How we got to 200,000 users with no marketing spend

First thing I need to say: there is no single thing that will get your app to 200,000 downloads with no marketing spend. It takes a versatile team, a ton of work, and more than a bit of luck.

But in Hitlist’s year-or-so of existence, we’ve managed to gain over 200,000 ‘free’ users from the most valuable channels of all: word of mouth and earned media. We’ve never paid for an install, we barely touch our social channels, and we haven’t used any conventional ‘growth hacking’ tactics.

However, there’s one thing Hitlist has done that I haven’t seen elsewhere, and it’s been such a huge boost that I wanted to share it and hopefully inspire others to do the same.

What’s our one silver bullet?

Hitlist has a tiny core team, but we’ve been able to leverage hundreds more through a simple device: consistent, concise update emails. I send one a month, called ‘The best update ever from Hitlist‘, to a list that now numbers in the hundreds.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the support we’ve gotten from the people on the mailing list has saved us over $100k that we might have spent on marketing, PR, hotels, conference fees, and countless other goods and services that have helped get us to this point. Here’s a small sampling of things that people on our email list have helped us achieve:

  • App Store feature in 40+ countries that resulted in nearly 100k downloads
  • temporary housing in New York, San Francisco, Zagreb, Berlin, and London
  • features in the New York Times, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and… a major Greek blog that drove nearly 10k downloads
  • >$500k in investment

Here’s what I try and include in every update:

  • Last month’s focus, and how you did. As Mark Suster once put so well, investors invest in lines not dots. Your readers are investors, in a sense: they’re dedicating time to reading your email, and you may be hoping that at some point they’ll invest something else (money or expertise or references). Give people a sense of your arc, and show that you consistently deliver on the goals you set for yourself – or if you don’t meet them, explain why and explain why you will next time.
  • This month’s focus, and an ask: let people know where you’re going and if they can help. They’re already reading your email, so chances are they like you and might like to contribute if they can. Give them an opportunity. If you don’t ask, you never know what’s out there. (If you haven’t seen Amanda Palmer’s ‘Art of Asking’ TED talk and have 13:40 minutes, watch it now, or read this great summary from Maria Popova). Make it specific: not ‘we’re looking for marketing help’ but ‘we’re looking for a senior marketer who has experience optimizing social channels for customer acquisition at a consumer-facing startup’ (know anyone?)
  • Something they don’t get elsewhere: you’re asking a lot of your readers, and some of them will understandably be thinking (in Noah Kagan‘s words), what have you done for me lately? Try and include something educational or access to something cool. Remember that not all of your supporters speak ‘tech’, but they’re probably curious about it. Imagine you’re writing all your emails to your great uncle Bob who is an artist. If he wouldn’t understand what you’re talking about when you mention MAUs, then spell it out.
  • Shout-out to a person/product that’s helped you out. If there’s a product that’s saved you lots of time, or a team member who’s been a hero, make sure to give them a hat tip. I’m a huge fan of Click to Tweet, for example.
  • Validation: any outside press, milestones, or accomplishments that can help show your reader that they should care about you and want to be part of your success.
  • Why we’re doing this: the ‘we’ here can refer to your team, or to you and all your readers. Why should they care? Why should they continue to invest any time in you? What are you adding to their life?
  • Something amusing: make yourself personable. Some call it unprofessional, but I like to include a GIF. For example, this illustration of Hitlist’s preferred sorting algorithm.

KEEP IT SHORT: 500 words or less.

This is the formula I’ve developed over a year’s worth of updates (you can see the archive if you like at, but I’d love to hear tips and what’s worked for you if you in the comments.

TO RECAP, the core elements of an engaging update:

  1. Last month’s focus and how you did
  2. This month’s focus and an ‘ask’
  3. Something educational or exclusive for your reader
  4. Shout out to a person/product that’s helped you out
  5. Outside validation that you’re worth anyone’s time
  6. Why we’re doing this
  7. Something amusing

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And as always: check out Hitlist on iOS or Android, please one click tweet about Hitlist, Like us on Facebook, and follow us on Angellist!

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