Blog Post

So you’ve created an app; now why hasn’t anyone discovered it?

You’ve gone through the Apple’s app review process and patiently waited (sometime very patiently) for a green light. Your new app is now live. You look at your server logs — no explosive growth. You look at your iTunes connect report the following day — no magical revenues. You scroll through the Apple App Store rankings — you’re not even there. You run a search in the App Store to make sure your app is indeed listed: yes, it’s there.

So you wait a week, two weeks … No gold rush for you. You’re app is not taking off. Why can’t all developers find their way and be successful? Why is success limited only limited to a few? You want to blame the Apple’s App Store for not having the right discovery mechanisms built for your app. But the reality is, this is not just Apple’s fault.

Most developers underestimate how hard it is to be successful in Apple’s App Store. And even if Apple is improving things, it’s not going to be enough. Ever since the App Store launched, I’ve been frustrated with app discovery. We all have our obsessions. I’m obsessed with finding great apps, which is why I cofounded Appsfire, a company focused on finding a solution.

But why is this problem so hard to solve? The answer is not straightforward. Let’s look at the various angles.

The developer side

It’s not enough to build a great app with a nice design and a nice user experience. A mobile app is a business, and it has to be managed like one.

If an app doesn’t solve a critical need in a beautiful way, it has little chance of survival in the long run.

The marketing plan, including knowing your own competition, has to be built and implemented before you even launch an app. Remember, apps are displayed in iTunes, which is a content store.

Apps need to be analyzed and optimized based on usage data and lifetime value. Many developers are still obsessed with low CPIs (cost per install) rather than trying to get the best users and keeping them engaged.

Launching an app is not just a design exercise backed with solid code. It’s a real business. Some of app studios have become so big (e.g. Zynga and Outfit7) that they don’t even need any sort of favor from Apple or Google to get massive visibility. They just self-promote their app.

The Apple App Store side

Apple announced 700,000 live iOS apps (close to one million have been created so far) and a newer app store. They also announced that 90% of all apps were downloaded every month. But everyone knows that only those apps in the top ranks or highlighted by Apple get any real traction.

So, is Apple doing enough for your new app?

Well, many developers forget that it is only a store. It’s not a marketing or advertising company.

Yes, Apple released a new version of its App Store. And just like any other online retailer, Apple does not let developers control the majority of the discovery process (even when they feature you).

What can Apple do to make life easier for developers?

A speedier review process would help developers iterate faster. A better interface for app management/analytics would be useful. Separate apps in the games category from non-games to give the other 20-plus categories a better chance. Those would all be nice upgrades but not dramatic changes.

What would be a dramatic change? Killing the top charts.

Rankings are the primary way consumers discover new apps. This is why so many app developers are trying different marketing techniques and bots (before bots were blacklisted by Apple) to get into the top ranks.

Killing the ranking system would force users to be more active in finding apps. And it would give more chances to more developers.

But it’s unlikely to happen.

The consumer side

Most smartphone users have more than 75 apps on their device. Only a few are regularly used. Most are forgotten and sometimes uninstalled. That’s the tough reality.

Consumers have a hard time finding good apps. But, paradoxically, they don’t care enough to read reviews, compare apps or even search for apps. On mobile people are lazy.

People need trusted sources to make quick decisions. This explains the growing popularity of third-party discovery solutions. They provide a good shortcut to decisions, just as shopping engines have done for e-commerce sites.

And trust in app discovery is probably the most important missing brick today. It is hard to build, communicate and maintain, because it requires a consistent effort of transparency, engineering, expertise, relevancy and independence

The App Store is not enough. It is built the same for everyone.

This explains why Facebook has developed the App Center. But that’s far from enough. You can’t trust your friends with every single decision they make. The solution is more about a specific taste graph for apps. And Facebook is not there.

The ad networks’ side

Millions of users find out about apps though advertising or paid discovery. (Something Apple does not include in its $5 billion paid to developers).

But the mobile ad industry is still young, and mobile advertising is not yet very consumer friendly or advertiser friendly. Banners are annoying, intrusive and inefficient. Many times they don’t even look like advertising.

An app developer can easily get lost, and understandably so, in the jungle of ad networks, each claiming billions of impressions per week, with different pricing structures, ad units, tracking technologies (when they work) and little commitment on results.

Paid app discovery is very hard and (to be successful) very expensive. It is not just not enough to buy advertising to succeed — thousands of developers do. It is complex, time consuming and expensive to run an efficient mobile ad campaign.

Bottom line

You can’t attribute the (lack of) success of an app just to one single factor. Building a business with a mobile app is hard, because it involves a long list of parameters very few developers really understand or can control.

We’re in the early days of the mobile app business. There is no “magic recipe” for mobile app success. It is more about experimentation than following a prescribed list of directions.

And everyone can learn how to cook this way. Those who make it will try and fail until they succeed. 

