You’ve made a
fantastic app for the iPhone and iPad. Well done: but the real work starts now. You’ve got to sell the thing.
App promotion is a tough gig, make no bones about it. It’s become painfully clear that small indie devs, the lifeblood of iOS innovation, face a huge battle edging out the larger software companies and their swollen marketing budgets.
But don’t despair. Small app developers can make good money on the App Store, provided they’ve got a great app, a strong marketing strategy and a bit of luck.
In this article we discuss the various strategies you can use to market an app successfully on the App Store: how to get to the top of the App Store charts, how to sell more in-app purchases, and what price you should set for your app. We even discuss the problem of app cloning, something that afflicts every successful iOS app. Read next:
How to make an iPhone app
How to get your app approved by Apple
We’ll assume you’ve designed a great iOS app. (Easier said than done, obviously! For help getting started on that path, take a look at
How to get started with Apple’s Swift app programming language and
Best Mac for app development)
But the first step on the road to marketing your work successfully is for some developers the most intimidating: you need to get your app approved by Apple. Which means treading carefully around Apple’s curatorial restrictions: sex and religion are mostly off limits, for instance.
Francesco Zerbinati, an Italian indie app developer, found the approval process relatively painless, but stressed to us the importance of doing your preparation and striving to understand Apple’s rules and regulations. You need to take this part of the process just as seriously as the design of the app itself.
“First, I read the iTunes app review rules before sending my app,” he said. “Then, when the app got reviewed the first time, it was rejected because in the screenshots there was an image of a Kindle (it’s called PriceRadar – you use it to monitor price changes of Amazon items). I had to re-upload the screenshot images and wait another 7 to 10 days for the review to be completed. It was the only time my app was rejected.
“I would recommend to any new dev to read
the rules very carefully.”
So get reading – but expect headaches anyway.
How to improve your app’s search visibility
Search is a mature, sophisticated field in the open web, and the old silly tricks – keyword stuffing, unreadable repetition, link farming – won’t get you anywhere any more. If you want to do well on Google, you just need to write good articles that people want to read. There aren’t any shortcuts.
But App Store search is a long way behind. Run a search for the name of a popular app and you may well see that app appear top of the results – but it’ll be followed by a mess of unrelated rubbish that stuck the established brand in their keyword fields and got away with it. And this in a market that Apple curates.
Here’s an example. Back in 2015 I was looking for the iOS version of Ghost Stories, a
rather nice board game. So I searched for ‘ghost stories’.
The game I’m looking for is in fourth spot – and note that its name is exactly what I searched for. Ahead of it, among a mixture of slightly dodgy-looking but relevant free apps, is some sort of ebook reader app that apparently mentions stories in its description. And this is standard fare as these things go – I’ve seen much worse search results. At least the app I was looking for came up somewhere on the first page.
I repeated the experiment in 2017. This time the game is the eighth result along in the iPad section (it’s not available for iPhone). At least this time the apps above it in the list all seem to be specifically ghost-related. If I search for “ghost stories board game”, by the way, it doesn’t appear at all.
“Search visibility is difficult,” concedes Zerbinati. “iTunes Connect provides some tags and keyword fields but they’re worth nothing [in terms of search visibility]. The search feature in App Store really isn’t useful for discovering new apps, and I think Apple needs to improve this feature a lot. Search visibility through the App Store is a mess.
“I would advise other devs to optimise visibility with a website/Twitter account and try to reach as many users as possible via other ways.” Searching for apps is often such a poor experience that we wrote tips for searching the App Store, read:
How to find great apps on the App Store
How to get to the top of the charts
A key part of app marketing is cracking the App Store charts (charts that show which apps are shifting the most downloads, or making the most money). Enough people download apps on the strength of an appearance at the top of the charts to make this largely self-sustaining: you get to the top, you pick up lots of new users, and this helps you stay there, at least for a while.
This is why so many app developers will do anything to get lots of downloads when their app launches: price promotions, paid-for adverts, everything they can think of. But which technique is best, and are they worth the effort?
Our indie dev contact Zerbinati managed to briefly get his app to the top of the Spanish App Store chart, and made the Italian top ten. But his experience is interesting for the things that didn’t work just as much as the ones that did.
