Why? Because you can optimize your apps to attract more customers based on what you learned.

For example, ASA Basic won’t require you to set audience refinements or relevant keywords. Instead, Apple matches your ad to potential customers themselves.

ASA Advanced is ideal for those who want control over their app marketing strategy.

It provides powerful marketing tools and the ability to create campaigns with keywords you choose, cost-per-tap bidding, and audience refinements.

Only 4 placement are possible to choose within ASA. Search Results, Search Tab, Today Tab and Product Pages.

The first placement, Search Results, occur when users search for an app, the App Store returns a list of apps that are ranked based on 2 factors:

  1. Text Relevance: Matches for your app’s title, keywords, and primary category
  2. User Behavior: Downloads and the number and quality of ratings and reviews

Search Results placement uses a cost-per-tap bidding model. But it’s important to know that your ad won't appear if your app isn’t relevant for what the user is looking for, regardless of how much you may be willing to pay.My recommendation is to start with this placement as it matches users with the intent of downloading an app so it’s easier to hit your target tCPA (target cost per action). Use Exact Match in every campaign expect Discovery and prepare to start with a high bid in order to get data ASAP.

The second placement that exists is Search Tab. When a user goes to the Search tab, a single ad may appear at the top of the suggested apps list.
Search tab ads help drive awareness and downloads by giving your app more exposure on the App Store.

Pricing for this ad placement is based on a cost-per-tab (CPT) model. Also Search Tab campaigns don't require keywords.If you are looking for performance and positive ROI, I recommend to avoid this placement because of high costs and low conversion rate. But if you are a big advertiser that’s looking to run branding campaigns the Search Tab placement is a good choice.

Recently, Apple announced is expanding its advertising business and adding two new ad slots to the App Store. The Today Tap and Product Pages.

First and foremost, there is a new advertising slot coming to the “Today” homepage of the App Store. This spot, as seen in the image above, is located in the second slot on the Today page.This is obviously going to be a quite lucrative ad placement for both Apple and developers, as it is right on the page users see when they first open the App Store.

I predict this placement will be more like a Search Tab in terms of performance and the bid will be aggressive at the beginning until developers start seeing poor results in their campaigns.

Then, the second new advertising placement is coming directly to product pages themselves. This means that developers will now be able to place ads on the product pages for other apps.

This spot is located at the very bottom of the product page, beneath the banner section that shows other apps by that developer. Your ad can run across all relevant app categories, or you can refine the categories where it runs. Keep in mind that, developers won’t be able to target a specific application when bidding for product page ad placement. For instance, Twitter wouldn’t be able to target Tweetbot specifically.
The ads, however, will be relevant for each of the product pages. This means you could (and probably will) see ads for direct competitors on app pages.

I predict that this could be a really interesting placement because the users who scroll down to the “You may also like” section have a high intent of downloading an app that solves their problems. It will have low reach and scalability but could create interesting campaigns in term of performance.

There are 3 ways you can control how ads are matched to searches.

  1. Exact Match: is for the tightest control over searches where your ad may appear, use exact match.
  2. Broad Match: ensures your ad will run on relevant close variants of a keyword, such as singular, plurals, misspellings, synonyms, related searches, and phrases that include that term, fully or partially.
  3. Negative Keywords: this match type ensures that your ad doesn’t show for an exact word or phrase. It doesn’t block your ad from close variants like common misspellings and plurals. I recommend using exact match to avoid inadvertently excluding your ad from showing for relevant searches.

Campaign Structure and Optimization 🏛

There are 4 campaigns that Apple recommends to have.

