ChiffaN’s Rants – The secret of success in the App Store!


There’s no doubt, the App Store is a revolutionary software distribution method. Companies that laughed at its 2008 launch are now trying desperately to replicate the same model. But, with more than 100 000 apps in the store now and forecasted to exceed 300 000 by the end of 2010, it’s almost impossible to find the specific app you’re looking for. And it’s even more difficult to find a decent one!

There is no denying that the success stories are attracting more and more developers to the iDevice platform. The distribution model with Apple providing the centralized store for a mere $100 yearly developer license fee and a 30% cut of the sales is ideal for indie developers who have been waiting for the big bucks. Unfortunately it appears the App Store often favors “silly” apps and has often been chided for its inconsistent approval methods. Meanwhile the big boys (like Gameloft or Chillingo) don’t seem to have any problems rolling out big titles and making money. What’s the secret? Read on and find out!

Okay folks, first and foremost, you need to start with a quality product. While almost anything can turn into a success story at the App Store, provided you do it correctly (or even by accident as proved by iGlowStick, which got over 40 000 downloads during the brief few hours it was featured as the #1 app due to an App Store bug) my first goal is to help underdog developers understand what they possibly did wrong. But let’s suppose you’ve made a really good product – regardless of whether it is an app or a game – but yet it’s still not selling. I think a great example here would be Fredrik Wahrman from Finland – the developer of iAssociate. You can find his full tale on his blog, but I’ll just pick bits and pieces from it to discuss and illustrate my points.

The first and main mistake of most developers complaining of subpar sales numbers is the lack of pre-release advertising and promotion. After spending the time building a really great game (yes, you probably love it!), you finally submit it to Apple for approval and wait for the cash to start rolling in. The same happened to Fred:

After the first day had passed I was anxiously waiting for my first sales report to come in. I was pretty much constantly refreshing the reports page, hoping to see the report there. When it finally appeared I almost didn’t dare take a peak, I knew that I’d get a lot of sales, it was just a matter of how many, 200 ? 500 ? 1000 ?

Imagine my surprise when I finally took a look at it and saw that my sales were as high as 9! Yes, that’s right, 9 sales! (At $2.99 each) What makes it even worse is that out of those 9 sales a couple were to friends of mine, so basically I had earned almost nothing on my own. I obviously immediately panicked, thinking that the only solution to this was to drop the price to $0.99 as everyone else was, as surely then the sales would start to come in.

And sure enough, the next day when I got the report my sales had increased. To 19, so nothing much. After that the sales dropped at a steady pace, so that on the 8th day they were 0, followed then by 1-2 sales per day. After the first couple of weeks my total sales were 64, earning me around 45 euros ($60)

It is easy to forget that most of the people out there really don’t know that your game is good. And with more than 100 000 apps in the store, 99% of which are frankly complete crap, it’s naive to expect them to stumble upon it by accident. We’re not going to get into the basics like choosing a good and catchy name for the App, or filling the description with the necessary keywords so that the game pops up in searches;  we expect you know and do it.

Keeping all of this in mind, as well as examining the performance of various titles, it’s easy to notice that one of the biggest factors in app sales are the App Store lists, more specifically the Top 100 by category, What’s new and What’s hot. As soon as Fred managed to get the Lite version of his game (after having rebranded it 2 times and some additional publicity) in the What’s new list, his downloads spiked to a 1,000 per day – with a gradual decrease to 150 per day as he was pushed out of the list. He was almost desperate but was surprised to find in the following days that the downloads went back to 200 and above. And the secret to this was, of course, was thanks to the spike he received in the Top 100 Puzzle games list.

“But this was just for the Lite version!” you might say. Well yes, but since iAssociate is a quality product, Wahrman had a stable 15-20% conversion rate, which also meant his full version sales started to climb as well, slowly but steadily getting him to the Top 100 Puzzle games list. And it only went uphill from there. Just to finish my illustration:

Once Associate This started to get more downloads this then started a positive trend. Since Apple calculates the rankings somehow magically based on the last X days it means that whenever I get new downloads from today it at the same time replaces the downloads from X days ago when calculating the rankings. Which means that as long as my downloads are rising then the days I “lose” when calculating the rankings have much lower downloads, which means that my average is getting higher all the time. That way I then again rise in the rankings, which yet again will give me more downloads, resulting in a positive, self feeding, spiral.

And besides this working for Associate This, it also works for iAssociate. Thanks to the conversion rate of about 15-20% the sales of iAssociate slowly started to climb, so that iAssociate also managed to enter the Top 100 Puzzle games list from where it also could start a climb upwards. That is pretty much the situation today, both games are continuing their climb in the rankings, while I am putting as much effort into promoting them as possible.

Currently iAssociate is ranked at #3 in the Top 100 Word games and I wish Fred all the best with his sales.

Looking back at his tale what can the aspiring devs take from it? Promotion, promotion, promotion! With more than 100 000 apps in the Store the only way to get your app downloaded is to tell people about it. Personally, for me the most profound example of such an approach is Chillingo’s Minigore.

Now that the initial hype has passed, if we look at the game superficially – it’s just another dual-stick shooter, like iDracula. At the time of launch, Minigore had much fewer features than the half-a-year old competitor and arguably less eye candy in the graphics department. But the sales were sky-high. Why? Well, because of good promotion. Everyone was talking about the game 2 months before the game was released. This was augmented by juicy trailers and ads. What did we see when the game finally hit the Store? Minigore immediately shot into the top 10 lists. And being in the Top 10 lists is more or less self sufficient in terms of sales.

Another similar example is Geared. I’m not going to reprint the story here, you can read the full version in the great article Top 3 Marketing Tips for Beating the App Store Blackbox. Suffice to say, it pretty much mirrors Minigore’s tale, which only proves my point.

What should developers take from all of this? While the AppStore IS flawed, provided you have a really good quality product and follow the simple tips I outlined in this article, you have a shot in getting your product in the Top 100 lists. After that it will most probably spiral upwards. To reiterate on the tips:

  • generate as much buzz as possible BEFORE the launch of the app
  • follow up with reviews at as many sites as you can muster
  • Use ads and giveaways at various sites to keep the buzz rolling

With this I wish all of you devs out there best of luck! Keep making quality apps and games and remember – your success is in YOUR hands!

A project manager in a major telecommunications supplier, an iPhone junkie and lately - a TMA editor. Love long walks on the beach and my wife, who is the most beautiful girl on the face of this planet. You can also follow me on twitter for all things iPhone and project management (and some personal stuff as well):

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