“First: Facebook and Twitter ads don’t work if yours is a paid app,” he told us, “even if it costs less than a euro: they click on the banner, you pay your commission for the click, and they see that it’s a paid app: they will not buy it. A better option is promoting your app on specialised blogs with reviews and articles: when actualidadiphone.es (the biggest Spanish iPhone website) reviewed my app it went into the Spanish chart and stayed there for 10 days.
“Climbing the chart, from what I’ve seen, depends on the number of downloads in the fraction of time. If you get 100 downloads in one hour, you’ll probably be top of the App Store in the next refresh. So, what’s relevant isn’t just the number of downloads itself but the period of time in which the downloads are made.
“When you’re top on the App Store, people will see your app and probably download it again, and you’ll stay on top, even if your download rate is reducing. I don’t know why, but I noticed that it was like a boom effect climbing and then, even if the downloads where reducing, we stayed on top.”
What price should you set for your app?
This is a big issue, and one we look at in a separate article:
Why apps need to be more expensive.
The case for free
The brutal reality is the vast majority of iPhone and iPad owners will go for free apps over paid-for ones, even if the difference in price is only a couple of quid and the free app is significantly shoddier. There are so many free options in so many areas of the App Store than it’s exceptionally difficult for a paid-for app to compete with the freebies.
(One exception I can call to mind is
iPad ports of popular board games – a market in which brand names count, and where users are accustomed to spending around five to six quid on a game. I think paid-for apps do okay in the satnav market, too. But most other app genres I’m aware of are heavily dominated by freebies.)
So best to go for a freemium model, then? Not so fast. Here’s a second brutal reality: the vast majority of iOS users that download any given free app won’t go near the in-app purchases (IAPs).
Let’s take an extreme example of IAP take-up:
Monument Valley. That’s actually a paid-for game, so all the people downloading it have already shown themselves willing to spend money on digital content. It’s also a very good game and quite a short one – those two factors together encouraging players to shell out to keep it going a bit longer. And yet, with everything in its favour, its IAP uptake was around 5-6 percent: 575,608 out of more than 10,000,000.
For the average free app, the percentage will be much lower than that. Last year app testing firm Swrve
reported that over 60 percent of free games’ in-app purchases came from just 0.14 percent of players, and that only 1.4 percent of players spent any money at all.
Going free-to-play (F2P) has other consequences, too. For one thing, in order to persuade users to buy the IAPs, you’ll probably have to compromise the integrity of your game; most F2P games do, at any rate. We’ll discuss some of the methods you can use to steer users towards the IAPs in a later section, but they nearly all have a dubious effect on what I’d call the quality of the experience.
Do you want to make a good game, or do you want to make a lucrative game? It’s not a nice choice to have to make. I addressed this in a rant back in 2013, and the situation has if anything got worse since then:
Freemium is the worst thing in the history of gaming: a rant.
If you decide to go for a paid-for rather than free initial download, you’ll probably be looking at a low price tag in order to increase downloads. But this isn’t always the best solution.
Francesco Zerbinati described to us the curious findings of his own pricing experiments. “I’ve noticed that 0.99 (the lowest price in euros) is not always the best choice if you need to reach the user mass,” he explained. “When I released PriceRadar its price was 0.99. The downloads where fine, but I thought I could make more money. So, I moved the price to 1.99.
“Here came the surprise: I sold more than twice than before with this price in an equal period of time. Answer to that? I thought that, since PriceRadar is an app for Amazon power users and its target is users that buy a lot on Amazon and would like to save some money, the higher price was a mark of quality. Previously, with the lowest price level of other cheap and crappy apps, it wasn’t considered.”
That might be an unusual case, but it does highlight the importance of thinking laterally, and of experimenting with the price of your app. In some cases increasing the price may reduce downloads, but the greater profit per download may be enough to offset this. The best way to find your app’s sweet spot is to experiment.
The case for premium
What about a higher price tag – something we’d describe as premium?