Ouriel Ohayon is the cofounder of Appsfire, a discovery and promotion network for mobile apps. Prior to Appsfire, he founded the French edition of Techcrunch and ran early stage investments for Lightspeed Ventures and Gemini Israel funds.

For more on this topic, attend GigaOM’s Mobilize conference, where Ouriel Ohayon will take part in an onstage conversation about how developers can disrupt the app distribution model. (September 20 – 21, San Francisco)

Image courtesy of Flickr user vikasiamoto.

24 Responses to “So you’ve created an app; now why hasn’t anyone discovered it?”

  1. This is such a pertinent post right now. One of the main issues is that to develop an app is one skill, but to successfully market the same app is another skill entirely. As has been mentioned in the comments here, there are plenty of ways to go about this from PR, Mobile-centered SEO, paid-for solutions etc. However, one of the most underrated areas of app marketing, if we concede that simple ‘popularity’ here is key, is to head back to the basic networking as proposed by people such as Tim Ferriss. By joining forces, not on a ‘professional’ level, but on a personal level, with people who have the ability (or a network with the ability) to help rocket our popularity by a review, a tweet, a share, a recommendation- then this is a huge stepping stone to gaining that ‘popularity’ that’s often needed- building these relationships is key.

    But then we have other problems- one of which is simply a lack of time to market and manage our apps- lack of time to test our app descriptions, images. Lack of time to simply keep on top of all this, especially when we have5, 10, even 20 apps to promote.

    We’re working toward a solution ourselves, where developers can submit, and edit their app’s metadata all from one central hub, where this data will be updated across a number of app stores and distribution channels automatically, thereby cutting down this management time dramatically, but as you say, this is only part of the solution. We’re working on plenty of other features too, of course, but one of the key aspects here is understanding how marketing really works today- how people choose which apps to download, how social capital and peer pressure now has such a huge baring on our decisions.

    By having a fuller understanding of this, and the tools available to us, we”ll be in a much better position to really make an impact with the apps we’re promoting.

  2. le savant

    I think you are focusing too much on the in-store marketing of Apps. Random discovery (even if you establish the merits of your app) will never be a sustainable strategy. It’s like depending on someone discovering your brand of t-shirt in a store. Prominence in display helps, but it is simply not a feasible option with the App Store.

    The main marketing has to be done outside the AppStore, just like in a retail store where you buy clothes or books. People have to come in the store looking for your brand/merchandise and that marketing is external to the store. You do all that the shirt makers of the world or the book writers of the world do. Spend a lot of money and/or time establishing your brand or whitelabel for an established brand.

    Depending on the store to showcase and sell your merchandise is naive, esp. given the fact that it costs almost nothing for the App Store to “store” an app. No inventory to move. So no special support from the store.

    Welcome to the real market.

  3. MySoLaunchCampaign

    We pushed the app on the app store,
    we sent hundred of mails to journalist and bloggers
    we promoted a facebook page to our friends
    we bought a campaign on facebook
    we offered free tickets to a famous artist concert.
    we built a twitter launch campaign and followed hundred of people

    it has no impact. Because wherever we are, people expect to see ads. We need to be unexpected. There’s practically no virgin place anymore.

  4. The flooding of the app store with hundreds of thousands of apps means the chances of success are very small until you find viral magic. I wish there was a good way to monitor new apps that had incredible function/features but few downloads because that is a great way to stay ahead of competition if they aren’t using it.

  5. Juergen Berkessel

    A very pertinent post.  Totally agree for apps – paid and free – that are developed for general distribution and for the global market.  On the other hand, apps for businesses which are designed and developed to engage and service existing clients, and to attract new clients through POS are a different matter.

    With our nine apps, we are fortunate to have four that get downloads every day – two in particular. They are ever-greens – they are both educational and entertaining.  One of our business apps (paid) reached #2 on iTunes in the business category for a week, and still gets downloads just about every day.  Another, a children’s interactive story (paid) reached #15 for a day, and enjoyed the halo effect for some time thereafter.  

    Ensuring an app stays visible requires a well-thought through strategy that includes marketing, SEO, PR and is integrated into the entire business eco-system just like any product. It’s the same as a traditional publisher will tell you when you publish a book – you need a platform.  I have first experience with having a book published by John Wiley.  The need to achieve visibility hasn’t changed even if the medium has.

    Apps for small businesses that serve a local market typically don’t need to be found in the app store if someone is simply browsing.  They will be found through key word search.  However, what’s important for these businesses is that their apps need to be visible at the place of business and where they customers hang out:  in the restaurants, at the stores, in the showrooms, at the service stations, hotels, at the professionals’ offices, on their websites, in their media channels, before and at the conference locations so their customers know about the app and how their app can help them.  We developed a local farmers’ market app that only has utility in the surrounding towns.  The downloads are in the 100s not 1000s. And that’s okay.  It serves the local user base.

