The concept known as the golden hammer is an over-reliance on a familiar tool; as Maslow (he of ‘pyramid of needs’ fame) wrote in 1966: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

So lets talk about User Acquisition, see the parallel? UA is often discussed as nearly an abstract problem. The user acquisition team sit somewhere else in the building or somewhere else in the company - success is gauged in dollars per install, and cheap is good. Got a problem with revenue? Acquire more users.. not enough people finding a feature? Acquire more users - and so on.

Now I know this is a simplification but unfortunately too many of us probably hear familiar echoes of real meetings we’ve been in. If the only tool you have is User Acquisition pretty soon every problem looks like it can be solved with more users.

Here’s the thing; user acquisition is not the solution. I talking to a senior exec from TenCent  a few years back and he summed it up like this- “the problem in the industry is simple, it’s retention”. The point, which I’m only now fully grasping, is that everything flows from having your users attention. Sure, you may not yet be delivering your business goal of tables booked, or games played or items purchased but you’ll get that figured out over time. Once people are sticking around you’re pointed in the right direction. If retention is poor then you need to stop and fix it as soon as you can.

I think the problem in mobile is accentuated by the fact that User Acquisition is being pushed so hard right now. Facebook, Twitter, Google and 101 different ad networks need to sell you “downloads”, and they are working hard to get in front of you and convince you that this approach will solve your problems. It won’t, or at least not alone. But unfortunately these sales efforts fall on receptive ears, simply because acquisition

Retention is the foundation you build upon - you need to obsess about day-1, day-7, day-21 retention figures, you need to build nurturing campaigns to capture the high percentage of users that won’t “get it” first time, you need to automate re-engagement campaigns to bring back every possible user with smart messaging and compelling value. Put simply: you need to build a retention machine.

It might help to stop thinking of your users as nails to be bought in bulk and treated identically - instead recognize that we’re all a little quirky, a little different and need to embrace any experience at our own pace. Build you app so it can retain the higher possible percentage of the funnel - and then call those User Acquisition sales guys back!