  1. Discovery: focused on reaching a wider audience and mining for popular search terms to add as keywords. Within this campaign, you’ll use broad match keywords and Search Match to automatically match your ad to relevant search terms. You’ll want to create two dedicated ad groups:
    - A broad match ad group that includes all the keywords from the other three campaign types but with the match type set to broad and Search Match off
    - A Search Match ad group that doesn’t include any keywords but has Search Match on so that your ad can be matched to relevant searches on the App Store
    Here you should exclude the keywords of the other campaigns and you should know that this campaign is usually the one that spends almost all the daily budget, so keep an eye on it
  2. Competitors: focused on customers searching for apps similar to yours, within the same or a related app category. Keywords here can help your ad show for queries that are more narrowly focused on your type of app. All keywords should be set to exact match.
  3. Category: focused on customers searching for non-branded terms that describe your app’s category and what your app does. Keywords here can help you reach a wider audience of customers interested in your app or its genre. Keywords should be descriptive of your app and set to exact match.
  4. Brand: focused on customers searching for your app or company name. Keywords in this campaign type will help your ad appear for searches directly related to your app and brand. All keywords should be set to the exact match type.

Based on my experience, when you are running campaigns for different apps, the best practice is too separate by campaign groups (is the same as a Meta ad account). The only issue with this is that you won’t be able to export report for different apps at the same time. So keep that in mind

Pro tip, control your discovery campaign as it’ll be the one spending most of the budget. And download daily/weekly reports to analyze the best performing search terms to target them inside the related campaign, to then exclude them inside the discovery campaign.

Then, I highly recommend to set different tCPA for each campaigns. For example, the brand campaign is the one that will always deliver the lowest CPA because users are already looking for your app. This means you should take into consideration organic installs cannibalization mainly because you will be paying for users who were already going to download your app.

On the other hand, your competitors campaign will be one of the toughest to manage and scale because your CPT’s (cost-per-tap) will be expensive and difficult to make a profit out of it. So keep in mind not to lose everything here.

Be aware of…  ⚠️

As you may know, not everything that glitters is gold. These are the 6 pain points I suffer while working with ASA:

  1. Low Scalability: this is not Meta or TikTok. ASA structure isn’t prepare for max liquidity and therefore you won’t be able to scale your daily budget without losing profits in the way. Year after year competition grows so costs keep increasing. Based on my experience it’s really hard to spend more than 5K daily and make a profit out of it. Still, this doesn't mean you shouldn't try ASA.
  2. Lack of In-App Event Optimization: until this day, ASA doesn't allow to optimize towards any in-app event, so you won’t be able to target users with high probability of generating an IAP (in-app purchase). Only optimize towards install. FYI, CPA = CPI within ASA dashboard.
  3. Poor user interface experience: ASA UI sucks. Loading times are too slow, confusing buttons, poor UX and sometimes it crashes for no reason. For last but not least, custom reports take a year to download.
  4. Data Visualization: basic charts and really few alternatives to analyze data. So I highly recommend to export reports or see the data using any BI tool or MMP.
  5. Not budget friendly: if you don’t have the budget to test high CPT’s (cost per taps) avoid ASA. CPI’s are getting more expensive year after year and being able to make a profit since day cero is difficult.
  6. Hard to maintain: too much campaigns, keywords, search terms, ad groups, CPT, CPI, countries, custom product pages, placements, and the list goes on. Remember that if you are looking to scale, you should optimize every variable mention above. Takes time and experience, so avoid on planning to spend big budgets without someone to keep a daily eye on.

Best Practices 🚀

  1. Avoid ASA Basic: you will not have the possibility to use all the functionalities that the platform offers and you’ll be limited to scale performance.
  2. Benefit from unique granularity of data: SKAN? NO! ASA use AdServices Framework for deterministic attribution, so you’ll be able to see more granular data inside your MMP. This make ASA the #1 player in iOS measurement.
  3. Target the right competitors: Being able to identify the right competitors without burning too much money in the way, prove to be a game changer based on my experience. So keep looking for the right apps to target and steal users from.
  4. Select the right placement: Are you looking for performance? Choose Search Results and try to avoid the other ones. This doesn’t mean that the other 3 won’t work, but it’s really difficult to scale and be profitable.
  5. Control discovery campaigns: being able to understand how to analyze and optimize the discovery campaign will allow you to scale faster and maintain a positive ROI. Takes time and effort but in my opinion it’s key to place a strong focus here.