CBInsights published an in-depth, 10,000 word analysis of some of the most popular personal finance apps and how they achieved their massive growth. If you have time, I highly recommend reading the entire piece here, which covers companies like Mint, Acorns, Level Money, and Credit Karma and how they achieved significant adoption through customer acquisition strategies, user-focused design, pre-launch marketing, etc.

For the rest of us, I have summarized a few examples below and then draw some principles that traditional institutions can apply to their own growth strategies.

Mint – Create content and an experience that adds value to your users and promotes trust
Now seen as a legacy player, Mint saw incredible growth in its early stages, which resulted in it being acquired for around $170MM just two years after launch. Mint was able to sign up 20,000 people before it even launched its product by creating a massive “content network” that drove people to the website to get basic financial information like a free budgeting spreadsheet (remember, this was around 2005-2007, so this was all pretty new back then). The educational content was shared on sites like Reddit and Digg, which drove users back to the site to sign up for the pre-launch email list. This may be normal for consumer social apps, but wasn’t typical for financial products.

Their content/inbound marketing strategy was so effective that they amassed over 1 million users by the time they were acquired by Intuit in 2009. Of course, the trick is keeping the users once they sign up. Given the low lack of trust in providing financial data to a website back then, Mint spent a lot of time on the design and color scheme to engender trust. They also stumbled upon the then-more-novel idea of using targeted ads instead of generic banner ads. Mint could use the data they collected from users to find opportunities for the user to save money on their monthly bills, providing the user with more relevant ads, and the advertisers got better targeting.

Check – Focus on being the best at one thing vs. mediocre at many things
Pageonce was a web services aggregator that combined multiple online accounts onto one page – including email, stock quotes, MySpace (this was 2007, people), and bill pay. However, they found over time that specialized websites and apps were being launched chipping away at each service they offered. After spending a few years narrowing down its services, Pageonce noticed that it had something Mint didn’t – mobile bill pay. The team jettisoned other features, and focused solely on building a great bill pay experience. The company changes its name to Check, grew its user base from 1 million to 10 million, and by the end of 2012, the company was processing more than $1 million per day in bill payments. In 2014, the company was acquired by Intuit for $360 million.

Robinhood – Get creative with referral incentives
While bonus offers through direct marketing can work well, Robinhood was able to create greater buzz by offering a twist on a normal referral incentive program. As a stock trading app, Robinhood incentivized investing through offering a random share of stock for each referral you signed up. You could get lucky and get a share of AAPL ($100+), or unlucky and get ZNGA ($3), or any other share from a pre-selected list. This pre-selected list was what allowed Robinhood to control its costs. While some users would receive a $100+ stock, the average worked out to just a few dollars based on the list and probabilities. Those who got the expensive stock created buzz for the company, and Robinhood was able to keep their average referral incentive very low. In addition, the user now had a stock in their account that they would watch, further incentivizing the user to invest more in the account.

What should a traditional finserv company do?
The tactics above and in the full article are not meant to be copied – they worked for a specific company targeting specific customers for a specific results. However, we can draw a few principles that banks and other traditional financial institutions should remember when trying to gain new customers.

First, think about design. This can be difficult to change, specifically for banks who are handcuffed to their core banking provider’s ugly applications and banking portals. If you are stuck with the wrong provider and without internal talent, there are many companies that can help you build a better front-end for your customers, so be willing to explore. The right developers should be able to help you use design to create more trust and engagement with your customers.

Second, find a niche and be the best in that space. As with Pageonce, the financial services market is far too big for all but the top 10 to try to do fifty things well. Focus on serving many needs for a small group of customers, or one need for many customers, and you’ll be rewarded with higher levels of trust, engagement, satisfaction, and profits.

Third, find a reason for your customer to talk about you. The value of having your customers doing your marketing for you is obvious – it is inexpensive, the referrals are more likely to convert, and it engages your current customer more deeply. But how much thought have you given to how easy it is for your customers to refer new customers, and why they would want to in the first place?

Here’s a hint – it is not because of your convenience and customer service. The market is too crowded for that to work (First Direct Bank, rated #1 company in customer experience out of all companies in the UK, has dropped “customer service” from its marketing citing that it is not a differentiator). Go a level deeper inside the culture of your company and finds what makes you unique. Then find customers who share your values and give them an easy and creative way to share those values and you’ll both win.