When we wrote about app pricing last year, we spoke to Rob Clarke, PR and marketing manager at
Curve, a company that launched its Stealth Inc app at £2.99. “We’re new to the App Store as a publisher,” he said at the time, “but I think we got the price right. We stuck with a premium model because we feel that freemium games only really work if that’s your goal from the design stage, and we’re glad to see there’s a healthy appetite for premium titles that have a fairly ‘hardcore’ appeal on the store.
“We didn’t feel the need to join the sort of ‘race to the bottom’ prices you see on the App Store, but at the same time, we didn’t want to be charging £4.99, and it seems to have worked out for us!”
What I would view as a premium price tag is a lot higher than £2.99, although it’s a rare developer that ventures into this territory. But the Baldur’s Gate roleplaying games have tried their luck and seem to be prospering.
Trent T. Oster, director of business development at Baldur’s Gate publisher
Beamdog, put this success down to brand recognition, as well as to the quality of the games.
“We’ve been lucky,” he says. “By bringing such well known games as the Baldur’s Gate series to the iPad we managed to get a great deal of attention despite our ‘premium’ price of $9.99 for the first game and $14.99 for the second [£6.99 and £10.49 in the UK at the time; now both
Baldur’s Gate I and
Baldur’s Gate II cost £9.99].
“We’ve moved down in the standings since our launches, but the initial attention got us into the top 10 and was very positive for sales. Our subsequent sales were strong and now we’re settling down.”
Discounts and sale prices
Curve’s Rob Clarke warns newcomers to the app market to think about future promotions and sales prices when determining their starting price. “Our best advice for developers looking at making a premium title is to be aware of the lifecycle of your product,” he explains. “It’s a bit of a corporate-sounding word, but one mistake we see people making on the App Store and other open-ended stores like Steam is they price the game too low right from the start and then find they don’t really have many options for promotion.
“You’re going to be doing a lot of different promotions and sales in the future, and you may even get featured in an Apple sale. It sounds obvious, but say 50 percent of £3.99 is a lot more than 50 percent of £1.99. Pricing is always really tricky, but remember: while you can always easily permanently reduce your game’s price if it’s not working for you, it’s hardly ever a good idea to permanently raise one.”
So there you have it. It’s easier to reduce your price in future than to raise it; and it’s not impossible to make a go of it with a higher-priced app. (And it’s not a cakewalk in the free-app market.)
And here’s a final reminder that prices on the App Store recently went up, apparently in response to VAT and currency fluctuations. The lowest (non-free) price is now 79p, not 69p.
How to sell more in-app purchases
We’ll deal with this only briefly, because the subject is too depressing. Much of it reads like the villainous musings of a mad scientist locking iPhone owners in a giant Skinner box. But here are five tips for IAP pushers:
Waste people’s time, then sell it back to them
This is the classic (and most irritating) of the F2P strategies, but it seems to work. Make a game that’s fun, and then impose artificial delays. “Want to skip the wait? That’ll cost you 20 fun coins!”
Hide unlockables to lend an air of mystery
Learn the value of curiosity. Many F2P apps black out or otherwise obscure some of their higher-end unlockables until you reach a certain point in the game, thereby increasing their mystique and perceived value.
Make more expensive bundles of IAPs a ‘better deal’
Pay 79p for 10 fun coins. Pay £2.29 for 50 fun coins. Pay £3.99 for 200 fun coins! Watch the money roll in.
Give half a story away for free, then end on a cliffhanger
A lovely adventure game called
The Silent Age uses this technique: it’s free, and you get to play a solid half of the game without paying a penny. By the time you hit the paywall you’re hooked. (I don’t count this as an evil technique.) The similarly named
Broken Age did the same sort of thing, launching in two instalments to encourage players to update.
Get rid of the clock
article has some great (evil) tricks, but this is the most depressing of all. Like a Las Vegas casino, a clever IAP-selling app will hide the clock: in other words, removing the status bar and its clock so you don’t realise how long you’ve been playing.
If you’d like to know more about this subject, read
10 tricks that apps use to get your money.
Now, what other ways are there to publicise your app? Next we’re going to talk about reviews, and dealing with the media.
One of the best ways to get publicity (and downloads) for your app is to get it reviewed in the media. But that’s easier said than done. Speaking as app reviewer, here are my tips on dealing with the media:
We are emailed about hundreds of apps every day
Which makes your task a little bit like grabbing users on the App Store: you have to assume that your email will get only the briefest of glances. You need to grab the reader from the subject field – don’t assume they’ll even open the email.
