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5 Lessons from David Ogilvy That Still Work for Mobile App Marketing

He cooked for the President of France, sold stoves door-to-door, wrote questionnaires for a research firm, and worked for British Intelligence. Later, he built Ogilvy & Mather.

Yes, we are talking about David Ogilvy, often described as the “Original Mad Man” and “The Father of Advertising.” He created some of the most successful marketing campaigns in the world.

Many question how David Ogilvy’s principles, dating back to the 1960s, could be considered relevant today. That was the era of print advertising, which is in dire straits today.

The primary advertising platform has shifted from print to TV to the Internet, and now, to mobile. Today, we are talking about fragmentation, conflicting mobile operating systems, limited mobile screen real estate, app store optimization, blurring geographic boundaries, and lots more.

Do Ogilvy’s teachings really matter in this social media age?

Yes. This article presents some of David Ogilvy’s most famous quotes about research, testing, headlines, great copy, and the importance of knowing your audience. You will see the proof that Ogilvyisms were not just trends of the moment, but rather, they transcend time.

On Great Copy

good copy cant

In the app world, the description of your app sums up everything about your product. I have often come across marketers who hastily roll out an app description without applying any thought.

In some cases, the developer doubles as copywriter, writing descriptions for algorithms or to appeal to geeky developer friends. In the process, the developer just scribbles a few lines with technical jargon and uses an online tool to make sure it’s grammatically correct, and voila, it’s ready.

So, what happens next? Disaster.

Writing a winning app description takes some time and thought. You need to answer questions that customers have on their minds while considering your product: Why is the app important? Why should I be interested? Why should I download it? Why now, rather than later?

If you want people to download your app, you need to help them envision your app in their hands. You need to highlight how it will improve their lives.

The purpose of writing persuasive copy is to motivate a specific user behavior. If you trigger that behavior, you win. If you don’t, you lose.

David Ogilvy puts it quite bluntly: “If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.”

Understandably, you want to flaunt the “cutting-edge” tech features of your app and your coding prowess. But, what many of today’s millennial app marketers love to do in app descriptions is throw out a list of features full of tech jargon.

It just does not work.

Get in your user’s shoes and ask a simple question: What’s in it for me?

This is exactly what the readers of your app description will be asking. You need to answer them, and that means making your app description informative. As a rule of thumb, if you can’t answer the “What’s in it for me?” question, then just don’t list that feature.

Here is how it works:

Buyers who are interested in social share integration, will think: “Enough of social networking. Why do I need this feature? What’s in it for me?” So, use something like the following in your app description:

Don’t just check forecast, share your weather conditions and see what others in your area are saying. Take and share a photo of your current weather with your friends and family via Facebook or Twitter.

Buyers who have read about Live Tile Display, will think: “Sounds cool, but what the freak is it? What’s in it for me?” So, use something like the following in order to explain it in simple terms:

View up to 5 favorite locations tiled at a time in screen for quick viewing. Tiles automatically refresh with live weather forecast.

Remember, people don’t have much time to stop and read. It is best that you don’t try to surprise them with your words and creativity at the expense of making a sale.

Anatomy of an App Description

Above-the-Fold Content in App Description

Whether it is print ads, website, and now, app descriptions, the above-the-fold concept never seems to get outdated. Above the fold is the prime real estate in the upper half of the front page of a newspaper. This is the place where an important news story or photograph is located, mainly because newspapers are often displayed to customers folded with the top half of the front page visible.

Fast forward to today, and this is how app descriptions look in iTunes Preview Website. You have to click on the word “more” to get further details.

app description above the fold

Above the Fold

Unfortunately, there are just 255 characters available for iPhone. So, focus on only your best features. Prepare a concise statement, and try to evoke emotions.

Leverage Social Proof

Consider this Ogilvy all-time classic headline for Rolls-Royce advertisements:

“At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.”

Ogilvy spent nearly three weeks reading and studying all the technical characteristics of the car until he came up with the phrase. And, this headline was simply pulling a quote from the Technical Editor’s write-up in The Motor.

In today’s era, nothing works better than social proof. If your app has been reviewed by high-authority sites, don’t shy away from flaunting best quotes from those reviews in your app description. Use the ones that really sum up your app in a very catchy and appealing manner.

social proof app description

Social Proof

What Goes Below the Fold?

Now that you have managed to get an attention-grabbing opening for your app description, you have nearly 3,775 characters for the rest of your app description that appears once someone clicks on “more.” Try to showcase what’s in it for the user who downloads your app.

app description below the fold

Below the Fold

On Great Headlines

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An app title is no different from a headline in a print ad. Write a strong title that works and strikes a chord with users. An app title can entice people to go through your app description and take further action.

You need to state what your app does in its name, and its name needs to be as direct and unambiguous as possible, so that (1) people who are looking for what your app does will find it, and (2) people who are looking for something else won’t find it and be disappointed.

Spend time, thought, and energy on your titles. If you don’t get it right, you are likely to miss out on a lot of users.

