Marketing’s a Bitch: Lessons from the App Store

Until recently, my iOS portfolio as a developer has consisted of mostly work-for-hire apps —— with only a few pet projects as the exception (e.g. Pocket Troll).

However, my ultimate goal as a developer, as I imagine it is for many other devs, is to have the luxury to work on my own ideas— at least until I run out or tire of them! In fact, I have the problem of more ideas than I can count as this point, which makes the conversation all the more comical when someone comes to me with this (I am sure all app devs can relate): “I have a great app idea! Sign this NDA and then I’ll let you do all the work. Then give me half the profits!” I want to tell them, “I have enough crazy ideas of my own, thank you, and I don’t need to sign an NDA or give up half the nonexistent future profits to do them.” (I’ll happily consider working on your idea if you pay me actual money, on the other hand.)

With all these great ideas, the process of choosing which comes next is usually based on which project is the most easily accomplished based on my current situation, which will allow me to learn new skills as a developer (without being too difficult as to be discouraging), and of course, will achieve some success in the App Store.

Sol: Sun Clock is the first real rung on the ladder. Although its usefulness is not always apparent to people immediately, most get it, and it’s the first app that I’ve worked on that I’m really proud of. Lest I forget — there is no doubt the contributions of Josh Warren to the UI were essential in its success. Until last week it had an average of 5 stars (out of 5) rating, with over 25 genuine reviews from around the globe, which was far more than I expected, and what many suspect “app review” companies were offering for under-the-table payment (but even they cannot completely negate a genuine 1-star review by flooding it with fake 5-stars).

With such great ratings, I hoped that the app would achieve a life of its own. If you have read anything about the state of App Store marketing recently, you’ll realize how naive I was. The top positions in the App Store are hotly contested over, and if you’re not visible, you’re not going to get found. As a solo dev, I don’t have the finances to buy my way into the charts with a massive advertising campaign, and even if I did, I wasn’t convinced the app had more than a niche market. The app’s original price was 99 cents, which was way too low in my estimation but I figured it would make up in numbers what I was losing in price.

The 5-star (and a smattering of 4-star) reviews kept coming in; in fact it almost seemed that everyone who bought the app was giving it a 5-star review. But it wasn’t going viral. Getting mentioned on a photography blog sent sales way up for a few days, which was exciting, but within a week it was back to a trickle. Having high review rating didn’t seem to help the app’s listing in the store, it was well down on page 3 or 4 of the Weather category, despite having a higher rating than all of the apps above it. This is very frustrating. It seems that an app cannot win on its own merit.

I tried Google ads and Facebook ads — neither of them provided a return comparable to what I put in. In fact, I was paying about as much for a Facebook click as my share was for an app sale! And a click did not in any way guarantee a sale. It was very clear to me that Facebook ads were not working, and I suspect that Google ads were just as ineffective. I am not an expert in the field of online advertising, but I was already spending way more time obsessing over sales and marketing than I am comfortable with… and dying to get back to the creative side of things: design and coding.

Through reviews, and emails from customers, one thing I did notice was that the people who liked Sol: Sun Clock really, really liked it. Many said that they had been searching for an app like this for a long time. All said they loved the design. Many had tips for feature requests, but they always reiterated how much they loved the app regardless, and it was worth what they paid for it and more. I raised the price to what I thought I might pay for it, $3.99, and it seemed that people that wanted the app were just as happy to pay that price as they were $1.99 or $2.99.

I use an app called AppViz to download my iTunesConnect reports and try to make sense of them. It’s nice to see your numbers spike after a blog mention, and fun to try to figure out why it spiked this day or that. But mostly it’s “why is my app performing so miserably when everyone loves it?”

It all seemed to come back to visibility and discoverability, so I did what the creator of the excellent NodeBeat music game app suggested on Twitter: I made the app free for a day and notified AppAdvice.com about the sale. Their requirements state that your app must be 3 stars or more, and not been free in 3 months, both of which Sol: Sun Clock satisfied. The summer solstice was an excellent excuse to have a sale, as the app is all about the Sun. I actually made the app free for a day before AppAdvice.com put it on its “Apps Gone Free” chart, and ended up keeping it on there for a full day after.

Sol: Sun Clock at #2 Weather app in App StoreAfter months of obscurity, Sol: Sun Clock rose to #11 on the Weather charts the night of the solstice, and the next morning, when Apps Gone Free went live, it quickly rose to #2. Downloads went from around 10 a day (paid) to the peak of 21,042 in one day. That is an increase of over 2000%! Over a period of three days, Sol topped 30K downloads.

The theory goes that, with the greatly increased visibility, when you switch the app back to its normal price, it will net some additional paid sales as an after effect. And it did, but sadly, this number was well under 100, and within 2 days I was back to under 10 downloads a day.