It would be nice to put ‘Review request: [name of game], a [genre of game] that [reason why it’s amazing]’, but that’s unlikely to fit. If you’ve got a recognisable brand name, I’d suggest something like ‘Infinity Blade 4 review codes available!’ If not, just put the name of the app and why we should care about it.
The most recent review request email I’ve had has a subject line of ‘Review request’, while the first line of the email (which is visible in the preview pane) is ‘Hello, I am writing to request an App review for my application’. None of this tells me anything, or convinces me to open the email.
This is how first contact looks from the point of view of a journalist. But I spoke to
Ben Camm-Jones, a former colleague of mine who moved from journalism to PR and who has seen this game from both sides.
Ben adds: “Media are inundated with app pitches – keep your pitch concise, and keep your explanation of what it is that your app does and what makes your app different to the point. Include download links, or at least give the most appropriate search term to use in the App Store too!”
If at all possible, include a download code
Always assume that the reviewer is lazy, or busy, or both. If they can try the game straight away, there’s more chance of a review.
Proper screenshots that look brilliant and can be used in print or online.
Sometimes writers just want to do a roundup of interesting-looking games. That’s not as good as a proper review, but it’s still publicity and potential new users – so you don’t want the writer to check the enclosed images and find that they’re tiny, or ugly, or aren’t really screenshots at all but are actually screenshots superimposed on a picture of an iPhone with annotations and logos plastered all over it.
You want there to be as few obstacles as possible between the writer getting your email and the writer posting an article about your app.
Freelance journalist and Macworld contributor Craig Grannell
often talks about the importance of app developers offering a good range of screenshots (and other resources) as part of a press kit. Only this morning he tweeted:
Learn from this example. That’s free coverage that just went begging for the company that hadn’t bothered to offer good screenshots.
Should you follow up with a phone call?
That’s a tough one.
I understand why you do it, because of point one above: your email probably did get lost among the detritus of the reviewer’s inbox, and ringing him up is a good way of grabbing his attention. But that’s true of all the emails, and what you’re effectively saying is that your email is more important than any of the others – including the ones from the reviewer’s colleagues and friends. He chooses how to manage his time and his emails, and you’re choosing to override that and interrupt whatever he was doing instead of poring over your email.
So while you’ll get noticed, you’re probably going to irritate the reviewer while you’re doing it – unless your email genuinely was incredibly important.
Get to know the reviewer
A better way of handling these things is to build up a relationship with people in the media even when you’re not hustling for reviews. Speak to them at events and parties. Offer to take them out for drinks. Offer to contribute to articles like this one. If they know you, reviewers are much more likely to respond to your emails.
(PR professionals are particularly adept at these matters, but simply being personable and putting yourself around in your industry can do wonders.)
I don’t know if I should reveal this secret, but some of us in the media find email quite an ineffective communication tool – partly because we get so many unsolicited emails from hardware and software makers.
Twitter may be a better way to get our attention.
A tip that I would have thought was obvious – but apparently isn’t, going by my experience.
While you’re trying to convince reviewers to look at your app, don’t ignore the ones who already want to! I find that I am deluged with requests from developers of apps that turn out to be pretty boring, whereas I have to actively and repetitively chase up the developers of apps I’m actually interested in.
It’s worth searching for the name of your app on Twitter and elsewhere just to see if any potential reviewers are already showing an interest. (Of course, it’s also worth checking out their credentials to make sure that they actually write reviewers on a reputable site. It’s not unknown for cheeky gamers to blag review codes without having the means or the intention to publish a review.)
Keep things timely
This last tip comes from our ex-media, current-PR contact Ben Camm-Jones.
“Try to let media know as soon as your app is released. Some only want to cover brand-new apps. Even better, let media targets see a pre-release version – as long as you are clear that it is not the finished app they will forgive any bugs and may provide valuable feedback.”
What to do if your app gets cloned
If all of the above tips work for you, and you find yourself with a bona-fide hit on your hands, then there’s one last thing to warn you about: cloning.