Spotlight Search

With Spotlight Search, you can easily search for content on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch. All you have to do is swipe down, and your keyboard opens to a discrete search box feature. This may be part of a larger strategy of encouraging users to start using Spotlight Search instead of Google Search. To use Spotlight, swipe down on your home screen to reveal the search field.

iphone spotlight search

Spotlight Search

Usually Spotlight searches the content for text, beginning with your search phrase. While previously the search results were limited to only things on the device, now Apple displays search results from iTunes, the App Store, websites, and even movie show times.

This feature helps users find already downloaded app(s). Remember, app enthusiasts can have hundreds of apps installed on their devices at any given point in time. So, getting people to use your app even after it has been downloaded remains a challenge.

It makes sense to include in Spotlight Search at least one or two of the first words that pop into a person’s mind when they are looking for an app similar to yours.

spotlight result 2

Spotlight Result

A caveat: only one App Store result is displayed at a time. Also, there is no consistency in showing searches for app names and keywords. So, don’t go overboard with this method. Just bear in mind, this method gets you one step closer to re-engaging with users through search.

Hazards of Keyword Stuffing

One of Ogilvy’s famous quotes states: “The headline is the ‘ticket on the meat.’ Use it to flag down readers who are prospects for the kind of product you are advertising.”

You need to incorporate the most important keywords in your app title. However, never ever stuff keywords in a title. Remember, your title needs to be catchy. Simply stuffing keywords in the title will confuse users and, worst of all, your app will look spammy. Users simply avoid apps that look spammy.

If a user does not understand what you offer from the title, it may be labeled as a bad title and “keyword stuffed.”

I receive several inquiries every day from app developers who have had their apps rejected because of keywords in the title. More and more apps are being rejected from the review process because their titles are stuffed with keywords that make no sense and don’t form logical phrases. Your title needs to make sense to human beings to avoid App Store rejection.

Within the context of informing the user what your app is all about, you must logically weave a story with the keywords and phrases that are important to your metadata. This is what both Apple and Google expect to see when they are reviewing your app.

On Research

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In 1938, Ogilvy went to work for George Gallup’s Audience Research Institute in New Jersey. This role influenced Ogilvy’s thinking and turned research into a point of obsession.

You need to get your marketing strategy in place even before your app goes live in the App Store. It is important to research key players and gain actionable insights. You need to know which category you should target and which keywords you should go after. An in-depth research and analysis could prove to be very useful.

Sadly, in most cases, what happens is a classic case of a lazy attempt like this:

Step 1: I create an app with tech-busting features.

Step 2: I’m ready to submit my “cutting-edge” app.

Step 3: Oh, wait a minute, I need app keywords and description also :(.

Step 4: Just hang on … I have it figured out: my app is about weather and it is the best.

Keywords: the, best, free, weather, app, on, planet, ever

Step 5: App approved in the App Store. Now I am just one step away from being an app millionaire.

Step 6: OMG a month has passed by and no downloads??? Why?

Blame it on Apple algorithm or users.

This is indeed a recipe for disaster. A research fanatic, David Ogilvy would probably be laughing his heart out from heaven at this approach.

The mobile app industry is all about doing your homework. There are no shortcuts in the app world.

Luckily, in today’s world, there are myriad tools that provide actionable insights. Don’t shy away from using keyword tools that make it easy to identify frequently used keywords, their traffic, and difficulty level.

Here are a few pointers that will help narrow down relevant keywords:

Keep an Eye on Your Competitors

It is very important to know what your competitors are up to. I am not advocating stealing competitors’ keywords without applying any thought. After all, competitor keywords might not be relevant for your app. But, they do give you some ideas and save time in research. Remember to look for phrases that have less competition but some popularity. It’s better to be in the top ranking position for a less popular keyword than rank at 300 for a popular one.

Try out Appcodes. It provides you with interesting information about competitors, such as:

  • Competitors’ descriptive words
  • iTunes keyword list
  • Press release tags

Target Keywords You Can Rank For

keyword difficulty level

Keyword Difficulty Level

Unless Mark Zuckerberg mentions your app on his Facebook page or Mashable features your startup, you are not going to get high rankings for keywords such as “map” or “weather,” at least not during your launch. Target keywords you can get a high rank for. Later, once your app gains popularity, you can go after difficult and high-volume keywords.

Use Tools for Web Keywords

ubersuggest on steroids


Have you ever tried Ubersuggest? With this amazing free keyword tool, you can instantly get thousands of keyword ideas from real user queries.

But, why should you use a keyword tool for the web?

It is precisely because Google is not going to provide suggestions for everything, and its algorithm will filter out suggestions related to:

  • Hate or violence
  • Personally identifiable information
  • Porn and adult content
  • Legally mandated removals
  • Piracy

This raises red flags and saves you from the trouble of weeding out keywords that might be considered inappropriate according to App Store guidelines. Once you narrow down keywords, you can also use keyword tools specifically for the App Store to check out their difficulty level and traffic.