People continue to love the app, so I haven’t given up hope. It was thrilling to see the app come in at #2 Weather (behind only the Weather Channel’s) in the store, but in the end it was more a salve to the ego than a lift of its overall sales baseline like I’d expected to see. I can’t help but think that Apple’s algorithms are prejudiced towards some of the bigger players, and anxiously await news that they will tweak the store algorithms to aid real discovery by users who favor apps for genuine reasons. I suspect that they recognize that many people are buying their star ratings, and so the ratings play no role in an app’s visibility on the store, which is tragic, because it means that only apps with the largest marketing budgets are going to get the visibility to be downloaded. (Once again, the problem with the free market is always the money corrupts the free-ness.)

There will be some updates to the app. I’ve gotten loads of great feedback from users and I’ll definitely be implementing the top two features requested. Some other features, such as Moon phases, I’d love to add, but the time spent adding it might require that I make it an in-app purchase, something I haven’t done so far.

I want to be loyal and fair to anyone who’s actually purchased the app, and I won’t introduce ads into an app that someone has paid for as a matter of principle. But frankly now I have to support well over 30,000 users who haven’t paid for the app as well, and will continue to get any new features for free I add for the current user base. I’d love to be able to distinguish between free and paid users, somehow so I can either put ads in for the free users, or have in-app purchases for the new features that the paid users get for free. Apple, are you listening?

I suppose I should have done what many other developers do and have two paths. I can tell you one thing for sure, this particular app won’t be free again, unless I completely end-of-line it.

The worst thing about making an app free? The users who download it just to complain. Almost immediately I got a 1-star review from a Chinese store buyer who said “Disgusting. Not in Chinese.” 90% of the apps in the Chinese App Store are not in Chinese. Is this guy going to write this complaint on all 40,000+ apps? A Canadian store buyer complained with a 1-star review that it crashed on his first opening. Really? I haven’t had it crash in 6 months, and neither has any actual human I have corresponded with. Why not use the Support option to connect with me and help me get to the bottom of this, if this is indeed real? My perfect 5-star average with no rating less than 4-stars now has two 1-star reviews and one 3-star. The same happened earlier with my Pocket Troll app when it went from 99 cents to free: average 4-star rating quickly plummets to 2-star. The lesson: people who like cheap/free shit like to complain a lot. People who are willing to pay for your app are much more likely to consider its real worth.

Well that’s all I have to say for now. I’ve been working on a game for awhile that I’m pretty excited to have, since game design is my real reason for getting into this, and I have nothing in the store yet. It will be interesting to see how a game does compared to a Weather/Utility/Photo app.

App developers, users, and anyone else: If you’ve got any feedback I’d love to hear it in the comments.

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3 Responses to Marketing’s a Bitch: Lessons from the App Store

  1. Eric-Paul says:

    Good read, though passionate writing can be a tad on the lengthy side 😉
    I’m in the same race for attention and have noticed similar bad results in the app store. Believe me when I tell you the Mac app store is even worse, since nobody actually opens the charts there to find new apps.

    Something you might have considered, yet don’t speak of in your article, is the fact that you’re designing a niche-market product in mainstream market channels. Your app looks beautiful indeed, but at the same time it’s an app for intellectuals with classic schooling and an interest for solar topics. That’s some serious non-standard nerd territory, that ‘regular’ people only stumble upon at incidental moments, like with the summer solstice.

    I think the network of your niche target audience is spread so thin, that even the enthusiasts don’t have enough friends with the same interests and iPads to match, for you to reach critical mass. Picking niche markets was a mistake we made twice with our Mac apps and we’re hoping to see a change with our upcoming iPhone app.

    That said, there can be any number of other reasons why apps don’t catch fire. If you ever find the right magic potion for reaching critical mass, please do share.

    Cheers,
    EP

  2. alec says:

    Thanks for your comments EP.

    I started to address the niche market consideration (at the risk of making the article even longer), but the number of photographers that like the app, and the number of sales I get after getting mentioned on even a smaller photo blog is encouraging. I think the app is useful for anyone who spends anytime outdoors, but it really seems that photographers (mostly professional, but it’s also an extremely popular hobby) are the key demographic. Targeting them with online ads didn’t work. Blog mentions are much better.

    I’ll be sure to follow up with anything else that transpires…. thanks for your feedback!

  3. JBS says:

    I can imagine your difficulty in getting word out about this app. This is a problem with many apps. Ironically, Apple often boasts about how many apps the appstore has, though good luck going any deeper than 10 search results into any given search. Even harder now that the Appstore has been updated to show full page previews rather than an easily scrolled list.

    I’ve been looking for an app like this for a long time, and I’ve tried several times to search for an alarm clock based around sunrise/sunset times or moon cycles. I did this most recently just a couple months ago (if that), almost certainly when this very app was in the store. I didn’t find out about it though until the AppsGoneFree newsletter. Apple really needs to make it easier for people to find what they are looking for with advanced search options, and an easier ability to search through the results. It’s hard to see any incentive for them to do that that, unfortunately.

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