Every successful app will be copied. It happened for
Threes! more than for most, but the problem is endemic, as I discuss in
How the App Store got taken over by copycats.
Inevitably copycats will damage the prospects of a successful app – some users will be confused and buy the alternative by mistake, while others will choose to go for the clone because it’s cheaper (most clones are free, and aim to make their money back through in-app purchases). Clones can actively damage your reputation, because most of them are terrible.
What can you do about cloning? Well, bear in mind that Apple is officially against this kind of thing. If you see a clone that overtly rips off your name or visual or audio elements, get in touch with your Apple contact and complain. During the height of Flappy Bird mania, a game called Flappy Dragon was rejected from the App Store, according to its developer, because Apple “found [the] app name attempts to leverage a popular app”.
At the same time, be aware of the limitations of such policies. In its actions against app cloners Apple tends to focus on technicalities, taking an approach that’s roughly analogous to the legal idea of ‘passing off’, which legislates against products that are likely to mislead consumers. Is the clone’s similarity to your app likely to confuse buyers? Or is the resemblance more functional than cosmetic?
According to one developer, Apple’s submission process doesn’t require assurances that an app is original in the way it works, just in the way it looks and sounds.
Case study: iPad & iPhone User’s app
Before I came to work on Macworld, I edited iPad & iPhone User, a smaller magazine dedicated specifically to iOS devices. One of our bigger successes was the
(free) app edition, which enabled us to sell magazine downloads through Apple’s Newsstand and App Store services. (Indeed, while the print edition of the magazine has since closed down, the digital version goes from strength to strength.)
Clearly the media segment of Apple’s App Store has unique challenges of its own, but the things we got right and wrong with iPad & iPhone User‘s app can be instructive for all app developers, I think.
The most important is that having a really good product is vital, but it isn’t enough on its own – not at first, anyway. (Once you’ve built up a loyal audience, they will stick with you, support your projects in future and do your marketing for you.) You need to be seen, and get lots of people to try your product.
It’s depressing to think how many brilliant apps must have been created by talented devs who don’t know how to market their wares, and now languish undownloaded in the depths of the App Store. (Most of the undownloaded zombies apps are absolute rubbish, of course, so don’t rush off and start downloading apps indiscriminately.)
In our case initial visibility was partly a question of SEO – search engine optimisation. We were lucky enough (or had planned cleverly enough) to have the names of two incredibly popular Apple products in the name of our magazine, which gave us a head start: when you searched for “iPad magazine” on the App Store, for example, our app appeared prominently.
And it’s very clear from the name and masthead of the magazine what we were about – always bear in mind that users are going to see a lot of apps on the store, and assume that they will give your app only the very briefest of glances. Assume they will be looking at your app icon (or, in the case of magazines, your cover) in a tiny thumbnail image.
By contrast, one of our rivals was the (now
sadly defunct) Future title Tap! – a very well put-together magazine but one with a far less obvious and less SEO-friendly brand.
We discuss SEO strategies in the
search section above.
We also had the advantage of existing successful media properties: the print magazine (and other print magazines run by the same company), and the various IDG websites:
Macworld and so on. All of these could be used to publicise the app, and explain its merits.
Finally, after some experimentation we found that the best approach to pricing was very simple: it needed to be free. More than that, it needed to be free and provide some actual content right away. (Our approach was and still is to include a single issue of the magazine in the free app, and then charge users to download further issues.)
Many media companies have found that, even if you specify that your app is free because it’s only a wrapper for paid-for downloadable content, disgruntled users will download it, not read the description, find that it doesn’t contain any actual content and then write a one-star review complaining about this fact.
From time to time we would change the issue that was given away for free, but it would normally be a few months old. The idea was to give the reader a glimpse of what we offered, not the full magazine experience.
So there you have it. That was our strategy on the App Store, and it worked pretty well for us. It (and the other tips we’ve gathered in this article) may work for you, and I wish you well; but we’d love to hear from app developers with their own ideas and stories of success and failure.
Good luck, everyone!
Here are some other ways to make money via Apple’s various digital marketplaces:
How to sell music on iTunes
10 tricks that apps use to get your money
How to sell books on the iBookstore