Don’t go through random tweets. Check out tweets that come up in an app-related hashtag search. Tweets can throw you some excellent keyword ideas. Remember, there is something in it for each and every industry out there.

The more you research, the better. Knock off guesswork from your app marketing efforts and keywords selection process. It simply does not work.

On Knowing Customers

david o 3

Ogilvy advocated a soft-sell approach. His main focus was stressing consumer benefits and giving products a voice and a distinct personality. One such ad was for Hathaway Shirts, a small shirt company based in Waterville, Maine. Ogilvy came up with dozens of ideas. The one he settled on was a campaign built around the image of a distinguished man in a romantic location dressed in a Hathaway shirt.

On the way to the photo shoot, he picked up several eye patches at a drugstore for 50 cents. The final result was a handsome, silver-haired, mysteriously one-eyed, male model with an eye patch in a white dress shirt accompanied by a lengthy description of the shirt’s benefits. This ad was a runaway success and spoke directly about the product and its benefits.

In order to be effective:

  • Know who you are writing for
  • Know what the person thinks
  • Know the person’s needs

This will help you design an effective marketing strategy.

Mobile app marketers need to understand that an app’s true power comes from its ubiquitous nature. It is with the user all the time. In order for your app to succeed, it needs to connect with the audience. So, carefully analyze how users will engage with your app. Ultimately, your app experience needs to be comfortable, easy, and intuitive for the user. It should generate value and make the user’s life easier.

Leave no stone unturned to connect with your audience. The focus should be on what the customer actually wants from you and not on what you want to promote to the customer.

Here are some ways of reaching out to your target audience:

In-app feedback

With millions of apps available across the App Store, there are hundreds of apps for everything imaginable under the sun. Listening to your customers will take your app to the next level. In-app feedback gives your customers a voice. When they share their feedback, they get help if they need it, and you have a chance to improve your app.

It should be an effortless act for customers to share feedback, good or bad. Don’t make it difficult for users to post a bad review. The moment you try to trick them, you will lose them.


Ogilvy once said, “If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think. We try to write in the vernacular.”

In the App Store, localization can almost double your downloads. Your app is more likely to be downloaded if it speaks the language of users and is targeted for specific regions. Localization means that you are going to translate the app’s language elements into local language, including all of the following.

  • App title
  • App description
  • Screenshots
  • Keywords
  • Privacy policy URL
  • Support URL
  • Marketing URL
  • What’s New in this Version

It’s important to consult a professional translator for advice. Don’t just rely on online translation tools. Very often the essence of localization is lost in translation. But, before you jump on localization, get the English version of your app up and running smoothly.

david o 4

On the Importance of Testing

Ogilvy was a strong advocate of concept testing. Luckily, our online world affords us numerous ways to test the effectiveness of app interface and screenshots. A/B testing happens to be one of them. The more you test your app, the better. Let testing drive your decisions. Rise above blindly following trends or making random changes.

You can consider using A/B testing code generators such as Optimizely, Visual Website Optimizer, or another such testing code generator that meets your needs and budget. This will help you narrow down the app screenshot that will drive the most traffic.

A/B testing app screenshots can be a bit of a tricky proposition because you can’t just keep changing screenshots on the App Store.

What you can do is run ad campaigns using your screenshots and analyze CTR (click-through rate). Peter Tanham’s blog on How to Increase Your Mobile App Sales With A/B Testing provides A/B testing in a nutshell.

Ultimately, understand that A/B testing is an iterative process, and the burden of responsibility lies on you to come up with hypotheses and conduct experiments on significant sample sizes in order to get the ball rolling in the app world.

Keep one thing in mind: the more you test, the better your app will be. Simple and subtle changes improve conversion rates in a phenomenal manner.


Remember, app marketing is not a one-time process, but rather a continuous activity. It needs focus and persistence. Don’t get disheartened quickly. Improvise, research, and innovate to succeed in the app world. And, most important, follow David Ogilvy, the marketing genius. Rest assured, you will be on the right track.

About the Author: Todd is a Business Development Manager & Mobile App Marketing Specialist at VitebMobileApps, a professional mobile application development company offering solutions for various mobile app platforms. You can follow him on Twitter @viteb.

  1. Great points. They go to show copywriting is never going to be irrelevant. I’d also like to add that human psychology stays basically the same over time. That’s why copywriting works.

    For whatever reason, many businesses don’t use it. Why do you think that is?

  2. Great post. It really goes to show that wise words never go out of style. Ogilvy may have said these words years ago, but they are timeless– no matter the channel, device, vehicle, they still hold true.
    Perhaps if the industry were to step back and start to simplify, we could get to what matters.

  3. Great take on the importance of copywriting! As I do most copywriting with SEO in mind, I dedicate lots of time to keyword research. Ubersuggest is quite outdated tool frankly speaking I’ve switched over to few months back as it gives more location based keywords, and has pleasant design. My advice is to take a look at it!

  4. What about list selection? DO was as strong on this point as Bob Stone.


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