    As they say, “horses for courses”!

    As mobile strategists and app designers and developers, ( how we work with clients today is different from 2 years ago – we keep learning.  App market places are changing and it’s complicated. We advise our clients they need to invest just as much into the mobile strategy and marketing effort as for the design and development of the app.

    • Ouriel Ohayon

      Correct Juergen, to market an app you have to leverage several channels and constantly and consistently market your app. Many think buying download is the only way to do it. this is wrong (although i am shooting myself in the foot here). There are so many ways to build efficient distribution on and offline. What you are pointing to referring to offline business is totally true. Those companies provide apps as an extra service and do not expect a dramatic visibility of feature in the app store except that even networks like starbucks or 7eleven do need to leverage more than just their local point of sales because they are already so cluttered with marketing messages…

  6. The problem is that popularity does not translate to quality or value.

    The most valuable quality app may only get a few downloads just like the low quality app will, perhaps due to the nature of the app, appealing to a smaller group of users, eg. a scientist, artists etc.

    The current ranking system is exclusively based on popularity, and that is its weakness.

    • Ouriel Ohayon

      This is why we spent the past 2 years inventing a quality score for apps which ranks them for their inherent merit and not their rankings. The ratings system of the app store are supposed to provide a filter but they don t because 1. they are not directly built in the store and therefore not related to a trusted source 2. gamed (and easily so 3. many times pointless (negative review for a bug that was not corrected on time…for example)

  7. So there is no light at the end if the tunnel.

    In the education section it’s even worse because apple can pick a game that is clearly not educational and push it there. Or they are pushing the same apps over and over, not giving much chance to other developers who have no connections or money. In the education category there are apps that had not moved from the top 10 in the last year and you have to ask yourself how?
    Parents and teachers looking for good content are not searching the store (the majority) – they are looking at the top25, and at what apple promote. I have to agree with you on everything u said but again I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.

    • Ouriel Ohayon

      Eyal indeed, the way the app store is built, meaning exactly the same for everyone [except the genius section – supposedly) is not friendly for kids, parents and educational apps. There are even services built entirely around discovery for those kind of apps. But it is not about money or financial ressources. Good apps find their way when they are properly marketed. Reaching to parents, and kids is something that can be done very unexpensively and there is indeed a strong need to solve on that side.. Appsfire is used consistently by parents and teachers because of the conveniency we provide. we could do a much better job at this and we will at some point.

      Trust and curation AND appropriate user experience is critical to solve that vertical.

      • What is properly marketed ?
        Even though we have success in the store and even though every app that we submit for review get’s the attention of apple – let’s put it on the table – there is a lot to do with money and the right connections – the app store is not different then going to the supermarket. You are being educated outside of the supermarket and since no samples can be given (a free app is not a sample because usually people expect to get great apps for free and very low percentage continue to but the full app) – a lot of money and getting the right attention of the right people is in need. If you look at the app store in the education category for example or the books you will notice that the same apps are being pushed over and over – Skyview for example – Toontastic – release an update and get a banner. ABC food,music etc – same thing.

        An app can be amazing, get’s rave reviews but let’s be honest – who has the time to read the reviews ? Parents look at the top25-50 and this is what they download.

        The specific educational platforms like Yogiplay, Kindertown – are doing great job and very detailed review of every app they get, but at the end of the day – there is an overload of apps and the store is not ready for this.

        So, what is the properly marketed way ?

    • Ouriel Ohayon

      Eyal there is no magic answer: if your apps has a good ROI you can invest in media buying, try to partner with big franchises to market your app for you with rev share, have some PR agency help you prepare a communication plan to impact your downloads, partner with others apps to cross promote each other….there are hunreds of ways….i can t share them all here…

    • Ouriel Ohayon

      Synergize, you are assuming people are searching apps in a way people search websites? well you ll have to consider again. The large majority of the discovery process is passive. On mobile people don’t search for apps in a substantial volume to affect your success dramatically. It is just optimization…And i still need to have solid proofs that what you call app store SEO is working…so far it looks like black science to me…

  8. eyemahsource

    Part of the solution is to enhance categorization by function. Consider the absurdity of providing 21 categories for 750,000 apps. This would require a staff of qualified “librarians” curating content by doing the hard work of a more fine grained categorization. It would be formatted as OPML giving a collapsible outline structure. An example is: Productivity/calculation/tape/mixed alpha-numeric which would drill down to a unique app called “Soulver” which is very difficult to find right now. Maps would have a geographic filter. There would be language filter too. I don’t want to wade through maps unique to Hungary available in Hungarian.

    • Ouriel Ohayon

      eyemahsource this is indeed one way of bringing more granularity but you re looking only at the app store side. the critical question would be in that case though how do you still keep users in a friendly experience without having to browser and endless number of categories. You are also assuming users know exactly what they need in term of apps. The large use case is not about what you know you need, but what you don’t know you need…